One of the problems with staffing a proposal is that there is no way to determine whether someone can write well until you see what they produce. By then it’s often too close to the deadline to replace them if they’re not producing what you need.
Just because a person has had training does not mean they have the skill to write excellent proposal copy. Knowledge does not always translate into skills. Just because a person is a subject matter expert, does not mean their expertise enables them to write excellent proposal copy. Just because a person is an executive, does not mean that their capabilities include writing excellent proposal copy. And just because a person participated in a proposal (or even series of proposals) that ended up winning, does not mean that their contribution is what took the proposal from acceptable to best.
Sometimes the worst offenders are the most experienced. They’ve been meeting deadlines and writing plain, ordinary, acceptable copy for years. But while that may be enough to make your submission and keep you from getting thrown out, it’s not good enough if you really want to win.
So short of seeing them produce, what can you ask someone that could indicate they have the potential to write excellent proposal copy? Here are some questions to ask:
- How is proposal quality defined and how do you measure it? If they can’t define proposal quality objectively, then it will all be about their opinion.
- What is the difference between proposal writing and technical writing? Technical writing often makes for bad proposal writing. The two types of writing have very different goals. Some writers can do both, but most can’t.
- What is the difference between a feature and a benefit? Even specialists can have trouble explaining the difference. Most people are comfortable describing features, but good proposal writing should be able the benefits and not the features. Understanding the difference doesn’t mean they can execute it in writing, but it’s a good place to start.
- What should you accomplish at the sentence, paragraph, and section level? This can help you detect whether they write with a plan in mind or whether they just start writing. It can also help you see whether they understand how the mechanics of assembling proposal writing is different from other kinds of writing.
- What does it mean when you say that a proposal should tell a "story" and how do you achieve it? A lot of people can talk about the importance of telling a story in your proposal, but can they actually do it?
- Are storyboards obsolete or still considered a best practice? The answer to this question will help separate the book-learned from those with real understanding. It will also indicate whether and how they plan before they write.
- Why aren't red teams consistently effective? This question can tell you how well they understand proposal quality assessment. Most people will focus on the symptoms and not the real causes. You want their answer to help you determine how they see themselves interacting with the review process and what their goals are for the results.
- What causes the process to fail? People who have worked on proposals before have encountered problems with the process. So what did they learn? It’s another case where people tend to focus on symptoms instead of causes. For a proposal writer, you want to find out how they see themselves producing excellent proposal copy in-spite of the problems.
- Will you complete your assignments on time? This one is a trick question that I just can’t resist. Can you get them to verbally commit to the schedule? Most people who think the schedule is too aggressive will resist passively by not personally committing to their deadlines. You want to know before the proposal starts whether the person is passive-aggressive and how much confidence they have.
It's not about whether someone's answers are right or wrong. It’s about how they answer the questions and about how well they understand proposal development, so you can do a better job of predicting how they will perform. It could even be turned into an assessment tool for people interviewing proposal candidates.
For proposal managers, it's also a useful management tool. If someone can't answer the first question, that sets you up to define quality (and take their opinions out of the equation) as well as the process by which it gets built into the document and then validated (giving you back control of the process). The other questions help reinforce it. This is vital when you are dealing with someone who thinks they know all about proposal writing, but actually produces lousy proposal copy (often while ignoring or conflicting with the process). Often the Socratic method of asking questions is a better way to achieve true understanding and get the buy-in of people than just telling them what you want them to do. Done right, it will help them feel they are a part of the decision-making process and that you are simply implementing their ideas. Then you’ve really got them.