Pushing a proposal from good to great
I love writing proposals. Like true, true love it. I really have a hard time expressing just how much I love crafting the perfect response. It has to be clear and crisp and on message and every inch of space counts. After more than a decade writing these beasts, I’ve gotten pretty good at it too.
Over the past year, as I’ve focused a bit more on what I could do to build internal business development teams, rather than just coming in to put out fires, one of the areas folks always mention is helping their technical writers to hone their skills. I’ve always believed that proposal writing is a skill set - and just because you know how to write one type of material does not immediately make you great at writing proposals.
In fact, it’s often the opposite. So many of us come up through liberal arts programs, we’ve perfected the art of writing a research paper. But in many ways, a proposal is the opposite of a research paper. There is a need to craft a strong argument - as in a good research paper - but there is more of a focus on responsiveness. Checking the boxes not just to check the boxes, but also to make a clear sale of your programmatic approach. These skills can be developed over time.
That’s why today I thought I would highlight just a few elements that can help push your proposal writing from good to great.
Know the customer issues, motivators and hot buttons
Going into a proposal, there’s nothing more important than already understanding your target audience. If you didn’t have a capture team in place, don’t worry! (I mean, worry a little bit - especially if you know your competitors have been working on this bid for a long time.) Take some time to collect as much information as possible about the customer (aka donor or sponsor). Gather what you can about what issues they care about, what motivations they might be hiding, what their hot button issues.
The best teams go beyond talking about the “customer” as a monolith. Your customer is made up of more than one individual person, and your analysis should reflect that as much as possible. Maybe their head office has one set of priorities and concerns while their local branch office has different issues. If you know the individual people on a review panel, you can tailor a proposal to specifically respond to their interest areas. Knowing this can help you speak beyond the solicitation requirements and use every element to your advantage.
Outline to perfection
I won’t say too much about this, as I’ve written extensively on the subject in the past. Suffice it to say, you’ll have a more responsive and clear proposal if it is well outlined. You’ll also save yourself a ton of time in editing if you already are clear on page lengths for each sub-section and understand exactly what each piece requires.
Beyond the value of outlining for its overall benefits, a clear proposal structure has the added benefit of helping your reader know what to expect. Following a general sequence for each section can make it straightforward for them to find specific content. A simple outline for each section could begin with a simple problem statement, followed by evidence to substantiate those claims, a brief approach to address any weaknesses (or areas that your customer may perceive as weaknesses in your approach), and a summary of key content.
Lead your reader to conclusions
Finally, one of the most helpful tools I’ve developed over the years is the ability to align arguments and build to conclusions. Every solution or feature of your programmatic or management approach should be in response to a challenge identified earlier in the proposal.
For example, if you are planning to highlight how your management approach is designed to be flexible to respond to changing operating environments, earlier in the proposal it would be helpful if you explain why this is needed. Use the problem analysis to describe how the operating environment has changed rapidly in the past. Use your past performance information to articulate how your management approach responded to a changing operational environment in a past project. Connecting these dots for your reader reinforces that you’ve thought through every facet of your approach.
On the opposite end, try as hard as possible not to introduce problems or complications that your project won’t do anything to address. A whole section on how lack of jobs for youth has led to insecurity is of absolutely no value if your proposal does nothing to address jobs or youth or insecurity. This shows up in a more neutral way as well. I’ve seen so many proposals throw random details into a background or context section - like the demographics of a specific population - but if that detail doesn’t support your argument, there is no reason to include it.
After ten years of writing proposals, I can still say that some of these things are easier said than done. In order to accomplish this kind of compelling work, a proposal writer needs a lot of support and information. Whether its from a capture team developing a clear understanding of the customer needs, or from a technical design team articulating why certain approaches are necessary, a proposal writer cannot be treated like an island.
But hopefully, regardless of what support they have in place, any proposal writer can do a better job with just a bit of practice.