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Back To Work, Part 3: The Preliminary Design And Proposal

This is Part 3 of a series.

Welcome back to my several-part series on getting back to work. In this series, I’ll offer reminders, tips and thoughts on each of the seven stages of a project. I hope to make this a worthwhile read by bringing forth something that you either didn’t know or long ago forgot. This month, we’ll be covering preliminary design and documentation/the proposal.


Let’s just say that preliminary design is different for each company. Whether you have the account manager, someone from operations or your engineer go out there, a detailed site survey is a must. I could give you example after example of what can (and often does) happen when you take the shortcut of saying, “There’s nothing to it—just hang and bang.”

Taking The Time To Do It Right

You all know my motto: “Do it right the first time!” Well, this is where doing it right starts. Get the information you need so you can accurately estimate the time necessary for the installation, as well as so you’re aware of any specialized parts and/or hardware you will require. Not taking the time to do a thorough site survey is how many people get burned on the back end. Do not skip this part!

Here is a quick example of a problem that can arise if you skip doing a thorough site survey. Suppose you’re going to integrate a projector in a room with a drop ceiling. You don’t have a ladder, so you just assume the structure is a few feet above the ceiling tiles. (Usually, it is, right?) When it’s time to do the integration, you lift the tile and…it’s 10 feet to the structure above. Not good.

Organized Note-Taking

Next, let’s consider your design notes. Be organized! Scan everything—your handwritten notes, pictures, sketches and photos—and save them in the project folder. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to work on a project where I wasn’t the designer, and when I looked at the bill of materials (BOM) it just didn’t make any sense. I’d talk to the account manager, and I’d discover that he or she couldn’t remember the details. (Four months had passed when the proposal came back, out of the blue, signed.) I’d look in the project folder and find no pictures. (The designer forgot to upload them and couldn’t find them.) Notes? Not there. Argh! These are just a few examples of how investing just 10 minutes on the front end can save hours trying to figure things out on the back end.

Last but not least is the single-line diagram—your signal flow of the equipment that you’re specifying. Whether you’re a pre-sales engineer or you’re an engineer who will see the project through from start to finish, don’t skip this step because you’re “too busy.” Do you think you can do it in your head because “it’s such a small job” and you “do it so often”? Think again! Always, without exception, make some kind of sketch to show the sources and destinations, the ins and out, etc. (And be sure to put it in the project folder!)


When it comes to proposals, I believe that more is more. In most cases, yours is not the only proposal being considered for a project (yes, even when your contact swears that you’re the only one, there are probably others!) And, although your contact might be pulling for you, they’re not always in the room for the review of the proposals. Thus, there’s a considerable risk that a larger, more detailed proposal might outshine yours. More is more!

Robust Presentations

I remember one time when my contact showed me what we were up against. The account manager for my firm made and delivered the proposal (without showing me). It was very basic—maybe three or four pages for a project whose total price tag was more than $100,000. The competition? They delivered something like 40 pages—a bound book! Looking through it, I saw that there were only five or six pages of an actual proposal. The rest was just fluff—a bunch of stuff about the company, other projects, cut sheets, etc. Nevertheless, my contact’s boss, apparently impressed by the grand proposal book, was leaning toward the other company.

Then, I explained that our proposal, although smaller, had taken the client’s needs and wants into consideration. I explained that our system design was going to provide the solution for which the client was looking. We did get the project…but only because of the relationship that I had with the contact (due to a site survey I went on with the account manager).

A proposal should represent to the client your company, your solution and you, and it should do so in detail. It should say everything that you’d want to say, if you were there.

The Parts Of A Proposal

There are many parts to a proposal—far more than just a beginning, middle and end. Let’s look at them. Depending on the project, I use most (if not all) of the following: cover page; table of contents; introduction/audiovisual solutions summary; definitions of audiovisual terminology; general systems overview; scope of work (for each space, detailing audio, video, control, conferencing, networking, connectivity, infrastructure, furniture, etc.); equipment highlights; integration details (systems integration, testing and training, warranty, solutions maintenance, what the client will provide and what you will provide); system cost; terms and conditions; signature page; company/resolution contact page; and cut sheets and drawings.

