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17 tips for doing proposals all by yourself

When it’s just you and you have no help

When you are alone you have to work within your own limitations. What you know is all you know.  What you can write is all that’s going into the proposal. What you can do before the deadline defines your standard of quality. It’s not about winning or creating a great proposal. It’s about whether you can complete the proposal at all. Here are some tips that won’t help you win, but they might help you get your proposals submitted.

See also:
Dealing with adversity
  1. What is the minimally viable proposal submission? The gap between the minimally viable proposal submission and a great proposal is a concern for another day. Right now, you have to focus on the gaps between where you are and what constitutes the minimally viable submission. The minimally viable proposal submission is usually whatever won’t get your proposal thrown out.
  2. Perform triage. Only try to save the ones that can survive, because trying to save them all will only result in greater loss. Use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs applied to proposals to help you make decisions about priorities.
  3. Focus on filling your gaps. Since you’re on your own, you have no one to write the missing pieces. It’s just you and Google. You may have to cheat. You may have to do the proposal The Wrong Way. Yeah, it’s ugly. But it may be all you’ve got to work with...
    • Write to what a customer like this one might want instead of what you know this customer wants.
    • Describe what goes into your plans instead of providing an actual plan.
    • Avoid commitment.
    • Use numbers that aren’t precise. Think “more than” or “almost.”
  4. Streamline the formatting. Don’t use elaborate formats. Minimize keystrokes and clicks. Go for simple elegance instead of a work of art. Make sure the formatting is within your skill set.
  5. If you don’t have any win strategies, differentiators, value proposition, and reasons for the customer to select you to work with, then base them on what it will take to win. If you can’t be great and prove it, then simply be what the customer wants.
  6. Who, what, where, how, when, and why. Repeat that until you’ve got it memorized. Then whenever you need more detail, answer the ones you can. If you need an approach for something and you have no idea what it should be, you can talk all around it by addressing who, what, where, how, when, and why.
  7. Be prepared to do less. Peel it back like an onion. Do only the things that impact winning the most. And if that fails, do only the things needed for a minimally viable submission. Everything is a trade-off. Make your trade-off decisions based on what requires the least effort. Go up a level in granularity.
  8. Make this proposal a learning experience for your stakeholders. If this proposal isn’t going to be great, can you use it as a demonstration so things go better on the next one?
  9. Separate what changes from what doesn’t. Don’t mix the details that don’t change with the win strategies and customer insights that have to be tailored every time. 
  10. Use a question and answer format, even when they don’t ask for it. You can organize reuse material around questions and answers. Questions and answers already make a point and have a defined context, reducing the editing required. Questions and answers stand alone and lend themselves to being interchangeable parts. 
  11. If you find you’re working on proposals that don’t have a chance of winning, identify the criteria that can be used to decide when not to bid a pursuit. Complaining about having to work on low probability pursuits sounds like resistance. But providing a set of lead qualification criteria is something that people can take action on.
  12. Avoid using names. It waters things down, but the more you can avoid using customer, company, personnel and other names, the less editing you’ll have to do. For example, try to refer to people by their role.
  13. Be a big picture thinker. When you don’t even know the details, stick to the big picture. Avoid procedures and specifications. Embrace missions, goals, and intentions.
  14. Rely on what you do know. If all you know are your company’s qualifications, then make everything about them. 
  15. Have research tools handy. Invest in relevant textbooks. Get a bookmark tool for your web browser. 
  16. Make some friends. Why are you alone?
  17. Learn the language of return on investment. How much would your win rate need to increase to pay for some help? If you don’t know the numbers, learn them. The odds are that a small increase in win rate will more than pay for the help you need.  I’ve talked to companies that bid everything they could find and had win rates as low as 7%. At 15% they’d double their revenue. It would be like doubling the number of leads they have. What would they invest to double the number of leads they have? That’s what they should be investing in improving their win rate. They need you to quantify and explain it to them. 

Note to companies reading this: If you don’t want your proposals written like this, don’t leave people alone. Get them the information they need. Every once in a while, give them a little help. If you see these things in your proposals, it’s a good indicator you’ve overloaded your staff, those who know the details aren’t providing them, or no one knows the details.

Note to proposal staff: If you’re doing these things because you didn’t know any better, change now.

If you understand the relationship between win rate, lead identification, and revenue, you’ll never let this happen. But we see it all the time. If you find yourself here and don’t know how to escape, reach out. We can help.

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, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a 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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