Proposal writing tip

Start fast to finish first

Last week we talked about thinking more, and writing less, to win more proposals. This week, I’m going to show you exactly how to plan your schedule so you will have the time you need to think, and to plan your proposal, even when you are stretched with other priorities.

A typical competitive tender schedule (the time from when the tender is released, to when it’s due) is four weeks. This goes by faster than you'd think.

Parkinson’s law says that “work expands to fill the time available to complete it.” If you think that all you need to do is write the proposal, four weeks probably sounds like a generous amount of time.  Add strategy, content and evidence planning into the mix, though – the things you’ll need to do to be convincing, compelling and emerge as the clear winner – and it suddenly doesn’t sound like such an easy run after all.

It’s pretty common to see people “sit” on tender requests for days, or weeks, while they are deciding whether or not it’s worth going for, waiting for feedback from others, or just working on other things.

Unfortunately, time lost at the start of the bid schedule has a compounding, negative effect on your chances of winning. Lose a week, and your strategy will suffer. Lose two weeks, and you will also miss key pieces of evidence to support your claims and maximise your evaluation score.

When you’re leading a proposal, aim to spend most of your time on strategy and planning. This minimises the time you will need to write, review and polish.

Here’s how to spend each day in those four weeks to give yourself the best chance of success:

Week 1 – Circulate the briefing to your team as soon as it is released. Give them a day to read it. Then run your strategy session. Once you have your bid strategy and Purchaser Value Topics ready, write a draft of your Executive Summary. Get agreement in principle to the strategy and key messages.

Week 2 – with your bid strategy and Purchaser Value Topics agreed, now you can get stuck into planning your response. Analyse the tender questions; really pull them apart. Figure out what they are really asking for. What is the buyer’s motivation for asking? Is there a question behind the question? What do they want to expect to hear? Plan evidence to substantiate all your claims. Circulate your content plan with instructions to any other writers.

Week 3 – gather all your content and start shaping it into a proposal. Circulate the first draft for comment and review.

Week 4 – Make final changes, format the proposal and get internal sign-off.  Submit it at least one day before the customer’s deadline.

Are you running a proposal sweatshop?

In the two decades I’ve been observing people in selling situations, one thing has always been particularly fascinating to me. It’s the way that we will spend ten times as much effort on a presentation that we know we will have to give in person, when compared to a written proposal or a tender response.

Proposals have become the routine, marginal and painful work that no one really wants to do.

Yet we produce a lot of them. When I speak to people about the volume of proposals they generate, most say that their business, company or division produces anywhere from five to more than 30 proposals a month.

That’s a lot of information going out into the market representing your brand, your work, and your value, and with the potential to open doors for you.

Unfortunately, because proposals are seen as paperwork, rather than as an exciting opportunity to win new business, proposal teams may feel they are working in conditions that have more in common with a sweatshop factory than a modern business. Here are just a few of them:

1.     No choice in what to produce

2.     Inescapable grind; long days turns into long weeks, months and years

3.     Constantly working extra hours to meet deadlines

4.     Disconnected from the rest of the business

5.     Under-appreciated by managers and leaders

6.     Responsibility without authority

7.     Produces output at the lowest possible cost, which is later expected to be sold at a premium price

If there is a disconnection between the conditions in which your proposals are created, and the outcomes you want them to deliver, you have got a problem.

What you get is dull, mass-produced documentation, and not the dazzling, inspirational calls to action that you really need.

A proposal is usually the first piece of work a customer will see from you. It’s the gateway to the opportunity you really want, and the chance to get in front of the customer to do your verbal pitch.

As a business leader, it’s your job to invest in your proposal effort and give it the resources, respect and reward it deserves.

If not, your brand will be damaged, your work will be devalued, and those doors you want to open will remain firmly closed.

Five ways to win more tenders

Last week I caught up with a client whose team did some tender and proposal writing training with me a few years ago. She told me they are having a lot of success with competitive tenders now, and that their business has grown exponentially over the last few years. She also said the feedback they get now about the quality of their tender responses is very positive. At one debriefing meeting recently, the buyer even told her that her company’s tender was the best they had ever seen.

