5 Best Practices to Improve Your Proposal Writing
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. Well-crafted proposals will highlight your message and make it easy for the evaluator to follow our proposal’s logic and main points. 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 help highlight your key messages and make your writing easier to score, map RFP requirements into your headings; make key selling points stand out with theme statements, feature and benefit tables, and callout boxes; break up the text so it’s more digestible; substantiate all claims and quantify where possible; and focus on the customer.
Map the RFP Requirements into Your Headings
Compliance is the first thing evaluators will look for. To make compliance clear, structure your response to the proposal instructions and the evaluation criteria. Next map to other requirements, as required. For example, in technical sections, it may be necessary to map to certain Statement of Work (SOW) or Performance Work Statement (PWS). To facilitate the evaluation further, include relevant Request for Proposal (RFP) references in your section heading titles (e.g., 2.0 Staffing Approach [L.2, M.2, C.3.1]). This will make it easier for the evaluators to find the requirements they’re looking for on their scoresheet.
Make Key Selling Points Stand Out
Another key proposal writing best practice is to make your key selling points stand out using theme statements with unique text, call-out boxes that stand out, feature and benefit tables that highlight strengths, and action captions that highlight the key takeaways of associated graphics. This will help the evaluators visually locate the key strengths of your approach and the resulting benefits so that they can more easily transfer those items to their scoresheets.
Theme Statements. Theme statements set the stage for the section and grab the evaluator’s attention because they address an issue that is important to the customer. The ideal theme statement not only presents a solution feature that addresses a customer hot button, it also articulates clear, quantified benefits. I recommend including a theme statement for every first-level section and second-level subsection and formatting those themes to stand out from the rest of the text. If you theme effectively, the theme statements will show up as identified strengths in the evaluation debrief from the customer.
Feature Benefit Tables. Feature and benefit tables are another great way to help evaluators find proposal strengths. Similar to theme statements, feature and benefit tables highlight major solution features—which ideally address customer hot buttons—and articulate clear, quantified benefits. Typically, customers want things cheaper, faster, and/or better, which you might express as low cost, low risk, high quality, efficient, and/or effective. Use feature and benefit tables in each major section introduction to highlight the key elements of your approach. This could be every first-level section for shorter proposals but may be extended to each second-level subsection for longer proposals.
Callout Boxes. Using callout boxes will help your major proof points stand out for the evaluators. To make proof points even more effective, make sure to provide the “so what?” statement. For example, it’s not enough simply to state:
We have used our proven staffing process to staff programs with 3-, 7- and 14-day turnaround times, including the MNOP program, where we staffed 15 FTEs in two weeks.
Ask yourself, “So what? What does this mean for my customer?” This might prompt you to add:
Leveraging this staffing process, we provide Customer ABC with low-risk task order start-up and delivery for large, small, short-term, and long-term requirements.
Action Captions. Action captions help the reader understand the meaning of the graphic and serve to sell the approach. They are another great way to highlight the strengths of your approach. Action captions should include a key feature and customer benefit that are highlighted in the graphic.
Break Up Text with Graphics
Graphics are key to effective proposal writing and consist of visuals such as: charts, drawings, maps, photographs, tables, and callout boxes. If used correctly, graphics are compelling, easy to understand, informative, and help to communicate your message faster and more clearly than words alone. Research shows that readers recall about 10 percent of what they read only, whereas they recall nearly 70 percent of what they both read and see. Graphics can help evaluators to easily read data, understand processes, and identify patterns or potential opportunities. Graphics also serve to visually break up the text and make the narrative more digestible for the evaluators. If used properly, graphics can help you to more effectively communicate information as well as save space since they typically also receive some font size relief.
Substantiate All Claims and Quantify
To further strengthen your message, you 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,” use quantified metrics instead. For example, rather than writing, “ABC consistently received high award fees,” you might write, “ABC consistently received award fee scores between 90 and 95 percent.” By adding proof statements as evidence and backing up your claims with facts and figures, you provide the necessary proof to validate our solution with the evaluator. Quantifying your substantiation points can make your content even more credible. However, take care not to be too specific: 20% will be perceived with more confidence than 22.4%, which may raise questions of validity.
Focus on the Customer
When we write proposals, we tend to tout our team and our solution. We tell the customer how great we are and describe the terrific solution we are delivering. However, this is not a customer-focused approach. Instead, proposals should be about how the customer’s needs are met by our solution and the benefits the customer receives. Bottom line: the focus should be on the customer, not us.
Put Them First—Literally. One of the easiest ways to make your 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, you shift the focus onto what the customer is receiving rather than what you are delivering.
Use Their Name More Than Yours. Another easy way to make your proposal content more customer focused is to use the customer’s name more frequently than your company or team name. Try this quick test. Hit Ctrl-F and search for the number of times you mention your company and/or team name. Then search for the number of times you mention the customer’s name. You should aim to mention the customer’s name more times than yours. If you find that you have mentioned the customer far less frequently, revise your text to focus more on the customer and the benefits they will receive by choosing your solution.
Speak Their Language. Be sure to use the customer’s terminology and lexicon in your proposal to gain their confidence. By knowing your customer and speaking their language, you demonstrate that you understand them and begin to establish trust. What’s more, your customer evaluators often do key word searches to find what’s important to them in your proposal. Make sure all sections include key words from the instructions, evaluation criteria, and the SOW/PWS.
Poorly-written proposals can obscure your message and make it difficult for evaluators to follow your proposal’s logic and main points. If we’re sloppy and careless in our proposal presentation, the customer can only assume that you will be similarly careless and sloppy in your contract delivery. Following these proposal best practices can help you to present our ideas clearly and comprehensively, in a way that can be easily understood and scored by the evaluators. In addition to making your proposal easier to score, strong writing can contribute to your company’s credibility in the eyes of the evaluator—which can certainly help improve your chances of winning overall.
Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)LinkedIn