To win more proposals, start in the middle

Most proposals start off with outlines, compliance matrices, and kick-off meetings. If they’re smart, they plan the content before they start writing. Then they get writing. When they have a draft, they hold a review, usually called a Red Team. Then they do some more writing and editing, before going into final production and submission.

They’d be better off if instead of starting by planning the content, they started by planning the review.

Only it’s not the logistics of the review that you need to know. It’s the standards. What will the reviewers be looking for? What criteria will they follow? At the highest level, reviews are about providing quality assurance. So how do you define proposal quality? Then how do you validate it?

How can you start writing without knowing these things? When you let the deadline pressure tempt you into writing before you’ve figured this out, it’s like hitting a moving target. Most writers don’t find out what’s expected of them until the draft gets to the reviewers. That’s when they find out they need to do it over because what they wrote isn’t what is needed. Only there’s not enough time to do it over, so they try to fake fix it. Unfortunately almost reflecting what it will take to win is not good enough and everyone knows it. So they make more changes (often introducing errors) as the clock ticks down and eventually they submit what they have rather than what it should have been.

If they had started by defining the quality standards for the reviews, then the writers would have had a much better chance of getting it right in the first draft. Proposal writing is about understanding what it will take to win, and getting it in writing. One of the best ways to spend your valuable but limited time on a proposal is by discussing that. Starting from a simple outline or a compliance matrix is not enough for the writers to address everything that goes into what it will take to win.

When the writers and the reviewers conduct themselves separately, then often you don’t get a definitive discussion about what it will take to win until the review — when the proposal is halfway over. That makes it impossible to build the proposal around what it will take to win. That discussion should be your first priority. It should not be left for individuals to figure out on their own while they do the writing, subject to correction later when there won’t be enough time to change it.

Within the MustWin Process that's available on PropLIBRARY we define proposal quality as the degree to which the proposal reflects all of the things you have determined are necessary to win. The good news is that a lot of what it will take to win can be anticipated before the RFP is released. But some of it depends on what’s in the RFP. What we did was create a draft set of criteria and a process for customizing it. The idea is to enable people to put a written review plan in place in about 15 minutes.

Then we channel that information into something called Proposal Content Planning. That’s our approach for figuring out everything that needs to go into the proposal and putting it in the right context. It provides a detailed set of instructions for the writers that matches the instructions the reviewers get. It gets the writers and reviewers on the same page regarding what it’s going to take to win and then verify that the proposal reflects it.

The key takeaway is that if you get your proposal started and then turn your attention to the review process, you’re just asking to get hurt. Start discussing your review standards and process at the beginning. It’s one of the things that you can realistically start before the RFP is released. Because if you don’t start your proposal having already discussed what it will take to win, you’ll never be able to build your proposal around it.



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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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