If you’re not yet getting that kind of success, or feedback, about your tenders there are some things you can do to improve. Here are five of the most effective.

1.     Make sure you have a strategy to win the business that translates into two or three compelling messages that are easy for the buyer to remember. I call these Purchaser Value Topics, and they are basically evaluation criteria that you suggest to the buyer that go over and above simply complying with theirs.

2.     Provide insights that transcend their briefing. Anyone can regurgitate the tender document back to the buyer, and it takes a smart cookie to tell them what they don't know - but should.

3.     Really analyse everything they’re asking for, and answer the ‘question behind the question’. Why did they ask this question? What do they want to know? How will the answer affect their decision-making process? Many tender questions are made up of more than one part, so don't just skim the surface. You'll miss something, and this could count against you.

4.     Don't dumb down what you do to fit the briefing. The client I mentioned earlier is in a complex industry that buyers often don’t understand. Her company’s tender responses generate a lot of discussion with buyers, because they shed light on things that the buyer simply hadn’t considered.

5.     Make sure you present it beautifully. These days, when people are selling their home, they'll often spend thousands on staging and furniture to show it off to potential buyers and to achieve the best price. Think of your tender response like that. It’s the only chance you’ll get to make a first impression.

Doing well in a competitive tendering environment isn't easy, but it can be done, and successful tender writing and presentation is a skill that you can learn.

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business that is won through competitive bids and tenders. Her clients have won and retained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with many of Australia’s largest corporate and government buyers.

Is it time to pimp your proposals? Stop wasting time and money on proposals that go nowhere. The Pimp My Proposals program will give you the feedback, content and structure you need to build compelling proposals that win business. Learn what you’re doing wrong, and how to fix it. Email info@robynhaydon.com or call 03 9557 4585 to find out more.

What makes a great Executive Summary?

The purpose of an Executive Summary is to convince the buyer to say “yes” to your proposal. Unfortunately, many fall far short of this aim.

Here’s what an Executive Summary is not:

·      It’s not an “introduction” to the proposal.

·      It’s not a summary of the technical solution.

·      And it’s definitely not all about you – and nothing about the buyer.

A good Executive Summary sets out your commercial argument for the business in a clear and confident tone. A great executive summary does even more than this; it connects the buyer emotionally with your offering and your vision, and sets out an exciting future that they couldn’t possibly say no to.

Here’s how to distinguish an average Executive Summary from really great ones that will win you business:

Average Executive Summaries… Great Executive Summaries…
Show how you will do the job Show how you will deliver value
Talk about you and your credentials Talk about them and their future
Make you sound like every other supplier Make you sound like the only people they would want to work with
Are professional, detached, and a bit of a dull read Are conversational, enthusiastic and interesting to read
Look like the one that was in the last proposal Look fresh and exciting; are written specifically for each new opportunity
Sound like they are talking to no one in particular Are a conversation at the highest level; as if your CEO was talking directly to the buyer

Next time, try writing your Executive Summary before you write your proposal. This will help you to get clear on your strategy, identify gaps and holes in the evidence you have to support the strategy, and build your team’s connection to the vision.

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business that is won through competitive bids and tenders. Her clients have won and retained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with many of Australia’s largest corporate and government buyers.

Re-Engage is my training and coaching program for organisations with multiple major accounts. It will give your people the framework, skills, and confidence to lead contract renewals with your existing customers. Email info@robynhaydon.com or call 03 9557 4585 to find out more.

How to “grow” your own proposal writers

In a proposal, what you say is more important than how you say it, and making sure the people in your team contribute their knowledge is very important. This means getting everyone involved in proposal writing, even if they don’t see themselves as “writers”.

Proposal writing is a skill that can be taught. Everyone in your team who has knowledge to share can learn to be more effective in proposal writing.

However, some people will be more suited to proposal writing as a regular gig than others.

