Often business writing is discussed as if it were one genre—as if in the arena of business, that is, people write in only one style and format.
This isn’t exactly true, any more than the tweet represents all of the writing in social networking or electronic communication: there are also emails, Facebook postings, text messages, and so on. And while all of these forms share certain characteristics--they are all brief, informal, and have a specific jargon--so does business have shared characteristics for its different forms. As with electronic communication, business English also values brevity, but it is formal and direct. Jargon is usually frowned on. However, within the larger genre of Business English also lie the subgenres of the memo, the letter, as well as the proposal.
What is a Business Proposal and Why Should Your Students Learn It?
A business proposal is a presentation, written and usually also spoken, to demonstrate to the audience the presenter’s desire and capability to achieve some goal—with the support of the audience, which the presenter with the proposal is seeking. The goal may to open a business, start a program, attend a work-related conference, and so forth. Ability to write a proposal is a valuable skill for professionals and future professionals because seeking and gaining the support of other professionals in the field is necessary to advance.
Characteristics of Proposals
The proposal should state clearly at the outset what the author hopes to do: “The writer seeks support in developing and then publishing a collection of creative writing written by ESL students.” The audience should not be left confused about what the proposal writer wants to do.
Proposals are also direct about what they want from the audience: “Funding of $500 and classroom release time of 20 hours is sought for the completion of project.” In order to support the writer appropriately, her readers need to know exactly what is being asked of them.
Proposals are also specific as possible: “Five hundred dollars is requested for the publication at the end of the term of this 100-page book.”
Good proposals “sell” their project: they seek the audience’s support for the program through enthusiastic promotion of the project. “With this publication, students will get a chance to see their work published and develop understanding of the writing and publishing process.”
Good proposals also use evidence such as similar programs that are successful; evidence from research; student and teacher material and testimonies, and so forth.
How to Teach Proposals
Show a model. Tell students they will write a similar proposal by the end of term.
Pull out a proposal you have written or borrow one from a colleague. It shouldn’t take long to find one as many educators have at least put together a proposal to present at or travel to a conference. It’s valuable for students to see a final product so that they know what goal they are aiming for. Most students know what an essay should look like when complete; not everyone has seen a proposal, however.
Discuss the purpose of proposals.
Students also already know the purpose of writing an essay: at worse, to get the teacher off their backs; at best, to express an opinion on something. They are less familiar with the purpose of a more authentic piece of writing, such as a proposal. Discuss with students the purpose of the writing (to get an audience to approve a project) and how that relates directly to the assumed audience and how the message is delivered.
Discuss the process.
All proposals begin with the goal: what do you hope to achieve? Develop an after school program for kids? Improve the playground equipment at a neighborhood park? Apply for funding to attend a writer’s conference? There is almost no limit of goals for a proposal, but the goal should be selected first because if my goal is to improve the playground equipment at my local park, that will determine my audience as probably a group of city officials, which in turn will determine my tone as business-like, direct, and impersonal. Take students through the process of writing the proposal: from determining a goal and audience to preparing supporting materials such a videotapes or pictures and presenting the proposal before an audience.
Get students excited. Discuss their passions
Getting students excited about their passions and the possibility of seeing them recognized if not completely realized generates palpable excitement in a class. For example, the young hip-hop enthusiast, suddenly impassioned about his proposal for an after-school hip-hop program, demonstrates dance steps for his peers or puts together a presentation that includes video of him dancing. Students who were formerly passive in class when given the opportunity to write about their own interests become articulate speakers and writers.
Develop a sense of audience. Do peer review.
The proposal is one of the most powerful tools to give students a sense of audience. Their “audience” (the teacher) which they were only aware of in the abstract when writing essays, comes alive when students face the proposal and the at least theoretical possibility of presenting it someday before a committee who might choose to fund or otherwise support it. With this mind, students willing engage in peer review to see if their classmates understand their main message and aren’t distracted by errors in the writing.
Finally, have students practice their completed drafts, perhaps with their classmates standing in as a committee who might fund the proposal. Have the committees offer feedback on each proposal: both positive and areas for improvement. You might also have them discuss whether they would fund each proposal and why or why not.
The proposal is not a form all students have engaged with but which they in all likelihood will, in their adult life.
It is also a powerful tool for generating a sense of audience and opportunity for students to write about their passions.