Getting Information from the Experts: 3 Methods that Work and 1 to Avoid

Anyone who has worked on the capture or proposals knows that access to subject matter experts (SMEs) is essential to building your business case.  However, it can be very difficult to get the information you need from the SMEs in a timely and usable manner.  Many SMEs simply do not like to write or write in a convoluted style that is not palatable to the non-expert and, most important, our potential customers.  I have too often observed situations where a technical expert offers to write a piece, only to produce something that requires an extensive effort to simplify so the customer can understand.  I find that there are two major issues:

  • Verbosity occurs since it is easy to locate “similar” pieces and patch them together with little consideration for the overall flow and readability.  This is further exasperated by proposal manager instructions to “just give us what you can and we will figure out how to condense and present the material”.  A great guide that I can highly recommend is the Shipley Proposal Guide, 4th Ed. – it is written concisely with lots of great examples.
  • Poor use of graphics is a topic for another article, but suffice it to say that regurgitation of old graphics does not work unless the graphic is relevant.  My belief is that you should lead with the graphic and follow with the text. An excellent reference for good graphics is Do-It-Yourself Billion Dollar Graphics: 3 Fast and Easy Steps to Turn Your Text and Ideas Into Persuasive Graphics – this book is highly recommended to me by several proposal managers with whom I have worked on complex proposals.

With this foundation, how do we get useful information from our SMEs and transform this into writing that our customer can digest?  Let me suggest three methods I have observed that seem to work well:

Method #1:  Build a Roadmap.  If you have the good fortune to be surrounded by SMEs who can write, you are blessed.  I have had been in this situation a few times and found that the best way to simplify the effort for all parties involved is to jointly build the roadmap that frames the desired product.  Note that the key to this is the “jointly” part.  I have avoided the term “storyboard” since this term has many connotations and scares off a lot of people.  Once the roadmap is complete, the SME can generally fill in the details quickly in a format that can be easily integrated into the final product.  The roadmap must contain the following basic elements:

  • Key Points that you want to highlight to the customer.  These can be “win themes”, but I find that win themes are overly general and get repeated too often in proposals.  For example, the win theme might be “we have extensive experience in this type of work”.  This often gets refined into a lot of statements, such as “we did such and such for xyz customer”.  What really needs to occur is to describe HOW you performed similarly for another customer and what the OUTCOME was.
  • Graphic to anchor the discussion.  Avoid “standard” graphics and create graphics that resonate with the client.
  • Outline of response with consideration for target page count and interaction with other sections.

Method #2: Interviews. I have worked for three separate companies where the interview technique was extremely effective. As it implies, the interview technique has someone from the proposal shop sit down with the technical experts and interviews them much like a reporter would. The advantage of this approach is that the interviewer can prepare a guide that focuses the interview on topics that are most relevant to the proposal using the themes that the company is trying to present. The interviewee can then focus on responding to relevant questions, rather than delving into theoretical areas that the expert may consider relevant. Of course, it takes someone with decent interview skills to pull this off and all input needs to be reviewed by the expert prior to final publication. You will find that this approach is preferred by many experts since it requires the least amount of effort on their part, yet keeps them involved.

Method #3: Workshops. I am a great believer in workshops. People who know me have heard this over and over and they know how frustrated I get when a proposal effort does not take advantage of workshops. Workshops are slightly different from the “war room” concept that is popular with some companies, especially for large, complex bids. Whereas a war room has the entire proposal team sitting together, a workshop only has persons pertinent to a specific issue present. The concept of a workshop is to discuss a single issue, identify an approach, develop raw graphics, and provide sufficient information so that the assigned writer can generate the initial draft. I could go on for hours on how to conduct workshops (and will do so in a future post), but I find that many companies avoid them because they think they have the experts who know how to write the final solution without the full team input. This is a big mistake, in my opinion.

Method to Avoid: Go Off and Write. Unfortunately, this is the most common proposal process that I observe. The “core proposal team”, which includes the Proposal Manager, Capture Manager, Business Development, and others who are working on the effort, develop the strategy, win themes, competitive analysis, and so forth that are presented to “the rest of the team” at the Proposal Kickoff. Typical results of the meeting are that everyone is told the proposal is  behind schedule and we have to move quickly, so writing assignments are made and everyone goes off and writes their pieces to some very high level outline and writing schedule. The result is that the writing comes in, misses the target, and goes into multiple rewriting cycles. Everyone gets frustrated, time is lost, and the end product is substandard.

Personally, I feel a combination of good first three methods based on the skill sets available in your company will be the most successful approach. Without a doubt, you need good management, sound guidance on the approach to be taken, and a team that likes to work together.

Agree or disagree, but please let me know what you think. Feel free to send me any other methods that you have tried that work, as I would love to know how other companies have succeeded and add to my list.


Posted on March 21, 2012, in Capture and Proposal, Communications and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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