Presentation skills

The risk of choosing style over substance

In a competitive tender, the evaluation panel needs to give your submission a score. What you will be evaluated on is the commercial value of your offer and the evidence you provide to support your claims – and not how nice your proposals look and sound.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about how to sidestep common mistakes that will prevent you from winning the business you really deserve to win.

The first step is to stop the bid sweatshop, and the second is to make sure your team is primed to do the right job – not just do the job right.

If you’ve taken these steps, but still aren’t winning, it’s time to make a bigger investment in your success. At this point, most people will bring in marketing experts to write standardised proposal copy and to design templates so that proposals look and sound better, and speak with a unified, on-brand voice.

Does this result in more wins? Unfortunately, no.

Scratch the surface of these “new and improved” proposals, and really they are just glorified brochures.

I understand why people feel the need to do this. Branding and marketing help to build a successful business that supports premium-priced services. However, branding isn’t a cure-all for everything, and bids and tender responses are not a marketing exercise.

A colleague who works on government evaluation panels once told me that her team of evaluators was briefed to be wary of over-elaborate design and copywriting, as these are devices that less qualified suppliers sometimes use as a way to try to bluff their way through the process. Ouch.

Remember that proposals are a one-on-one conversation with someone who is ready to buy. Worry less about the image your proposal is portraying, and more about how convincing the message actually is. 

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business won through formal bids, tenders and proposals. She is the author of two books on proposals and sales, including Winning Again: a retention game plan for your most important contracts and customers. Read more about it here.

What is your proposal personality?

Personality plays a large part in the unconscious decision that buyers make about whether proposals make it to the Maybe pile or the No pile. Bringing our real selves to proposals helps customers decide we are worth doing business with.

This week I met with a new client and we were talking about how they can improve their bid capability and success rates. One of the questions that came up was about presentation — what their proposals look like and the first impression that they make.

This organisation bids for business through competitive public tenders. In a competitive tender, presentation is important. It’s a crowded environment where a buyer will be assessing many tenders — sometimes a handful, and sometimes hundreds. Public tenders are a bit like a “cattle call” auditions in the entertainment business; show up on time, respect the judges, wear your biggest smile and most sparkly outfit. Sure, in a business environment, sequins may not really be appropriate, but quality presentation is still a sign of respect for the process.

Lately I've come to realise that there is another reason why we need to pay particular attention to presentation. Presentation equates to personality. When we are selling services, and our people are our prime saleable assets, we want to look and sound like people that the customer is going to want to work with. Make your proposals sound charismatic and enthusiastic, not professional and detached. Use photos of your own staff, not stock pictures. Make sure you can hear the voice of real people coming through in the way the proposal is written.

Busy Is The Enemy Of Successful!

Imagine that you are speaking at a conference in 90 days. There will be a thousand people at that conference, and ten of them have the power to put you straight into your dream job. What will you do? Most likely, your subconscious will go into overdrive and you will obsess night and day about your presentation. (And freak out — a little or a lot.)

These days, it’s impossible to have a conversation with anybody in business without them mentioning at least once how busy they are. “Busy” might feel like a source of pride, a marker of how much we are doing. But busy is also an excuse. It's a conversation blocker. And often, it’s a barrier to achieving what is most important to us.

Last week, I suggested that without realising it, many of us are playing a finite game — an endgame —with our most important contracts and customers. This article was inspired by the fabulous Dr Jason Fox, an expert in motivational practice, and his new book Game Changers.

This week, I had the great pleasure of hearing Jason speak. One of the key points I took away from Jason’s presentation is that overcommitment is the noblest excuse for failure. It's an alibi that excuses us from poor performance.

In her book Mindset - How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, psychologist Carol Dweck also notes that “it’s one thing for a four-year-old to pass up a puzzle. It’s another to pass up an opportunity important to your future.” But often, by being overcommitted, that's exactly what we are doing.

No one will argue that bids take a heap of time and effort. You’ve just finish one and the next one rears its head. It’s tough to pursue new business while you’re running the business. And it can be hard to know what to do proactively, when it feels like it’s all about waiting for the RFT.

When we are speaking on a stage, we are acutely aware that all eyes are on us, but in fact bids are no different. Just because a lot of competitors are at that event does not make it any less about you. When the prospect’s rating your proposal, you are the only person they are looking at.

Great presentations happen when passion meets preparation. This is your time to shine.  So don’t wait! Start planning now. Proposals that emerge as the clear winner are really just the bid leader’s grand passion brought to life. Let me help you find yours.

Under the Pump with Bid Deadlines? Don’t Sacrifice Proposal Graphics

It’s a busy time of year in the proposals game in Australia, with many contracts that are up for renewal or set to change hands on July 1 going out to tender now. Even when you’re working to tight deadlines, it’s important not to sacrifice the quality of presentation for the sake of just “getting it done”. According to research conducted by 3M, and cited by bid graphics specialists 24 hour Company (USA), quality proposal graphics increase the likelihood of winning by 43%.

So how do you improve presentation and create graphics when you’re under-resourced and overstretched?

