Proposal Cover Letter Tips that Move You to the Shortlist

Picture this:  You are an AEC firm responding to an RFP with two pages of requirements, a ridiculous number of sections, multiple team members, and some impossible page limit that means you are (yet again) reformatting all of your standard materials. Mere hours before it’s due you remember: THE COVER LETTER.

This happens next: 1) there’s a mad dash to find another sorta similar cover letter to edit, 2) someone (i.e. you) writes one very, very quickly, or 3) you discover someone HAS written a 3 page letter and that it details every aspect of what’s in the proposal itself. 

No matter what scenario you’re starting with, I’ve got five tips on how to make the letter better.

But why is it even important to spend time on it?  Consider how it’s different from all other parts of the proposal:

  1. It’s the first thing that your selection committee reads.
  2. It’s the one place you address your reader directly, person to person.
  3. It’s often the only part of the proposal that isn’t carefully scripted by RFP requirements.

When all things are relatively equal between you and your competitors, a good cover letter is a strategic way to tip the scales to getting you on the shortlist. To make the most of the opportunity, make it inviting and easy to read. When it’s structured in a way that keeps your reader in mind, your core messages get through even if your reader only skims it.

 

Imagine your reader.

Your selection committee has anywhere from 3-15 of these to read. They are tired. It’s the end of the day and they have to get this done before their meeting at 8am the next day. And put dinner on the table. And go to their kid’s soccer match. Keep it brief and powerful. 

 

Don’t talk about yourself AT ALL in paragraph one.

Make it entirely about them and their project. Everyone likes to hear about themselves. The words “we” “firm name” and “us” can creep into that first paragraph very, very easily. Stay vigilant or it will dilute your message: this is about them. Save thank-you’s / enthusiasm / approach/ experience for other paragraphs or (even better) other parts of your proposal.

 

Put key messages in the first sentence of each paragraph.

Don’t bury them in the middle or end.  That way, if it’s only skimmed, you’ve gotten your messages across.

 

Limit your content to two or three key messages.

Move descriptions of your approach, experience, and team into other sections of the proposal. If that’s just not possible, identify that information clearly using the last tip.

 

Use graphic design techniques and information hierarchy.

Headers, white space, bullets, color, bolding, sidebars, highlighting. Each one of these can turn that dense (and less readable) block of text into something that can be digested quickly.  Use these in your cover letter to increase the likelihood that your messages get through to your selection committee. 


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