Responding to tenders can feel like you are sitting an exam every day. People who were good at exams at school or university and who quite like the challenge of sitting exams (yes, it happens) are ideal for this type of work.

Bid writers need to quickly understand what’s being asked for in a Request for Tender and know how to respond.

Likewise, getting good exam marks requires the confidence to understand and interpret unfamiliar questions very quickly and under time pressure. It means being able to plan a response that addresses that question, then identify relevant content and ignore stuff that isn’t relevant, and weave an argument or point of view throughout.

A team member who has a good academic record with high exam scores in complex subjects is highly likely to be suited to the task of working on tenders. It doesn’t really matter what kind of subjects they were good at – it’s their pre-existing aptitude for this kind of work that is important.

But proposal writing can be a lonely and demanding job, often leading to exhaustion, frustration and burnout. When someone does choose to take it on, make sure that they get proper training, supervision and support – or their time in the job will probably be short-lived. 

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant who helps helps service-based businesses that compete through bids and tenders to articulate the value in what they do, command a price premium, and build an offer that buyers can’t refuse. Don’t let others dictate how far and how fast your business can grow – take your power back! Email robyn@robynhaydon.com to request the white paper for the Beyond Ticking Boxes program.

Five ways to write proposals that win business

For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at what NOT to do if you want to avoid losing a competitive tender. One thing all these behaviours have in common is that they are keeping you inwardly focused – on yourself and your firm.

To leapfrog the line between winning and losing, start to turn your attention outwards, to the customer and the opportunity.

The first thing to focus on is compliance. Achieve this, and you’ll be seen as a thoughtful, competent supplier. There are five hurdles to achieving compliance:

1.     Compliance with threshold requirements. If you need quality accreditations such as ISO9001 or ISO4801 and don’t have them, it’s rare to win against competitors that do.  Non-compliance is an easy reason for a buyer to exclude your bid.

2.  Compliance with any mandatory requirements. In the Request for Tender document, look for the words “must” to indicate what’s mandatory.

3.    Compliance with the specifications or scope of works. Can you do everything that the buyer is asking for? That’s important. As the expert, you may have ideas about how things could be done better (I’d certainly hope so, if you want to win). But always submit a complying bid, even if you think your alternative offer is stronger. By the time they have reached a competitive tender, some buyers have already made up their mind.

4.    Contract compliance. This is one area where buyers definitely prefer no changes. Some will even go so far as to specify that you can’t vary the contract terms.

5.  Finally, make sure your tender responses (written answers) are compliant. Analyse the questions properly to make sure that you’re answering every part, and understand why the buyer is asking each question. Include enough qualitative and quantitative evidence to give you a high evaluation score.

While the first four are usually OK, the last can be a challenge without advice and guidance. If you need a leg up and over the final hurdle, my Master Class Program will get your team compliant and see you landing on the "yes" list more often.

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.

Using tone of voice to develop your proposal personality

Last week, I talked about the role that proposal personality plays in the unconscious decisions buyers make about whether we are worth doing business with.

When we present in person, there are many cues that show our personality. In a written proposal, however, these cues are more limited. Personality mostly comes through in the way the proposal looks and feels, and of course in the way it sounds when you read it.

Proposals are all about influencing the prospect’s thinking to your point of view, and it’s usually best to employ a combination of Approachable and Assertive tone when writing.

For example, in a tender for medical recruitment services, suppliers were asked to nominate their Preferred Supplier Agreements with other customers. It’s possible that the buyer did this because they were already thinking about conflicts of interest this might create with their competitors. However, they also might not have fully understood the implications.

