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Should you start your proposals from a draft or are there better ways?

11 things to consider before assuming it will be easier to start from a draft and a bunch of alternatives to try

There is a big temptation on proposals to get words on paper. The problem is that having too many words on paper too quickly becomes a problem when they are not the right words. The right words are very specific because a proposal doesn’t win by chance. Your proposal wins when the evaluators see what they need to give your proposal the top score. And that requires they see the reasons why your proposal is their best alternative. And that requires differentiation. And it requires RFP compliance. And that requires following the instructions and using the terminology of the RFP. And what one customer perceives as the most advantageous is different from what another customer will want to see. Add it all up and the words you need to win one proposal can be very different from the words you need to win the next proposal, even though the kind of services requested may be the same.

So here are 11 key issues where you can see this in action. Most of them include alternatives that work better than starting from a draft proposal for addressing that topic. Before you start proposal writing, ask yourself:

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  1. What points do I need to make? Does your draft make the right points? Rewriting to change context like that can take more time than writing something that makes the right points. Be very, very careful about inheriting points of emphasis from past proposals because they could be all wrong for the new proposal. On any given topic, having a list of the points you might want to make, organized by their circumstances (Are you the incumbent? Is the customer seeking innovation or risk averse?) is often more useful than something previously written in a context that is not applicable to the new customer.
  2. What do I need to say to get the top evaluation score? If the old evaluation criteria emphasized experience, but the new evaluation criteria emphasize staffing or something else, you may have a similar problem. Every approach and every benefit needs to add up to the top score for this RFP. The start of every proposal should include strategies for obtaining the highest score and those strategies should be turned into quality criteria for proposal writers.
  3. What do I need to say to establish RFP compliance? When the words in the RFP are different, the words in the proposal need to change, even if you’re talking about the same topic. What you might think of as “the same work” will need to be described differently to be considered compliant. A change of sequence here, different terminology there, and a slight change in priority and you’ve got major rewriting to do to turn your draft into what it needs to be.
  4. What are our company’s strengths?  The strengths you present should focus on what matters to the customer and getting the top evaluation score. The strengths in your draft might sound good in a generic kind of way, but are they the right strengths to feature in this proposal? How much will need to change as a result? Don’t just throw beneficial sounding strengths at the customer hoping something sticks. Hope is not a strategy for consistently winning. Like the points you need to make, having a nice long list of your corporate strengths with proof points can be very handy and improve your proposals. It’s much better than having to dig through pages of text to find them.
  5. How can we differentiate ourselves? Differentiation is critical for successful proposals. However, the way you differentiate should reflect the new customer’s preferences. If the previous draft was built around differentiators that mattered to the previous customer, they may not be effective for this proposal. Changing differentiators can change your entire proposal strategy and the context that everything is written in. Positioning strategies and differentiators depend greatly on circumstances. You can take a similar approach for creating a reference list as described in the bullet list about the points you need to make. Sometimes your differentiators are the point.
  6. How can we prove it? Claims are lame and don’t get scored as strengths. Proof points are what you need for the customer to pay attention. Data-driven proof points are gold in a proposal. But researching and establishing a proof can be challenging. Having a list of common proof points with the data supporting them as a reference can be much more useful than a narrative that you have to extensively edit and where the proof points might not be optimized for this bid.
  7. What is the best that we can offer? What was offered in your previous proposal should have been based on the RFP requirements, evaluation criteria, and competitive environment. All three of those may have changed. Is what you wrote last time what you need to win this proposal? Is it sufficiently strong and differentiated enough to achieve a higher score against these evaluation criteria than any of your competitors? Do you need to improve on it? Do you need to reengineer your solution? And how does that impact the writing?
  8. How should we position ourselves against the competition? For some companies, the competition is always the same group of companies. But if your company offers a wide variety of services, then your competitors may change from bid to bid. And if you are attacking an incumbent, that company will likely be different from the last time. When the competition is different, your competitive positioning should change. This impacts the language you use to describe the benefits of your approaches and the reasons why you do things. And this can be woven throughout your paragraphs making it difficult to change. 
  9. What matters? What mattered about the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment for the last proposal? What matters for this one? How much does the draft need to be changed to reflect what matters?
  10. What is the customer’s perspective and what do they expect? Different customers have different expectations. Some are formal, some are informal. Some are centralized, some are decentralized. Some are authoritarian and some are consensus driven. Some are innovative and some are risk averse. Some are specific and some are flexible. These differences affect what they expect from contractors when they evaluate the proposals submitted. The perspective your last customer had could be very different from the next. Is the draft written with the right perspective and does it fulfill the right expectations? 
  11. What trade-offs were made? Every proposal involves countless trade-offs. But the trade-offs made for one set of customer preferences and circumstances could be very different. And it may not be obvious when reading the previous proposal what trade-offs were made or why they were made that way.

It’s easy for proposal specialists to want to make everything a document. However, consider putting this information in PowerPoint, Excel, or something like Microsoft OneNote instead. For lists and ad hoc fragments, these can sometimes be easier to maintain and browse.

The most challenging part of trying to tailor a draft is that it can be difficult to recognize which language was originally put in to ghost the competition, which was put it to optimize the score against the previous RFP, which was put in because it mattered to that particular customer, etc. If it sounds beneficial, your proposal writers might not refocus and tailor it, leaving you with a proposal optimized for the wrong customer and lowering your probability of winning.

But the key question will be “How much does the draft need to change in order to become what is needed?” What I often see is that more words will change than will be left alone. And the effort it takes to change that many words through multiple change cycles ends up being more than the effort to write it correctly the first time. In fact, most proposals run out of time before they discover what it will take to win. 

To break the endless writing and rewriting cycles, you should start by defining what it will take to win and measure everything against it. Build your proposal around it. That’s the primary goal of the MustWin Process on PropLIBRARY. Whether you start from a draft, read a draft and use it for inspiration without recycling the text, or create focused lists of differentiators, proof points, etc., for inspiration, you should always be comparing the language to what it will take to win this pursuit.
 

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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.

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