Hiring a great proposal writer means going past the interview and recognizing great proposal writing and the skills that produce it.
Many well-spoken candidates for proposal writing jobs who give a great interview often end up being ordinary writers. Many, if not most, highly experienced proposal professionals are ordinary writers — it’s the law of averages at work. This is even true of consultants who are proposal writers for hire. However, if you want to win you don't want to hire the middle of the bell curve. How do you pick a great proposal writer?
What doesn't work
You can’t pick a great proposal writer simply by interviewing them. From an interview you can find out whether they are process oriented, what they focus on, and how they approach writing. But you can’t find out what they’ll put on paper if they get the job. I've seen many people who can describe the proposal process in extraordinary detail write ordinary copy for the proposals they work on.
Unfortunately, if you ask the candidate to see samples, you won’t be able to rely on them. Most proposal copy is written by a collaboration of authors. So how much of what you’re reading is the contribution of the candidate?
You could ask them to write something as part of the interview. The problem with this is that great proposal writing is based on customer, opportunity, and competitive insight. It also takes time. What you’ll get from writing during an interview will have no context, and context is what makes great proposal writing.
If you ask the candidate about their win rate, you'll get a number that can't be trusted, even if they're being honest. How much does one person contribute to the win rate? Besides, everyone who quotes a win rate self edits which pursuits they include. Ask yourself what your win rate is, and watch yourself do it. Did you count the ones you led, the ones you contributed to, or the one that lost on price?
Coming up with a solution
A while back, one of the subscribers to PropLIBRARY asked us if we had an assessment tool they could use to evaluate candidates for a proposal writing job. We were skeptical at first, but then we had a couple of ideas and managed to come up with something.
What we created has a few different options, ranging from an editing exercise to a writing exercise with the context supplied. With each different scenario, we expect the writer to ask questions. In fact, the starting points were designed to trigger questions, because which questions the candidate focuses on tells you a great deal about them. This makes it part of the interview. You get to interact with the candidate the same way you would on a proposal.
For example, you should be able to discover if the candidate’s first inclination is to focus on proofreading, pursuit strategy, RFP compliance, the overall message, or the technical details of the offering. Depending on the nature of the position, you’ll probably have a preference, and the assessment tool is designed to help determine whether the candidate is a match for the kind of proposal writer you are looking for.
It's also helpful to see the kinds of changes they make to something already written. Instead of giving them a blank page, we made it more like the real world, with some material to start with. Which things they choose to change (and which they don’t), along with what they do to improve them, also tells you a great deal about what they would actually contribute to your proposals.
If you want someone who is going to focus on the editing and make what you’ve written grammatically correct it will show. If you want someone who is going to question the bid strategies, it will show. If you want someone who will accept whatever's been written and just edit it, it will show. If you want someone who’s going to question why you’re saying it in text and not turning it into a graphic, it will show. If you want someone who can work independently and do it all, that will show too.
Then to make it easier to do the assessment itself, we went through the sample, and marked a couple dozen things that a candidate might change and why. We annotated the examples and exercises to prompt you with things to explore and help you interpret the results. The goal isn’t to see if the candidate “catches everything.” The goal is to see what kinds of things they focus on.
You will find out more about a person’s writing ability in 20 minutes using this approach than you will if you spend 200 minutes talking to them.
Do-it-yourself or off-the-shelf?
Our proposal specialist assessment tool is only accessible for PropLIBRARY Subscribers. If you are a subscriber, you can download the assessment tool here. But we’ve told you enough about our approach that if you are a “do it yourself” kind of person, you can create your own assessment tool. We’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s better to download ours and put it to work immediately, or spend time creating your own.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.