My client, let’s call them Medical Recruiters, took an assertive tone on this issue as it played to one of their key competitive advantages and they needed to strongly influence the buyer’s thinking. Their answer went something like this:

Our market position, which is free of conflicts of interest, creates a compelling reason to consider Medical Recruiters as one of your preferred suppliers. Medical Recruiters does not have any Preferred Supplier Agreements with direct competitors of Pharma Co. Our only Preferred Supplier Agreement is with ZedCorp, a large multinational Medical Device company. There are real risks in appointing Preferred Suppliers of recruitment services that already hold such agreements with your direct competitors. For example, how does the recruiter decide where to send an excellent candidate, when they have two or three other clients looking for a similar person? Where potential conflicts of interest do exist, it is important you are 100% confident in the quality of the consultants who will be allocated to your account. The Best Practice in Human Resources Report (date) surveyed 5,000 professionals who changed jobs in the preceding 12 months and found that the individual consultant was the main catalyst in building their enthusiasm for the role and gaining their commitment to the employer.

The buyer was sold, and Medical Recruiters won a place on their preferred supplier panel.

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.

Planning a Compliant Tender Response

Every question that’s asked in a tender document will contain more than one layer, that is, several questions within the question. Look for the layers and you will produce more compliant answers and also get better results. In a session with my Master Class group this morning, we were talking about content planning for tender responses. This is a very important topic, but often one that people struggle to get their heads around.

When we're on a deadline and there's a lot of work to do, it is very tempting to jump straight into writing, but in fact, this is never going to give you the best result.

Planning is the essential step between creating your bid strategy and executing it through what you write in your proposal.  But even the word “planning” sounds as much fun as getting a root canal. It feels like it will slow us down and stop the momentum and the flow of ideas.

However, I look at planning somewhat differently. When I plan proposal content with teams, I find that it actually gives a really laser sharp focus to what we’re about to do.

It’s a bit like flying a plane. If bid strategy work is the preparation for take-off, and writing is cruising at altitude, then planning what happens just after take-off when the flight is still ahead of us. Many things are possible, but many things could still go wrong.  Planning gives us an opportunity to see them, and work out the bumps before they throw us off course.

Often in our haste to get a bid done by the deadline, we compile proposals rather than write them. We think: “okay, here's a question about quality assurance. I'm just going to copy paste my standard answer about quality assurance in here.” But questions are rarely asked exactly the same way each time. So take the time to identify the layers in the question that your answer needs to cover. And think of your standard content from past proposals as a reference library, not the finished answer.

“We Have a Quality Process for Bids, so Why Aren’t We Winning Any?”

When I talk to revenue owners who are responsible for leading bids and proposals, one of the frustrations they often mention is that there has already been a fair bit of effort expended to document their quality assurance process for bids. Often this involves multiple stages and toll gates and is meant to be followed rigidly for every opportunity that they pursue. Now, I'm not knocking process. Following a process is important to get a replicable result.

My question is —what result are you modelling your replicable process on?

One of the problems with bid quality processes is that the result that we're looking to achieve is an elusive one. A successful bid strategy is like a snowflake – no two are ever exactly the same. Bid strategy can’t be pinned down just by following a series of steps, particularly when those steps don't provide enough instruction to actually help people to do the tasks within the steps.

For example, I've seen bid quality processes which just say "Step number 23 - develop win themes." Okay, that's great as a headline, but what if your team doesn't have a process to develop win themes? What will tend to happen is that everybody sits around in a room and kicks around the reasons why they think the customer should choose them. This then ends up in the document as some kind of laundry list titled "Why You Should Choose Us". This is rarely effective.

Developing win themes for bids is a creative process —it's not about producing a widget to a certain standard or tolerance. It's about being able to recognise all the factors that are going to shape and influence the customers' decisions; particularly what they most value, what we can best deliver and what positions us best against competitors.

A quality process isn't enough to deliver a winning bid, unless there are also instructions, training and practice built in for the people who will actually be executing the process. Some big organisations do this very well, but there are many others that need help to be able to follow a quality process effectively.

These days, I very rarely work with organisations on routine bids where their staff haven't first been through my Persuasive Tender and Proposal Writing Master Class Program. There are many techniques in that program that help to fill in the gaps of the quality process and actually give people the tools that they can use to follow instructions like "Develop win themes."

