If you haven’t heard, Zootopia is a “message” movie, and it’s a message I hope we can all take into our hearts. It’s a message about being the best you can be, even if you’re still working out exactly what that means. It’s a message of hope for the future. It’s a message, of course, about how three and a half years of development prior to writing your story is a recipe for success.
It took about five years to make Zootopia, but what many people think of as the “real” work – the animation – only took around nine months, not including character rigging and backgrounds. The story as it was finally developed didn’t come about until 18 months before release. Most of the time spent to make the movie was development: researching the topic, creating characters, researching identified topic areas more thoroughly, designing graphics, and throwing around story ideas.
That time spent researching can look like wasted time if you look only cursorily. The animators developed detailed sets like a Saharan casino and an amusement park for predators that got scrapped after story changes. They put huge amounts to time into perfecting CGI fur for animals that appear on screen only as background characters. They hired noted car designer J Mays to figure out how all these different kinds of animals would get around town, and only a couple of his designs get any noticeable screentime at all.
Why did Disney bother? Why not just give a firm deadline to write a story, make do with animation slightly less than photo-realistic, and be done with it? Story is king, right? Why spend all that money and time on such small details? Heck, half their target audience is under 10! Who’s going to notice?
The answer is that they’re not small details at all. Because the animators and writers spent so much time researching and developing this world of anthropomorphic animals, they understood that world inside and out. They were able to give it a huge amount of nuance through those small details. Individually, the audience misses many if not most of them, but in aggregate, they combine to breathe life into a city that we know is impossible and yet so alive and like our own we hurt right along with Judy when she accidentally reveals the schisms underneath the utopia.
It’s exactly the same way with business proposals. (Not the schism part. The alive part.) Too often, the schedule accounts only for time to do the actual writing and laying out graphics, with maybe a cursory period for research if the writer is lucky. If granted, however, that research time usually comes out of the writing budget. This sort of schedule can result in a perfectly adequate proposal, especially with an experienced writer and a topic they’ve handled before, but the proposal will lack the life that proper development could give it.
Think about the sort of things you need to cover in a standard proposal. You need to give your client a timeline, outline how you’ll fix their problem or support their needs, and convince them that your solution is better than your competitors’. If you have the time to do adequate research, the writing becomes easy.
Explain how you’ll implement safety on a job site? No problem if you’ve been talking to the people in charge of enacting the safety measures! Add a graphic about how your Spork is the easiest thing in the world to use, especially compared to Chopsticks? If you were in on the time trials you know just what to highlight. Or maybe you spent a bunch of time researching green materials only to find out that’s been dropped as a requirement in lieu of saving money. That research wasn’t wasted if it gave you a solid foundation in what materials you can use to the best effect in different situations, and you’ll find it easier to find new solutions with that background in hand.
Just like Zootopia, clients probably won’t notice every detail you put in your proposal or that your graphics represent months of workshopping the best way to draw the client’s eye. They will notice, however, that your proposal is the one that makes the most sense to them, that seems grounded in real life and that explains the subject matter best. They’ll notice that you’ve crafted your proposal specifically for them to tell a story about exactly how you’re going to solve their very individual and unique problem.
Sure, you could slap together some boilerplate under the assumption one job customizing Sporks looks much like another, but are they really all so similar? It’s when you spend time doing research that you find the nuance that makes each job different. This restaurant caters to families with small children; that restaurant needs to differentiate itself from a copy-cat upstart. Your proposals need to tell stories that demonstrate understanding of their needs, and who’s going to feel understood from boilerplate?
You can make a movie in far less than five years. You can write a proposal in just the time it takes to fill your allotted pages with boilerplate. But if you possibly can, take the lesson of Zootopia to heart and spend as much time on research as your schedule and budget will allow. The end of the movie tells us, “The more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be.” And the more we try to understand our subject matter, the more exceptional the final product will be. Schedule that time for research and understanding and you’ll be amazed what your proposals and, indeed, any kind of business writing can be.