Next, I’ll outline some of those proposal sections. I’ll also put a sample proposal for your review into Doug’s Docs.

Writing For Any Audience

Let’s start with definitions of audiovisual terminology. Often, these are not included, but I think including them goes a long way toward representing you when you’re not there. There’s no way you can know who will be reviewing the proposal or what his or her audiovisual expertise might be. I can tell you one thing, though: If the person reading the proposal isn’t fluent in the language of AV, a note in the conferencing section about how you’re using a digital signal processor (DSP) with mix-minus will mean nothing! And how many busy professionals do you think would take the time to look it up? Maybe one in a hundred?

I like to think of all the negative things that could happen during the review process and try to overcome them in advance. One way to prevent a client from feeling frustrated because he or she doesn’t know what you’re talking about is to provide terminology definitions within your proposal. It’s not just a courtesy, either. Instead, it shows that you’ve done this before, you’ve listened to feedback from your customers, and you’ve devised a simple solution to help laypeople who read your proposal.

How Do You Know?

How do you know which definitions to provide? Great question! Some definitions I have defined in the past are matrix switcher, voice lift, electronic annotation and video scaler. (Of course, the list depends on the project!) I suggest trying to find a balance between defining everything and hardly anything. Maybe you could have someone in your office—perhaps someone who works in accounting or shipping—read your proposal and highlight unfamiliar words. One more suggestion: Keep a master list of definitions in a document for you to cut and paste into your proposal. Keep adding to the master list, and simply omit definitions that aren’t applicable to the project.

I have my own take on the scope-of-work section. I don’t get into equipment very much here; instead, I mainly focus on the big picture—that is, functionality for each subsection. Don’t bore the person reading your proposal with your knowledge of AV. Instead, as an example, write this: “We will provide loudspeakers throughout the space so that even the furthest listener will be able to hear each and every word.” Or, you could write, “The size of the display will be such that even the furthest viewer from the display will be able to read each and every word easily.”

After all, the most likely reason you’re there is somebody has been complaining that he or she can’t hear or see during meetings. Take that to heart! Make sure the client understands that you understand why you’re there. Make sure the client understands that you will provide a solution to those problems…that the investment will be worth it. After all, if your contact recommended you, his or her job might be on the line if you fail to provide what is sought!

Equipment Highlights

Equipment highlights—my favorite part! Are you tired of being “shopped”? How many times have you heard, “I can get that TV for less at Best Buy”? I don’t include line-itemized pricing in the proposal, except when doing government work. In the private sector, providing those details would be ridiculous! Why should a client care about the cost of an individual item? You’re selling a system! You’re selling a complete solution, so why price out individual pieces of equipment?

Think of it like buying a car. Suppose you decide to buy a car, and suppose you want a luxury model. You go in and say, “I want [this model].” They say, “It costs $80,000.” But suppose you have only $70,000 to spend. Would you then ask to see a parts list and go through the parts item by item? Would you say, “I don’t need 14-inch brake rotors”? Would you ask the dealer to put on 12-inch brake rotors instead? I doubt it!

A dealership has many cars, all at different price points, all of which do the same thing—that is, provide transportation. In much the same way, we have many levels of systems, all of which provide the same thing. So, the car salesperson would direct you to a lower-priced vehicle that would provide the same solution (albeit with fewer bells and whistles) to get you from point A to point B.

Final Decisions

We—not the client—decide what equipment goes in (based on the budget and their needs). Stand firm on that. We don’t sell individual pieces of equipment; rather, we sell solutions. We sell complete systems. There’s no way to break out the price of individual pieces of equipment. Why? Because there are so many overhead costs to what we do—everything from payroll, to rent, to software, to office furnishings.

Again, I will provide a sample of a complete proposal for you to review. Depending on the feedback I get, I might do a follow-up article on the proposal process. Let me know if you’d like me to!

To all, stay safe! Let me know if you have any questions, comments or stories you would like to share. Please email me at

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