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9 examples of using instructions to guide a team of people to write a great proposal

It is impossible to achieve a great proposal with contributions that are merely good

Different people bring different perspectives to a proposal, both good and bad. They also bring different skill levels. Unfortunately, it is impossible to achieve a great proposal with contributions that are merely good. Or worse. It takes more than trying really hard to get good people to produce a great proposal. And yet, working with a team is the only way to create proposals larger than yourself.

The only way to achieve a great proposal with a team of people is to design a great proposal, guide people through how to build it, and then verify that is what they accomplished. A design requires specifications. Specifications require knowing what to specify. But where most proposals fail is in the guidance. Assignments are given, but no guidance is provided until a draft is completed. On top of this, most proposal reviews are not based on any specifications other than the RFP and are not in synch with any guidance that is provided. This is not a path to greatness.

Instead of proposal design specifications and construction guidance, it might be easier to think of them both as simply “instructions.” The instructions that you give the writers, and how well you validate that they were followed, determines whether you can achieve a great proposal using a team of people of mixed skill levels. 

We created a methodology called Proposal Content Planning that we use to create a container that you put your instructions into and ensure that nothing gets overlooked. What it really does is give you a way to ensure that all those great ideas you have about what should go into a great proposal actually make it onto paper, and it does it in a way that supports Proposal Quality Validation. Proposal Content Planning is a structured way to create instructions for proposal writers. 

The purpose of this article is not to describe the Proposal Content Planning methodology in detail. It’s to show how delivering the right instructions to proposal writers can help a team of people with mixed backgrounds achieve a great proposal.

Here are 9 examples of how instructions can help you get past intent and put the right words on paper:

See also:
  1. Best practices. Writing from the customer’s perspective is an example of a proposal best practice. Specifying in the instructions that something should be written from the customer's perspective not only prompts the writer to do it, but compliance with the instructions can be validated to ensure it happens. Every recommendation that we’ve ever provided on PropLIBRARY can be turned into an instruction this way.
  2. Follow the formula. There are many formulations you can use to help you construct your proposal. One involves using who, what, where, how, when, and why. Another involves passing the “So what?” test. There are many variations on features and benefits that add details like proof or risk mitigation. Whenever you want a formula to actually be followed, you can turn it into an instruction, put it into a Proposal Content Plan, and validate that it was followed.
  3. Reminders. Want the first sentence of every section to focus on what the customer will get? Try reminding your writers. The odds of it happening without a reminder may be pretty low. Do you have an internal procedure to be followed? Insert a reminder for that. All those ideas about what should go into the proposal that often get left behind in discussion? Reminders are how you can make sure they get onto paper.
  4. Graphics. Want people to use more graphics in your proposals? Try reminding them. Or better yet, point out where the subject matter lends itself to creating a graphic. The best way would be to give proposal writers the graphic and have them explain it. But you don't have to be able to draw the graphic to know that a process should be illustrated, a relationship visualized, or a set of related items turned into a table. A simple instruction for the writer can make it happen.
  5. Inspiration. Inspiration can help people get past the fear of a blank page. Inspiration can help people raise an ordinary descriptive response to higher levels of greatness. Inspiration also works when you don’t know the answers, but you can ask intelligent questions that can inspire the writers with things to consider. The Proposal Recipes in PropLIBRARY are designed to do just that. But you can use the same technique and incorporate considerations that are unique to your organization.
  6. Standards and preferences. While I’ve never made it a priority, some people believe that you should never use the word "will" in a proposal. Some people have other editorial preferences. If you have a corporate or other standard, or just a particular way you’d prefer to have things presented, you can turn it into a Proposal Content Plan instruction.
  7. Strategic plans and positioning. If your company is serious about strategic planning, it should flow down into how you position the company in your proposals. An instruction to the proposal writers is a good way to implement this.
  8. Customer, opportunity, and competitive intel. When the staff who have customer contact don’t participate in proposal writing, what the company collectively knows about the customer’s culture and preferences often never makes it onto paper. Instructions can act as an intermediary, providing a place to record intelligence but tasking the writers with figuring out how to articulate what needs to be said. 
  9. What it will take to win. Discover it. Explore it. Explain it. Explain how it impacts this section. Guide the writers on how to respond to the requirements while incorporating what you know about what it will take to win.

If it’s just you doing the proposal, you are probably so smart that you can keep all this in your head without notes and write the proposal perfectly on the first draft. But as soon as others get involved, the proposal will settle into an average that is somewhat less than great. You can talk with them for hours and hash everything out. But the minute they leave the discussion, what makes it onto paper will be something less. This is where most companies start discussing it again. And they go over and over the same topics and the same issues. Then they submit whatever they’ve got at the deadline.

Converting those discussions to instructions, preferably right there in the meeting, puts them on paper. This saves time by bringing resolution to circular discussions. But most importantly it gives you something to compare the draft to. When the draft is written, you can see whether it reflects everything that it was supposed to. This greatly improves the quality of your proposal reviews and establishes traceability from the draft all the way back to what you discovered about what it will take to win.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

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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