Six Best Practices for Proposal Writing Success
Writing is such a critical component of the proposal process. Because writing for proposals is different than most other writing, it is important to understand how to craft proposal narrative that will resonate and score well with the evaluators. For example, poorly written proposals can obscure our message and make it difficult for the evaluator to follow our proposal’s logic and main points. If we are sloppy and careless in our proposal presentation, the customer can only assume that we will be similarly careless and sloppy in our contract delivery. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to develop well-written, well-structured proposal responses tailored to the customer and the evaluators. To support this endeavor, it is helpful to follow common proposal best practices, including writing to the evaluators and putting the customer first, using the Request for Proposal (RFP) language, substantiating claims and quantify where possible, articulating the customer benefits, and avoiding incorrect words.
Write to the Evaluators
When writing proposals, we need to present the information in a way that is easy for evaluators to score. Understand that most evaluators do not volunteer for the job and do not particularly enjoy it. It takes time away from their regular job, so they want to get it over with as quickly as possible. Therefore, we should aim to make the evaluator’s job as easy as possible. One easy way to do this is to structure our response to the proposal instructions and evaluation criteria; then map in other requirements as necessary. To further facilitate evaluation, we should include relevant RFP references in our section heading titles; this helps evaluators understand the logic of our organization and map our responses back to their evaluation scoresheet.
It’s also important to remember not to omit information because we think the evaluators already know it. Evaluators are bound by law to use only the information contained in the proposal for their evaluation. The one exception to this may be past performance information, where the Government usually reserves the right to investigate the quality of our performance through CPARS, PPIRS, and other Government systems.
Put the Customer First
In addition to writing to evaluators and making our content easy to follow and score, it’s important for our content to be customer focused. Two key signs that our proposal writing lacks customer perspective include: (1) the proposal mentions our company or team name more than the customer’s name; (2) the proposal is about our company’s offer instead of the solution and benefits the customer will receive. A great proposal is about the customer and the benefits they receive from the proposed solution.
One of the easiest ways to make our proposal content more customer focused is to put them first—literally. Instead of saying, “Team ABC’s solution delivers a low-risk transition,” flip the construction and write, “Customer A receives a low-risk transition with our comprehensive transition approach.” The two sentences convey the same overall message, but by putting the customer first in the sentence, we shift the focus onto what the customer is receiving rather than what we are delivering.
Another easy way to make our proposal content more customer focused is to use the customer’s name more frequently than our company or team name. To validate whether we are doing so, we can try this quick test: hit Ctrl-F and search for the number of times we mention our company and/or team name; then search for the number of times we mention the customer’s name. We should aim to mention the customer’s name more times than ours. If we find that we have mentioned the customer far less frequently, we should revise our text to focus more on the customer and the benefits they will receive by choosing our solution.
Use RFP Language
We should also strive to use the language in the RFP to make the evaluation easier. For example, if the RFP asks for a Program Manager, we should use the title, Program Manager, not Project Manager. We should also strive to use the customer’s terminology and lexicon in our proposal to gain the customer’s confidence. By knowing our customer and speaking their language, we demonstrate that we understand them, and we begin to establish trust. What’s more, our customer evaluators often do key word searches to find what’s important to them in our proposals. To support them in this endeavor, we should make sure all sections include key words from the instructions, evaluation criteria, and the Statement of Work (SOW).
Substantiate Claims and Quantify Where Possible
We should also aim to substantiate all claims, quantifying where possible. Unsubstantiated claims negate the credibility of the proposal response. Instead using empty words such as “high,” “numerous,” and “highly reliable,” we’ll want to use quantified metrics instead. For example, rather than writing, “ABC consistently received high award fees,” we might write, “ABC consistently received award fee scores between 90 and 95 percent.” By adding proof statements as evidence and backing up our claims with facts and figures, we provide the necessary proof to validate our solution with the evaluator. Quantifying our substantiation points can make our content even more credible. However, we should take care not to be too specific: 20% will be perceived with more confidence than 22.4%, which may raise questions of validity.
Articulate Customer Benefits
Benefits tell the customer why they should care about our solution or its features; they articulate the “so what?” Benefits are almost always in terms of reduces cost, reduced risk, increased quality, increased efficiency, increased effectiveness, or expedited timeline. But, it’s critical to remember that benefits should be things that the customer cares about. For example, if the customer doesn’t care whether the transition is completed in five weeks or six weeks, then expedited timeline is not a benefit to that customer.
Avoid Incorrect Words
When we’re typing fast and in a rush, it’s easy to use a homonym instead of the word that we really mean. Homonyms are words that that sound alike but have different meanings. Using the incorrect word can jar evaluators, discredit our response, and distract the evaluators from our intended message. Therefore, it’s critical to go through our proposals and check for commonly misused words. Adding commonly misused words to our Wall of Truth and final editing checklist can help ensure we’re the using the words we mean to use.
Poorly-written proposals can obscure our message and make it difficult for evaluators to follow our proposal’s logic and main points. If we’re sloppy and careless in our proposal presentation, the customer can only assume that we will be similarly careless and sloppy in our contract delivery. Following these proposal best practices can help us to present our ideas clearly and comprehensively, in a way that can be easily understood and scored by the evaluators. In addition to making our proposal easier to score, strong writing can contribute to our company’s credibility in the eyes of the evaluator—which can certainly help improve our chances of winning overall.
Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)