Six things you should know about to write better proposals

Almost everything I learned about proposal writing early in my career turned out to be wrong. My success with proposal process and techniques started when I grew confident enough to abandon what I had been taught. But what has really advanced my career has been the subjects I learned about while writing proposals. If I had known about them at the start, my early proposals would have been much better.

Here are six subjects that I learned about and how they impact the way I do proposals. As those of you who are already experts in them will see, I am not an expert. I know enough to write about them, not enough to get a job doing them. But that just goes to show that learning a little about these things can help you write better proposals.

  1. How help desks work. When delivering services, customers expect things to go wrong. They often want to know what you are going to do about it. That’s where being able to describe issue tracking, assignment, escalation, follow-up, reporting, and related matters is really useful. If you take a proposal that doesn’t require a help desk, and insert help desk techniques without ever using the term “help desk,” you can sound really sophisticated in your approach to customer service.
  2. ISO 9000. ISO 9000 was a quality methodology that I got some exposure to. Since then they’ve upgraded and changed the numbers. But that doesn’t matter. What matters are the basics. If you have a process, you need to be able to prove that you’ve followed the process. Sign-offs, forms, checklists, etc. can be used to demonstrate that you are delivering the way you said you would. Auditing is also necessary to verify that people have implemented a process. External auditing is even better. Quality must be defined so that you can validate an end product by measuring it against the definition/specifications. How will participants know if what they’ve done is free of defects? How does the organization know that what participants have done is free of defects? Progress must also be measured. You can take any process and if you define quality and add validation and proof of process execution, you can make it better.
  3. Six Sigma. Another quality methodology. You are better off building quality in at the beginning than by verifying it at the end. Everything is a matter of statistics and measurements. Hat tip to Peter Drucker who said “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
  4. Elementary school rubrics. When I went to school we didn’t get rubrics. Grades were subjective. When my kids brought home rubrics I had no clue what they were. Rubrics tell a student exactly what they have to do on an assignment to get an “A,” a “B,” a “C,” etc. What a genius concept! I stole it and built it into our MustWin Process to solve the problem of proposal writers getting to a review and having the reviewers tell them it’s all wrong and to do it again. If you tell proposal writers what criteria their sections will be measured against, they can build the quality in from the beginning. But for it to work, you have to do it in enough detail to take most of the subjectivity out of it. If elementary school kids can have rubrics, proposal contributors can too.
  5. Capability Maturity Model. People don’t usually go from a total lack of process and quality systems to a full blown implementation in one step. Process improvement comes in stages. Get something in place that makes people’s lives easier, and then take them to the next level. Repeatability is something important to achieve. I mainly use what I learned here when implementing business development and proposal processes, but being able to describe the level of maturity in your operational processes can enable you to put some detail behind all those unsubstantiated claims about being “committed to the highest levels of quality.”
  6. Various engineering and lifecycle models. The systems development lifecycle (requirements, design, build, test, repeat or some variation) can be useful terminology whenever you have any kind of deliverables. Engineering methodologies are also useful. For example, they can enable you to describe in formal terms how you do an alternatives analysis. Being able to drop in a table that shows the possibilities along with the criteria you will use for assessing them and the grading system you will use for selection can make it look like you have a clear, objective, and verifiable approach to decision making.

There are many, many methodologies that can probably help your proposal writing. As soon as I publish this article I’ll probably think of some I left out. I find it interesting that many of them work both to help you figure out what to write, and how to improve your proposal process.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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