The May Master Class Program sold out early, but we are now accepting enrolments for July.

Contact me if you would like a detailed syllabus and overview for the Tender and Proposal Writing Master Class.

Earning or Learning? Separating Proposal Development from Proposal Skills

Are you looking for help with an important bid? Do you want to improve your proposal development skills or processes at the same time? Here's why it's better to separate these two objectives. When people approach me for help with bids, proposals and tender responses, the most common form that the enquiry takes is this:

"Can you come in and work side by side with us on a bid so that we can learn from you?"

There are two questions here, and the answer to both is yes - but not at the same time.  Here’s why.

Steven Covey’s classic time management grid introduced us to the idea of tasks that are important or not important, and urgent or not urgent.

  • Getting an important bid across the line is an important task that is also urgent.
  • Building your skills in bids, proposals and tender responses so you can win more business, more often is important — but not urgent.

Urgent tasks will always take priority over non-urgent tasks.

When there is an important bid coming up, everybody's attention and focus is on how can we get the best outcome for that bid — including mine. Even when I come in fully intending that you and your team will learn from me — and even if that’s your intention too —everything tends to be subsumed into the bigger objective, which is to get your important bid across the line.

In my experience, proposal skills development is a systematic process of enquiry and reflection that is best built away from the furnace of bid deadlines.

That’s why I offer public and professional Tender and Proposal Writing Master Class Programs that deliberately takes participants away from their day job — either for a couple of hours a week in the public program, or a couple of days in the professional program —to get the best results.

To improve your outcomes from bids and proposals through learning and development, I recommend training at least one senior person from your organisation who is going to be responsible for strategy and leading bids, and at least one other person who will be doing the proposal development, management and writing. These people need to work together and to support each other.  I have trained many proposal teams through the Master Class program, with great results.  The next public Master Class starts on May 2 and enrolments close on April 18.  Contact me if you’d like an overview of the syllabus for this very useful program.

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!

Why Exam Swots Make Good Bid Writers

It's been a long time since I was last at school, but in some ways it feels like I never left because my job involves developing bids and responding to tenders. Answering RFT questions often feels like you are sitting an exam every day of your life.

I'm often asked about the skills that are most needed in a bid writer, and how to identify aptitude in internal staff who might be good at that kind of work. Probably the most important is an ability to understand what's being asked for in the RFT, and to respond accordingly. Therefore, a good predictor of likely success in such a role is how good someone is (or has been) at exams, particularly in subjects requiring a complex written response.

Getting good exam marks requires the confidence to understand and interpret and unfamiliar questions very quickly and under time pressure; to plan a response that addresses that question; to identify relevant content and ignore stuff that isn’t relevant; and to weave an argument or point of view throughout. Therefore, a member of staff who has a good academic record with high exam scores in complex subjects is highly likely to be suited to the task of responding to tenders. It doesn't really matter what kind of subjects they were good at – it’s their pre-existing aptitude for this kind of work that is important.

I’ve just finished re-reading the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. In it, there is a character called Mma Makutsi, who is famous for having achieved 97% in her final exams at the Botswana Secretarial College. Mma Makutsi is the Assistant Detective to Chief Detective Mma Ramotswe, and together they are a force to be reckoned with. Mma Ramotswe has fantastic intuition, where Mma Makutsi is the person who dots the is and crosses the ts. I am willing to bet that if they weren’t in the detecting game, they would make a great bid team.

Likewise, in your business there is an important role for staff members that aren’t academic and don’t think of themselves as “writers”.These people are often great students of life, are good at reading between the lines and have useful insights customer behaviour. Therefore they make great proposal strategists who are good at seeing the big picture.

You need these big-picture proposal strategists, together with great bid writers who are good at the detail, to form the core of a successful bid team.

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.

