Some people are just not cut out to be proposal writers. Often technical staff don’t have the background or training required. However, you can usually coach them through it and get usable content from them. Sometimes they even turn out to be quite good. But every once in a while you meet someone who you think gets it, but every time they go back to their office and write something, they fall back on old habits and turn in something that has to be completely rewritten.
Normal approaches aren’t going to help you with these people. Don’t even think about giving them a style guide. They don’t need training, they need practice. And lots of it, over an extended period of time. Which of course, with a proposal due, you don’t have the time for.
The only thing you can do is cheat. Or more specifically, give them a cheat sheet. It’s got to be short, no more than a page or two. And it’s got to provide direction that is crystal clear — not the normal chapter on how to be an effective writer. Don’t even try to explain win strategies and themes. If you want to dramatically improve what you get from them, you need to focus all of your efforts on changing how they think about writing. You’ll never reach them by focusing on the mechanics. Instead, get them to think like a proposal evaluator and give them a few simple instructions they can follow like these:
- Ask yourself, “What does the customer want out of this section?” and then give it to them. Think about what you do when you read someone else’s proposal. When someone reads a proposal section, they are on a mission. There are certain things they want to find out in order to decide whether they want what you are proposing more than what your competitors are proposing. Ask yourself what questions the customer will have, and then write directly to them. It may help if instead of writing, you imagine what you would say to them if they were sitting across from you. Instead of writing around what they need to know, go directly to it. Don’t worry about writing style or word choice. Speak to them in your own voice as if you were having a conversation with them.
- Ask yourself, "What would a skeptical customer worry about in this section?" and then address it. Think about how skeptical you can get when a sales person is trying to sell you something. Part of the reason why customers want a proposal is that they want you to answer their questions and give them all of the information they need to make a decision. When they read what you submit, those questions are at the top of their mind. They are not reading to hear what you have to say, they are looking for answers to those questions. Don’t try to hide from any difficulties, risks, or issues. The customer knows they are there and wants to know if you can handle them. If you don’t address them, they will probably reach the natural conclusion that you can’t.
Take each of your headings and turn them into statements. Headings like “Management Plan,” “Staffing Plan,” or “Experience” don’t say anything. Turn them into statements like:
- [YourName]’s proven management team will carefully oversee our performance.
- Our dedicated recruiters are already knowledgeable of the local labor market and prepared to staff the project.
- Our 20 years of experience makes us better prepared than our competitors to solve any issues that may arise during the project.
- Give them something better. Don’t just describe whatever it is you are proposing. Show how it is better. Better than what they have. Better than what your competitors offer. Better than average. Better in any way you can think of. If they ask for something basic, give them something better. If they simply want you to show up on time, then show up early, have a back-up in case you are late, or talk about how in 10 years, you’ve never been late. Just don’t simply say that you’ll show up on time the way they asked, because that’s what everyone else will say. You’ve got to give them something better, even if it’s just a better reason to believe you’ll do what you say.
- Explain “Why.” Most bad proposal writing is descriptive. It simply describes the company or the offering. Maybe it’s because when people read the RFP and it says to “describe your approach” they think that is what they are supposed to do. Maybe that’s understandable. But look at it from the customer’s perspective. When you read someone’s approach in a proposal, what you are really looking for is to understand why they do it that way. Are they going through the motions, or do they really understand the impact of what they are doing? Is there a benefit to the customer? Reading proposals can get really, really boring. Sometimes the reader just wants to know “why” it matters. You can greatly improve your proposal writing without becoming an expert writer or salesperson, simply by focusing on “why.”