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Don't start proposal writing before you do these 10 critical things

Don't let the rush to write reduce your chances of winning

Sometimes it’s good to put the proposal management process aside and just look at what is the minimum required to write a proposal. While there are a lot of logistical and other considerations for a proposal that should be addressed early, today we are just looking at it from the perspective of the proposal writer.

The proposal writer just wants to focus on completing their assignment. So can we start writing now please? If you start by putting some words down on paper, anticipating that you’ll add to them as you discover new things that should be included, and changing what you wrote as you discover new things to focus on, you’re going to make proposal writing take longer and produce a lower quality proposal. You are going to end up with a proposal that is patches on top of patches as you figure out what the proposal should have been from the beginning. You need to work through all the considerations so that you can put every sentence in the right context. If you don’t, you will have to go back and change the context of every sentence.

Don't start proposal writing until the writers have what they need to get it right

Don't write in order to find what you should be writing. This is a bad mistake. There are things that you need to do first, before you start writing. They involve gathering information and putting it in the right form so that you are prepared to write the proposal. And only have to do it once.

The good news is that doing these things will make proposal writing go much faster. Before you start writing, make sure you:

  1. Fully understand the reasons why you are bidding. Each bid decision should start off as a "no bid" by default. Most companies are the opposite, and as a result, most companies have a win rate under 50%. Sometimes under 10%. When you start at "no bid" the burden of proof is on those who want to bid. This requires them to articulate strong reasons why your company can win. This discussion provides information that proposal writers need in order to explain your strengths and overcome your weaknesses.
  2. Make contact with the customer. Ideally you should have a relationship with the customer. But sometimes it makes sense to bid on something you found out about when the RFP was released. But even then, you should at least make contact with the customer. You might not learn anything, but then again you might. Usually people are unable to get the customer to respond. But I have seen this work and a single call provide information that made the difference between winning and losing. It's well worth the cost of an attempt. And you’ll be more than a document to the customer. You'll be a company that is interested in them and willing to put some effort into getting to know them. Don’t bid without attempting to make contact.
  3. Maximize your information advantage. Gather what you know about the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment. Assess the information and convert it into conclusions you want the customer to reach, differentiation strategies, things that matter, and details to include in your response. Put special emphasis on what you know that your competitors might not know. Make sure that every part of your proposal shows the customer that you know more than what was in the RFP. Proposal writing shouldn't start until you know what points you want to make, so that the act of proposal writing becomes proving those points. You can't write the proposal and do this in a second pass.
  4. Be able to explain how the customer’s evaluation process will impact what you need to write. If they included their evaluation criteria in the RFP, how does that impact what you say and how you say it? What does it tell you about the process the customer will go through in evaluating the proposals? Can you anticipate what their evaluation forms will look like? What should you say throughout your proposal that will help them evaluate your proposal so that you earn the highest score? Your proposal should be based on the customer's evaluation process and not on what you feel like saying. You can't say what you want to say and then reorganize it effectively and you certainly can't do it without wasting a lot of time. So consider the evaluation process before you start proposal writing.
  5. Demonstrate that you understand what it will take to win. What would the winning proposal say? Do you know? You need to figure this out before you start proposal writing, even if you have to make it up based on assumptions. You can't write a proposal where every sentence is based on what it will take to win by starting with the basics and then going back and improving what you said. If you start proposal writing trying to discover what it will take to win you likely won't, and even if you do, you'll have to rewrite everything when you do. You are much better off figuring this out before you start writing.
  6. Be able to explain what the customer is going to get from what you are offering. The customer wants more than something that meets the specifications. They want their goals fulfilled. So beyond the specifications, what is the customer going to get as a result of what you are proposing? How does every sentence you write relate to what the customer is going to get? Don't start proposal writing based on what you are going to do, start writing already knowing and being able to articulate what the customer is going to get.
  7. Be able to articulate the reasons why your proposal is the best alternative for the customer. The customer always has alternatives, even if it’s to do nothing. So why is what you are proposing their best alternative? Is that enough to motivate them to take action? Every single sentence in your proposal should be part of the explanation for why the customer should select you.
  8. Be able to explain why your offering matters. It is not enough to give the customer what they asked for. You need to make it matter to them. So what is important about your offering? Why is that important to the customer? What do they get out of it? Every single sentence in your proposal should say something vital or get deleted.
  9. Identify and make decisions regarding each of the trade-offs involved. There are always trade-offs to be made in deciding what to offer the customer. So which trade-offs will you make (i.e., speed, quality, cost) and why? Being able to explain why you made the trade-offs you did is critical. Sometimes being able to explain "why" is more important than being able to explain "what" you are offering. Knowing this up front enables you to write something that explains what matters and why you are the customer's best alternative, instead of simply describing what you will do. When you work through this before you start proposal writing, it becomes a competitive advantage.
  10. Practice articulating it all from the customer’s point of view. You don’t want to describe what you are proposing, even if the RFP asks for a "description" of your approach. Instead you want to show the customer what they are going to get as a result of what you propose and why that matters. Describing what you propose or are going to do makes the proposal about you. Showing what the customer will get and why makes it all about them. The only reason they will read your proposal will be to see what they are going to get. So avoid using language that's merely descriptive and instead focus on what they need to see in order to accept your proposal as their best alternative.

As a proposal writer, think about what it will take to fix things later if you skip any one of these. Imagine all the changes that you would need to make throughout your proposal to address something you skipped. How many cycles of re-writing would each skipped item cause? How much extra time will it take? How badly would that impact your win probability compared to getting it right from the beginning? That is why you need to make sure that you can do each of them before you start proposal writing.

If you do your homework and think through these things before you start writing, then the act of writing will go quickly and smoothly. Better yet, what you will write will stand a much better chance of winning.

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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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