Proposal Writers Beware – Confused Mind Says “No”

I find it useful to study disciplines adjacent to proposal development, such as advertising, sales, and marketing, because I often find fresh perspectives, tools, and thought-provoking lessons I can borrow to continuously improve my teams’ ability to produce winning proposals. Today, I would like to share one of the gems I discovered when taking a course in marketing. It is a saying that a confused mind says “no”.

This saying really struck me because a proposal is a sales and marketing document for evaluators. A proposal often has multiple parts and many people involved in putting those parts together. No wonder it becomes a ripe ground for sowing confusion. Unfortunately, confusion in the evaluators’ minds may cause them to pick a different winner. Here are the seven most common proposal blunders that immediately come to mind, and solutions that help prevent them:

1. Lack of agreement between proposal volumes. It is all too common that the technical, past performance, cost, and oral proposals are created by different individuals or teams that do not coordinate, cross-reference, or check each other’s work. The result is a single offer that has multiple parts that disagree in messages or even basic facts, causing an evaluator to question bidder’s ability to manage a team.

Solution: Implement peer reviews where members of the proposal team get to read each other’s work. Make sure that your formal reviews include all the volumes, and not only the technical proposal.

2. Discrepancies in the same volume, where the same facts are referenced several ways because multiple authors may have rounded numbers differently. The common cause is lack of management guidance on what numbers to use, or consistency reviews. For example, the number of employees in the company may appear as “more than 3000,” “3510,” and “almost 4000.” The result is the loss of credibility with the evaluator.

Solution: Include key numbers in the style guide issued to the proposal team and post them on the proposal wall. Discuss key numbers and naming conventions in the status meetings. Conduct a read-out-loud review after the final proposal edit to correct the last set of errors and inconsistencies.

3. Outline that’s hard to evaluate and score. Although the proposal may be compliant, an evaluator has to hunt to find the right pieces, and try to figure out the logic. The common causes are lack of section roadmap, convoluted outline, excessive cross-referencing, attempts at telling a story instead of following the customer’s instructions, and lack of navigation aids such as proper headings and compliance matrix. The result is a frustrated evaluator that’s unlikely to grant a high score.

Solution: Follow the customer’s instructions whether you do or don’t believe they let you tell a compelling story. Tell your story in the context of the instructions, however imperfect they may be. Use best practices in developing a great proposal outline. To help proposal managers, I have developed a tutorial “Creating Proposal Outlines that Help Get the Highest Score” that you can get at http://www.ostglobalsolutions.com by signing up for my ezine. It covers basic and advanced techniques for developing annotated outlines.

4. Messaging buried in the pages and pages of text with very few graphics or other visuals such as focus boxes and vignettes. The result is a bored evaluator who gets tired of looking hard for reasons why this proposal should win, and awards a lower score to a section that may have had real gems that failed to shine.

Solution: Start every major section with a concise thesis that summarizes why you should win. Follow current best practices by including graphics at least on every other page, with executive summaries containing equal amounts of text and graphics. Bold important points, and put your win themes and key benefits in focus boxes. Include important experience information in vignettes and sprinkle it throughout the proposal. The final effect you should go for is an evaluator being able to tell why you should win by skimming through your proposal and looking only at your visuals, as if they were reading a feature article in a magazine.

5. Poor writing quality, resulting in poor readability. This is an offender that can put anyone to sleep and confuse some of the brightest minds. Passive voice, overly long sentences and paragraphs, techie jargon, and adjectives such as “seasoned” and “world class” can result in an evaluator glazing over the page over and over again, but retaining nothing.

Solution: It is always a struggle to get quality text from non-professional proposal writers. I have written two articles on the subject that will help you improve your own and your team’s writing. You can find these articles at http://www.ostglobalsolutions.com/resources/articles/070828_Improving-Proposal-Readability.htm and http://www.ostglobalsolutions.com/resources/articles/080422_Write-More-Effectively-and-Efficiently.htm.

6. A proposal full of features, but lacking the benefits or an explanation of why those features should matter to the customer. A proposal may have a good solution, but absolutely fail to sell it. The result is an evaluator confused as to why they should care that yours is the fastest growing small business, for example, or why bringing a large and diverse team is a positive attribute of your offer.

Solution: It is entirely too easy to focus on the technical solution and forget that a proposal is first and foremost a sales document. The key to selling is explicitly telling the customer what’s in it for them. For example, the fact that you have a large and diverse team may mean that the customer will have a contractor able to execute every element of the statement of work and be a viable competitor for every type of future task order, or get the right expert on a 24-hour notice due to the depth and breadth of your reach-back capability.

7. Text cut and pasted from another proposal that still references the solution specific to that other offer, or worse, another customer. Needless to say, this kind of sloppiness would not only cause initial confusion, but anger an evaluator.

Solution: Do not allow your proposal writers to cut and paste. Use storyboards or work packages to develop the solution for each section by crafting bullets rather than text. If you have past proposals with similar solutions, give this material to writers in hard copy, so that they cannot cut and paste. They can use the material as a reference instead.

Please, post your feedback and your observations of any other ways one could confuse evaluators and cause them to say “no” to a proposal. I would love to hear what you think.

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