Winning proposals with contributions from staff who aren't proposal writers

Not everyone can write. And people who write well in other areas may not write great proposal copy. The law of averages means that not even every proposal specialist is exceptional. So how do you win using people who are not great proposals writers?

First, you should start thinking in terms of contributions instead of sections. Just as there are many ingredients that go into a winning proposal, there can be many contributors. And a contribution to the proposal doesn’t necessarily have to involve any writing at all.

Some contributors may be technical subject matter experts (SMEs). Others might be proposal specialists or other kinds of specialists. There is an ongoing debate about whether it is better to train SMEs to write proposal copy, or to pair them up with a proposal specialist who interviews the SME and writes the copy. We think the right answer for any given company depends on the organization, the skills of their staff, and their availability.

But regardless of the approach you take, there are some things you can do to get more useable content out of each contributor. The way we approach proposal writing is to start by figuring out what all the ingredients should be. We use a methodology we developed called Proposal Content Planning that is fully described within PropLIBRARY. It guides people to not only identify what they need to write about, but how they should write it. It enables you to collect and pass instructions to the author(s).

This creates an opportunity to reach out in different ways to all potential contributors. You can ask people who have had customer contact to address things like customer preferences and what matters from their perspective. You can ask technical SMEs to address why the approach they recommend is the best alternative in addition to what that approach is. Someone might contribute a sentence, someone else a paragraph. From others you might want raw data, a chart, a graphic, or just a list of steps or bullets.

A Proposal Content Plan can even function like an interview that is conducted on paper. Responses can be rough or finished copy, depending on the capability of the person contributing. You can even go back and forth for follow-ups or bring in another person to add to it or finish it.

What makes it work is that each person knows what is expected of them. Asking someone, especially a non-specialist, to write a proposal section without defining your bid strategies, positioning, customer intelligence, and other details is just asking for trouble. That’s how companies get to their proposal review and have to start over. But even when you have defined them, you need something to bring them all together so that the writer can incorporate everything.

A Proposal Content Plan contains the instructions that define your expectations. If all you expect of someone is to answer a question, provide the question. If you expect them to share insight about a topic or describe something, be specific about what you want to get back from them.

When you insert instructions into a Proposal Content Plan, make sure you phrase it in a way the receiver will understand. If you are dealing with technical SMEs, instead of asking them to explain things from the customer’s perspective, you might want to ask them how the customer will be impacted, what the customer will get out of it, or why the customer should care about it.

In addition to using something like Proposal Content Planning to enable you to deal with contributions instead of drafts, you should also separate designing the offering from writing about it. Designing the offering by writing about it is just asking for re-write after re-write while you search from the right offering only to run out of time before you find it. There is a reason why engineers do not build bridges by writing narrative prose about them.

You should encourage your technical SMEs to plan and validate what they are going to offer to meet the customer’s specifications before you start describing it in writing. They can use diagrams, blueprints, data sheets, design processes, storyboards, checklists, forms, or whatever they prefer to identify the components of what you will offer. Only after you have validated that it’s the right solution --- that it’s cost competitive and compliant with the RFP requirements --- should you describe it in narrative writing. And when you do, it shouldn’t be a simple description, but rather an explanation that shows the customer what they will get out of it and why it’s the best alternative.

The last step will be to transform what you have into something that incorporates your bid strategies, is optimized against the evaluation criteria, and is written from the customer’s perspective. This is what will take your proposal from being merely compliant to being exceptional.

It is what you need to outscore your competition and win. Maybe your SMEs are up to that kind of writing, maybe not. Maybe your proposal staff will produce something exceptional, maybe they’ll be struggling to meet deadlines and only produce something compliant.

But when you implement Proposal Content Planning, you can see what they were supposed to do. And you can assess whether what they produced is what it was supposed to be. Instead of expecting contributors to intuitively guess at what an exceptional proposal might be, you can actually instruct them to combine the components of the offering with the description of what the customer will get out of it into a narrative that is about the customer and shows why your offering is the best alternative when looked at from the customer’s perspective.

Instead of expecting people to just somehow know (and all agree!) on what a good proposal is, you can identify the parts and how they should be assembled. And that is something your technical SMEs should be to able wrap their heads around more easily than writing something that “sells.”



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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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