Positively Editorial

Captioning Pictures, Tables, and Figures in a Proposal

Captions. They’re not something anyone usually spends much time thinking about, but when writing a business proposal or, indeed, anything with pictures at all, I find them to be crucial to maximizing my reader’s understanding.

Think about the different ways you might read a page. I tend to read the words first and then, when I get to the end of the page, go back and look at the pictures. Other people look at the pictures first, then read the words. Some read the words and look at the pictures as they’re referenced. Still others just skim the page and see what jumps out at them. None of these are “right” or “wrong,” but there is a right way to write your proposal to ease understanding for all of them.

Combining picture captions with explanatory text in your main paragraphs covers every reading style, and that’s why I recommend it for all proposals, theses, and articles. Take a look at the example below. If you look at the picture first, you don’t understand why you’re seeing this graph. It’s only explained in the text.


A proposal excerpt with no picture caption. You can figure out some of the meaning from the graph's title, but it's extra effort for all reading styles that don't read from text directly to pictures.

A proposal excerpt with no picture caption. You can figure out some of the meaning from the graph’s title, but it’s extra effort for all reading styles that don’t read from text directly to pictures.


Compare with the following, which with just a couple of changes not only works for all reading styles, but also takes the opportunity to work in an extra bit of marketing text in the caption.


A proposal excerpt with a caption.

Using a caption to inform the reader regardless of what they look at first.


If it’s so easy, why don’t people use captions all the time? The most common reason I hear is “But it’s just restating what we’ve already said. Won’t readers see that as redundant?” (This worry comes up in particular when the writing is for or done by engineers.) The answer is no. Even if your caption directly copies the text in your proposal, it is still better to have that extra bit of explanation for readers who look at the picture in any order other than right after they read the corresponding text.

Redundancy is okay in this instance because captions are expected to be short summaries of the information you’re trying to convey. Some readers rely on captions to give them all of the information they need from your proposal precisely with this in mind! Of course, if you can cleverly restate your premise a bit, that’s better, and if you can throw in one of your marketing points, that’s best. You’re going to back up the marketing in the text (aren’t you?), so there’s no better place to clearly state the main themes you’re working to get across.

So caption away! They’re well worth the little bit of space they take up and the small amount of effort to add them to your pictures and graphs. There’s absolutely no downside and extra understanding, marketing, and reading ease to be gained every time you explain the wonders of Figure C and how it relates to Client Goal 5.

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