Why buyers are asking for short proposals

Like me, you are probably seeing a lot more word and page-limited tender response requests coming out from the market these days. A quick check of the tenders I worked on over the past six months revealed that more than half had page limits for responding to each criterion. On the surface it makes sense as to why this might be happening. After all, if you're a procurement officer or a buyer and you're expecting dozens or hundreds of tender responses, you would want them to be as succinct as possible so that you don't have to wade through pages and pages of unnecessary information in order to score the response. Page limiting and word limiting proposals might reduce your workload by as much as 50%.

But there's another reason why it's a good practice to ask for word and page-limited responses.

That's because buyers understand that it actually takes much more effort to write something within a tight set of limits than it does when no limits are given.

There's a famous quote by the French mathematician, physicist, and inventor Blaise Pascal, who lived in the 17th century. Pascal said, "I have made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter."

To me, that sums it up nicely. When suppliers are not limited in how much information they can provide, it's easy to just throw the kitchen sink into the bid and let the buyer sort it out. This has led to a lot of lazy, assembly line proposal writing.

Buyers know that they will get better quality responses if they force you to think about how you can make your proposal shorter. If you have less space and fewer words to get your point across, the good proposals will be better —and those that were never going to be any good anyway at least won't be as tiring or taxing to assess.

Context vs content - using your proposal to fill in both sides of the sales conversation

When you speak to a buyer in person, you can tell by their body language and expression whether or not your message has actually landed.  In a proposal, you can’t – and that’s pretty scary. Like it or not, a large part of the sales relationship is transacted through formal RFTs these days, without the opportunity for a feedback loop.  This means your proposal needs to work extra hard to fill in both sides of the conversation – just as if the buyer were in the room asking questions and getting information from you.

Content is what you say in your proposal; it’s your message.  Context is what gives meaning to your message.  Content without context is easily misunderstood.

For example, let’s say you have arrived back in your office after two days on the road presenting new construction techniques to a major client.  Your boss buzzes you and says abruptly “Steve, come and see me right now.”  As you hang up you think “The client called, they hated my presentation, and I’m going to get my butt kicked.”

But imagine if your boss had instead said “Welcome back Steve!  ABC Developments called, and they loved your presentation. Their engineers have raised some questions about the logistics of the new concrete panels.  It’s not a big deal but we need to work it out and get back to them by the end of the week.  Please come and see me now so we can throw around some options.”

What a difference this would make.  Instead of thinking you’re about to get hauled over the coals, you’re straight away thinking about how to answer the client's questions.

Presenting content without context in a proposal is a bit like walking up to an attractive stranger at a party and talking about yourself for 15 minutes without pausing for breath. It's not a great way to start a relationship.

As the expert, you have all this knowledge in your head that the customer doesn't have access to. The buyer doesn’t know what you know; you have to explain it to them. Think of context as a carry-bag for content – context holds your content together and helps it make sense. Part of the work of writing a proposal is to anticipate the questions you are raising for the buyer, and make sure your proposal answers them.

Proposal writing tip: should I use italics, underlining and bold text?

When you're making a pitch to a customer with a limited attention span, it's best not to do anything that is going to distract them from the point you are trying to make. Sprinkling italicsunderlining and bold text throughout your narrative may seem appealing as a way to garner attention, but can actually end up breaking the flow of narrative.

If you want a piece of text to stand out, try using headlines, bullet points, or breakout boxes instead.

Proposal writing tip: why your great track record isn't a free pass to reinstatement

When you’ve done similar work for a client, and done it well – sometimes for many years – it’s tempting to think this is all you need to talk about to win again. Unfortunately, when reduced to writing, your great track record only explains who you were yesterday; not who you are today and who you’re planning to be tomorrow.

Talk about your track record, but don’t rest on it. Explain how the client will derive future value from what you’ve done before - in reduced risk, higher quality, know-how and IP.

Proposal writing tip: how to use case studies effectively

Case studies are an important source of evidence when substantiating claims of past performance in similar contracts. However, they will always have more impact if you can include them in the body of your proposal, and not just attached as a sheaf of project data sheets.

For example, look for opportunities to introduce case studies as an illustration of how you have successfully delivered a particular aspect of your methodology.