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  • How Long Should Your Proposal Be?

    The best practices for proposals say you should make your proposal as short as you can while still answering all of the customer’s questions.The best practices are wrong. If you follow them, and your competitors follow them as well, your proposal will be ordinary. Instead, you should turn the length of your proposal into a competitive advantage. Here's how:

    1. Be much, much, shorter. If your competitors are going to submit 50-page proposals, then make your proposal only five pages. Just sum up all the issues. Focus on what really matters. Use short, choppy sentences instead of run-on passive voice elaborations that don’t really add anything. Make it bold.

      Stand out from the pack. Longer proposals do not mean they were written by people who know more. It means they are disorganized. Say that. Don’t just offer the customer a choice — demonstrate the difference between you and your competitors. Give the customer a chance to choose a contractor that isn’t the same old, same old kind of provider, making it up as they go along and just muddling through.

      If you're afraid of making unsubstantiated claims, then put the long version with all the substantiate on the web. Let your executive summary be your proposal. You can make the proof with all the details available to them if they want to test you. 

      By being radically short, you become the unit that everyone is measured against. So make darn sure you have a great offering. Make darn sure you truly understand what they want (as opposed to what they’ve asked for). If they want to select you, then they will look at the other, longer, and far more boring proposals with dread. Your competitors will seem unenlightened, uninspired, and out of touch. But if you offer something ordinary, they might seem like they did more of their homework.

      It is harder to write a short proposal than it is to write a long proposal. If you want to win.
    2. Be much, much longer. If you’re competitors are going to submit 50-page proposals, then make yours 500. Give them all the details. Prove that you've thought about every possible contingency.   Prove that you're ready now and not just making it up as you go along. Just put it in appendices so they don’t have to actually read it. Instead of referring to procedures, show them the procedures. All of them. Don’t just promise. Show. Demonstrate. Ghost against the uncertainties of dealing with other contractors. Instead of offering to become what they need, you should already be it. Tell them straight up that you included all the backup, just to prove you are that ready and that your credibility surpasses that of your competitors. Tell them that if they select you they already know what they're going to get. If they select your competitors, all they get are promises.

      Make sure you include an executive summary that sums it all up in just a couple of pages. Tell them that they don’t have to read any further, unless they need to see proof. Make sure that the material is very, very well organized. Make it easy to skim. Make it visual. Make it easy to find things, like answers to questions.

      Give them a link to an online, searchable, clickable, expandable, collapsible version of your proposal. Better yet, turn it into a project portal that can be used as a tool for performance after award. Only give it to them before award so they can kick the tires. Be better prepared.

    Some RFPs specify a page limit. When they do, you can expect nearly all of your competitors to turn in proposals that are within a few pages of the limit. You can easily stand out by turning in a proposal way below the limit. After all, what message is the customer sending by having a page limit?

    When you have to provide information and that information is going to add significantly to the page count, remember to format the document to separate what you want them to read from the reference material. Put all the dry, data heavy, information intensive pages in an appendix or separate section of your proposal. When they open your proposal, you want them to read your story and see why they should select you. If they need substantiation, questions answered, demonstrations, detailed procedures, etc., then tell them where they can find them. But don’t let them disrupt your story.

    If you want to be competitive, there is no such thing as having “just the right” length to your proposal. You can either be way too short, or way too long. Either way, you can turn it into a competitive advantage. Avoid being comparable to your competition. Stand out. Be extraordinary. Get selected. Win.

    Carl Dickson
    By Carl Dickson, Founder of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

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