The good news is that there are plenty of free or low-cost DIY tools available which mean you don’t have to be (or employ) a graphic designer to get great-looking proposal graphics.

  • The simplest and easiest way to get started is by using the Smart Art tools available in PowerPoint, which will have you creating simple charts and diagrams in no time. If you are going to use Smart Art, use the PowerPoint version, not the Microsoft Word one. The PowerPoint version seems to have more functionality and options.
  • A step-up option is to explore the range of free or low-cost infographic creation tools available. Sarah James of Creative Bloq graphic design has a number of suggestions including  Vizualize, Easel.ly and Piktochart - http://www.creativebloq.com/infographic/tools-2131971
  • Finally, if you’d like more design polish, go for customisable design templates  like those that can be found at www.getmygraphic.com (designed by 24 Hour Company, who specialise in graphic design for bids and proposals) or http://www.poweredtemplate.com/powerpoint-diagrams-charts/index.html

Visuals make process information much easier to understand, and have the added benefit of making information seem more concrete and solid and not something that you just made up out of your head.

At the very minimum, any time you’re talking about a process, methodology or sequence of steps, turn this into a diagram. Smart Art makes this easy and won’t take a lot of your time.

Happy DIY designing!

The Power Of Graphics For Page-Limited Submissions

This week, I’m coming to the end of a strategically significant bid process, working with a large team on a submission that has been in the making for a very long time. I will miss this delightful, talented and committed group of people very much when we hit “send” on the proposal next week. This is a consortium submission from incumbent suppliers pitching to retain a complex range of services worth tens of millions of dollars, and where dozens of people’s jobs are on the line.

Notwithstanding the bid’s complexity, the RFT response templates are — as always, it seems, these days — highly limited in what they will let us include. In one case, we have a total of three pages to cover our expertise, experience, and understanding of the service delivery need. Getting this message across within such tight word limits is extremely difficult, and we have used graphics extensively in this proposal to help overcome our space challenges.

Unfortunately lack of space in RFT responses is a trend that isn't going anywhere.  (Check out my blog post "Why Buyers Are Asking For Short Proposals").

Last year I ran a short program in conjunction with Colleen Jolly of 24 Hour Company in the USA on International Best Practice in Proposal Graphics.  Today, Colleen shared a link to an article written by Mike Parkinson — her colleague and the author of Billion Dollar Graphics — on the topic of Using Graphics in Page-Limited Proposals.

It seems Mike’s clients over in the USA are feeling the same pain as my team and I are feeling here. Mike says “RFPs often ask for the sun, moon, and stars in 10 pages. The challenge we face is when, where, and how do we add graphics to a 10-page proposal (that should be 40 pages to effectively answer the RFP)?”

If you’ve wondered about this yourself, check out Mike’s article where he discusses the reasons why graphics are easier to understand than text alone; why they get the point across more quickly than words; and how graphics reduce perceptions of risk.

"Trust Me – I’m A Professional" - The Limitations of Defaulting To Your Expertise

For technical professionals, such as engineers and project managers, getting a report or recommendations accepted often means getting the customer’s head around fairly complex concepts and problems that the professional understands a lot better than the customer does. Despite this, it is often difficult to convince technical professionals that they shouldn’t be peppering their technical reports with dense and impenetrable jargon that nobody really understands but them.

Last night, I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar to a group of 120 young engineers on the topic of Customer Focused Writing. It's always great working with groups of young professionals who are open to new ideas.

Getting people to actually adopt and integrate new techniques - as opposed to just seeing and hearing them presented — is one of the great challenges of a teacher, and particularly one who only gets to interact with trainees once and for a couple of hours, as was the case for me last night. Often the best that you can hope for is that people understand enough about the need to change that they are compelled to review and practice the techniques they have been shown, and to build upon the limited exercises that they get to do in a short training session.

One of the techniques we looked at in the webinar was how to present complex technical concepts. To illustrate the idea that densely packed technical language is hard to understand, I had the group analyse a piece of medical writing that was unfamiliar to them. This piece only contained 150 words, but most people could identify more than 20 unfamiliar terms. That’s almost 15% of the document that the audience had absolutely no hope of understanding.

At the end of the webinar, I was encouraged by comment that came from Paul, who said "You know, I write reports all the time, and I usually just present my recommendations. I never really think about just how much work needs to go into making them persuasive." I’m pretty confident that Paul does now, and that his career will benefit enormously as a result.

Think Like A Journalist When Planning To Present – by Simon Mossman

To be persuasive, you need to have a point of view, and then you need to make an argument that brings the audience around to that point of view. This is something that journalists do every day, and do very well.  I strongly believe that the more you read of what professional journalists write, the better your writing will be.

A friend of mine, Simon Mossman, is a former journalist, and he has written a Slideshare presentation on a related topic.

These days Simon is a media and communication advisor and presentation skills coach, working with business owners and corporate leaders to address their business challenges through communication. If you like this presentation, check out Simon’s blogs at www.commseilleur.com and www.confidencetricks.com.au