10 Steps to Better Proposals – Part 1 of 2


We always seem to be in proposal season.  I recall a time when the Federal Government had acquisition cycles and we could plan our proposal resources and budgets.  Not only that, but they also gave us enough time to respond – usually 60-90 days.  Those days are past and proposals are fast and furious.

No matter what we believe, the proposal is the sales document for nearly every activity with the Federal Government.  Other activities may create favorable impressions or gain valuable insight into the client, but it is the proposal that must wrap all our knowledge, expertise, and presentation skills together.  I find it incredible that there are still a great number of people in the business who like to say “I don’t work on proposals – I am a technical/operations/whatever person”.  Anyone who cannot contribute to the proposal process should not be in this business.  Now, I am not saying they need to be proposal experts, but they do need to be able to produce useful inputs into the proposal and participate in reviews.  Brain dumps with no consideration for the proposal constraints really do not help.  I suggest Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy for ideas on how to bring out the writing talent of your staff.

I cannot count how many proposals I have supported or lead, but it numbers in the hundreds.  Yes, thanks to a Catholic education by the nuns, I can write decently.  But there are a lot of other skills that have been taught to me over the years.  I have had good mentors along the way and have tried to be a good student.  To this end, let me suggest the following proposal basics:

#1:  Read, re-read, and read again ALL solicitation material, including statements of work, terms and conditions, proposal instructions, and answers to questions.  You will pick up something new with each reading, as well as gain advantage from multiple eyes with various perspectives.   Keep in mind that the solicitation documents guide your proposal, not comments received in the field by your staff.  Do not fall victim to the mistaken believe that, since you are only responsible for a small part of the proposal, you do not need to read the entire document.  For example, when selecting staff for assignment to a task, one needs to understand the technical requirements, management approach, and personnel requirements – and don’t forget cost.  I have witnessed all too often that a manager has identified key persons who are not qualified or who cannot meet other security or place of performance conditions – after all, these are contained in the terms and conditions section which are the responsibility of others.

#2:  Discuss the solicitation and your approach AS A TEAM Do not dictate an approach, but let your team use their expertise to suggest better solutions.  I hate proposal kickoffs that dictate the solution and win themes.  Wouldn’t it be better to have the team agree to a solution they believe will work?

#3:  The technical solution must be aligned with the business/cost  solution.  This is more true when proposing a solution, as opposed to staff augmentation.  It is nearly impossible to “realign” at the tail end of the process.  The technical team must know the cost constraints and the pricing team must know the technical solution.  Otherwise, you will have a panic exercise a few days before submission to rectify the differences.  I have participated in many on these last-minute efforts, and they always lead to a less than satisfactory solution.

#4:  Write to the final proposal format.  If there are page limits, write to them.  A proposal manager who says “just give us what you can and we will get it to fit” should be shot.  The truth is that the best person to determine what is important is the subject matter expert who is writing the original material.  While the draft does not need to be great writing, it should be somewhat near the page count.  I once had to reduce a 21-page submission to three pages for a major proposal – this took nearly two days.  Would it not have been better to have the original author do this?

#5:  Use graphics and other visual aids, such as tables, bullets,  and text boxes.  I feel that most evaluators are like me – lazy readers.  I do not like to read long paragraphs with convoluted sentence structure and embedded lists.  That is just too much work and I quickly lose interest.  However, it is just as bad to insert graphics and tables at the end.  Take the time to lay out a section.  Think about how you might construct a graphic or use tables and bullets to simplify the reading.  Take a look at USA Today and some of the other news sources that are popular.  They make good use of graphics. Finally, don’t use page counts as an excuse for compressing your writing.  If the reader cannot digest your message, it will not make any difference.  Dense information can be worse than no information.

To be continued in Part 2 …

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Posted on January 13, 2012, in Attention to Detail, Capture and Proposal, Collaboration, Communications, Cost and Pricing, Lessons Learned and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I agree with John. It can be tough getting the team to work to these very sensible guidelines. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Great part 1! You pointed out the same things most of us see as problems but maybe haven’t admitted to them yet or haven’t been able to convince those we work with that these are the main issues.

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