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The secret to solving 14 proposal problems at the same time

One solution to rule them all

What do each of the following proposal problems have in common?

Every one of the problems described below have something in common. There is a single solution that can address them all. All the overlapping and confusing needs have the same origin. To get good at consistently winning proposals, you not only have to realize what it is, you must make it happen. We'll share what it is, but for you to believe it you have to understand the issues first.

See also:
Content Planning Box

Q) What is the fastest way to speed up proposal writing?
A) People spend more time thinking and talking about a proposal than they actually do writing. Speeding up figuring out what to write about and making sure you have the information you need are the best ways to speed up proposal writing. With the right approach, this can be made checklist simple.

Q) What is the best way to win proposals?
A) Writing based on what it will take to win. As important as relationship marketing and intelligence gathering are to understanding what it will take to win, if they don't get turned into black ink on paper, they're not part of the proposal. Successful proposal writing requires making this connection. You won't get this from templates, magic words that hypnotize the reader, descriptive copy, or having stylistic flourish. It requires discovery, assessment, strategy, and mapping the points you need to make to the document. Winning in writing requires being methodical.

Q) What is the best way to achieve quality assurance for your proposals?
A) Asking people, even experienced people, for their opinions after the document is written does not provide quality assurance. It provides merely opinions. To get quality assurance, you have to define quality and the criteria you will measure it by before you start writing so that you can create a proposal that fulfills those criteria. You must explicitly validate the content of the proposal against what it is supposed to contain. It takes more than just having a review.

Q) What is the best way to get the most out of inexperienced writers?
A) Make sure that proposal assignments come with guidance in both what to write and how to write it. Simply giving them a heading and an RFP and calling that a "proposal assignment" is not the best way to get winning results out of any writer, but especially the inexperienced ones.

Q) What is the best way to balance the time needed to plan against the time available to write?
A) Use an approach to planning that is scalable and puts as little time into creating things that don’t go into the proposal as possible. Turn a big chunk of the time spent thinking and talking instead of writing and turn it into a plan that accelerates proposal writing. Turn a big chunk of the time spent rewriting over and over again, and prepare so you can write it once. All it takes is a little bit of time to think things through before you start.

Q) How do you measure the progress of writing?
A) If you account for everything that needs to be written, emphasized, explained, etc., then writing becomes a process of elimination. As you convert instructions into narrative, you can measure progress by how many of the items you have completed. You can say what percent of your goals have been achieved as opposed to how many pages you have written. It is much easier to achieve this if your approach to planning the content of your proposal facilitates itemizing the instructions. Peter Drucker said, "If you don't measure it, you can't manage it." Are you really managing your proposals if you don't account for everything that needs to be written before you start?

Q) How can you measure the quality of proposal writing?
A) If your approach to content planning enables you to track how many of your goals you have achieved, then you can take it a step further and assess how well you've achieved those goals. The right approach to content planning puts you into position to say not only whether you have achieved your goals, but also how well you have achieved them.

Q) How do you measure your use of visual communication?
A) Everyone knows their proposals should have more graphics. Many try to get them by creating some quota, like one graphic for every three pages. But did you realize that with the right content planning approach you can actually measure what percentage of your message is communicated using graphics?

Q) What is better than a template?
A) Proposal templates and assembly lines do more harm than good. On the other hand, re-using your content plans is a wonderful way to accelerate your proposals without having to extensively edit text to match the new context. Or you can create a bid strategy re-use library or a proposal recipe library. Just don't recycle your narratives.

Q) How do I ensure that my proposals reflect our strategic plans?
A) Before you insert your win strategies and themes into your proposal, you can map them to your company's strategic plans and include instructions to guide authors regarding how they can work together. 

Q) How do I balance between centralized control over proposals and distributed input?
A) Proposal Content Planning can be implemented as a centralized model, with a manager or core team preparing the instructions and then assigning them, or as a collaborative model where everyone contributes to the plan. Most organizations are hybrids, and not at either extreme. You can balance control vs. consensus.

Q) How do I facilitate proposal collaboration?
A) The vast majority of what is said at proposal meetings never makes it into the document.  There are better ways to collaborate on proposals than sitting around a table or video conference talking about it. Subject matter experts and proposal writers need to exchange ideas. Executives need to be able to perform oversight and make corrections and contributions. Authors of different sections need to deal with overlap. The time to discover these issues, figure out what to do about them, and make sure the right information flows to the right people is before it is turned into pages of narrative. The right approach to proposal content planning can also be used for asking questions, surfacing problems, and managing issues. A Content Plan can be used as a container to hold data, thoughts, and ultimately decisions that then can be turned into the right narrative.

Q) How can I improve the quality of proposal writing?
A) Planning proposal content can be more important than reviewing it. Planning the content of a proposal can also be about more than just what goes into the proposal. It's an opportunity to explain to the authors not only what to write, but how it should be written. You can remind them to use the RFP's terminology, optimize a section against the evaluation criteria, demonstrate understanding through results instead of empty claims, etc. You can use a proposal content plan to drive solutions to proposal quality problems into the document.

Q) What is the best way to stay below page limitations?
A) Combine the ideas of a proposal compliance matrix with an annotated outline, and put it in a document shell. This can help you make sure that what needs to be written fits the space allocated before you start writing. This can enable people to see how much space is available for what they need to write. It can be used to make an assignment about delivering something that fits and not just slinging a bunch of words at it 

Here's what they all have in common:

We knew it was important, but we didn't realize until we started writing this article just how central Proposal Content Planning is to proposal success.

It boils down to these three things:

  • Planning the content before you write is the best way to speed up proposal writing
  • Planning the content before you write is the best way to achieve a proposal based on what it will take to win
  • Planning the content is what connects relationship marketing, intelligence gathering, strategic planning, proposal management, team collaboration, proposal execution, and quality validation

That sounds too important to ignore, which is what most companies do because it's so hard to get people to plan their proposals before writing them. It also tells us that instead of picking the low-hanging fruit by focusing on everything else first, that no matter how painful it might be, most companies should focus on how they plan the content of their proposals until it's solving problems like those described above.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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