Which words are (still) killing your best proposals?

Which words are (still) killing your best proposals?

Winning bids contain clear, concise language. They are easy to review, they are credible. Credibility comes in many forms. One of the easiest ways to sabotage an otherwise strong bid proposal is to use wordy language, peppered with clichés and trite phrases.

During 2011, we used VisibleThread to scan more than 120 separate bids (yes, we’ve been counting). The scanned bids included RFPs (Request for Proposal), Task Orders and commercial RFIs (Request for Information). We scanned bid responses from some of the largest integrators around the beltway, and smaller 8A companies too.

I spoke on Fed News Radio in March about the results we were seeing. I spoke again in October at the APMP NCA (Association of Proposal Management Professionals – National Capital Area) chapter conference with updated statistics. You should grab the full slide deck here which covers examples and metrics on our findings.


Despite this, we continued to see technically competent, well-priced bids, shot in the foot due to poor language.

So in this post, I wanted to share some more real examples that will help highlight this issue. At the end of this post, you’ll see a full cliché checklist. Feel free to copy this for use on your own bids. I also wanted to outline why I think this is a difficult issue and what we can do about it. I address this towards the end of this post.

Some Examples

Let me give a couple of simple examples from one Task Order.

Example 1

The following text appeared in section 1 of a technical volume, immediately following the table of contents.

“Our team is diverse with expertise in IT support unmatched by other small business consortiums.”

Introductory sections are read first. From the reviewer’s point of view, these summary areas set the tone for the rest of the response. You are basically saying upfront; I am responding to your need by using fluffy and marketing language. I will not bore you with actual facts to back up my claims.

So in this example, we claim that our company XXX is ‘unmatched’ in some capacity.

Put yourself in the reviewer’s position. If you saw this, what would you think? It is either not credible or lacks sufficient evidence. When VisibleThread encounters a term such as unmatched, it offers this guidance in the review report. I hope you see why it makes sense.

Likely a trite claim & ‘market-ese’, remove it, otherwise state the evidence and drop the ‘unmatched’ word. It simply comes across as not being credible.

As a side note, you may wonder why expertise is also flagged above in maroon color. VisibleThread flags this as a liability issue, as it is hard to defend. From a legal standpoint, it is easy to attack should an issue arise post bid win.

Example 2

In the same Task Order, the next paragraph contained:

“We demonstrate our diversity as a team by illuminating the fact that over seventy percent of Team XXX members are socio-economically disadvantaged companies.”

This long sentence needs to go on a diet. The first half of it is pure waste; the second half masks the real information. Try this instead:

“We are diverse because seventy percent of Team XXX members are socio-economically disadvantaged companies.”

This reduces the statement from 23 to 14 words. It emphasizes the metric. If this were a genuine color team review, I would go further and suggest this rewrite:

We are diverse because:

  • seventy percent of Team XXX members are socio-economically disadvantaged companies.
  • (2nd point that supports the claim)
  • (3rd point that supports the claim)

Lists drive concise responses. Secondly, lists are really easy to review. Our studies in website content analysis show that lists are way more effective way to communicate. Thirdly, lists put written text on a diet. Any fear of increasing page count is more than offset by a lowered word count.

I should point out that lists have an interesting side effect; they force you to group similar concepts and reduce repetition. This is a bigger subject than just this point. I’ll pen a separate post on this topic in the next while.

All told, lists are a good thing. Don’t be afraid to put them into your summary sections and emphasize metrics & numbers. You’ll be amazed at how better the result is.

Takeaways – why is it so hard?

Amid all the scans, what stood out was a continued problem with wordy and trite language in bids. I asked myself, why is it so hard?

The issue I think comes down to these points:

  1. Time Constraint: Who the heck has time to properly scrub a doc when trying to meet incredibly tight delivery deadlines?
  2. Review Process too late: If your process only allows for language review at red team review phase, then it’s invariably too late to fix amid all the other conflicting challenges.
  3. Editing Content is hard: In many organizations especially technical heavy ones, ‘fixing the language’ is considered almost easy and an afterthought. This viewpoint needs to change. Editing content out is a skilled task and takes time.
  4. Lack of Automation: If you try to scrub docs manually using search in word, it’s way too manual. You need some form of automated approach, be it MS Word macros or tooling designed for the job like VisibleThread.

Poor language kills bids, if reviews are left too close to the end, it is extremely hard to fix. So, we need to monitor the response using automation tools and eliminate language issues much earlier in the development cycle.

The full cliché Check List

So, I did promise I would share our list of ‘baddie’ words. Below you will find the full list we check for. It continues to expand. Let’s call time on the cliché in 2012!

Liability and Contract Risk Unsupportable claims superlatives overly inclusive unnecessarily negative firm guarantees not required in the T&Cs. If in your enthusiasm to secure the contract you inadvertently make a promise or guarantee that you can’t deliver on then you are exposed to legal action or re-negotiation at a later stage. Review all statements that may involve unprovable obligations or over the top assertions.
all encompassing Is this measurable? Re-phrase if so otherwise lose it.
anywhere Are you sure this applies ‘anywhere’? Look at what you’re saying and figure does it need re-phrasing? Are you open to attack?
as may be required Under what conditions? Very open-ended from a legal standpoint. Re-phrase
constantly Opens you to attack. Re-state this in measurable terms. If turnaround time state the time. If you cannot re-phrase this then lose it.
customary Very loose need stronger definition under what circumstances
each and every Re-state this in measurable terms. If you cannot re-phrase this then lose it. This phrase is often superfluous.
assure This implies a contractual obligation. What are you ensuring? Are you sure you can stand over it? Re-phrase this if possible.
ensure This implies a contractual obligation. What are you ensuring? Are you sure you can stand over it? Re-phrase this if possible.
insure Are you insuring something? Using the phrase in the right way? Look to re-phrase if not.
everywhere Are you sure this applies ‘everywhere’? Look at what you’re saying and figure does it need re-phrasing? Are you open to attack?
fastest Is this defined in a measurable way? Who/what are you comparing with?Need to re-phrase.
fully ‘Fully’ can become a guarantee that you may need to stand over. Are you sure the intent of this sentence/statement is the case under all circumstances? Consider re-phrasing.
greatest Is this defined in a measurable way? Need to re-phrase.
guarantee This implies a contractual obligation. What are you guaranteeing? Are you sure you can stand over it? Re-phrase this if possible.
lowest Is this defined in a measurable way? Who/what are you comparing with?Need to re-phrase.
highest Is this defined in a measurable way? Who/what are you comparing with?Need to re-phrase.
most Is this defined in a measurable way? Who/what are you comparing with?Need to re-phrase.
never ‘Never’ can become a guarantee that you may need to stand over. Are you sure the intent of this sentence/statement is the case under all circumstances? Consider re-phrasing.
reasonable and Is this defined in a measurable way? Who’s definition of reasonable? Need to re-phrase with a concrete notion and boundaries if possible.
reasonable Is this defined in a measurable way? Who’s definition of reasonable? Need to re-phrase with a concrete notion and boundaries if possible.
safest Is this defined in a measurable way? Who/what are you comparing with?Need to re-phrase.
expert Be careful of ‘expert’. In the context of personnel bios and resumes look to remove this. Re-phrase instead with evidence of expertise qualifications. It is rare that someone can be truly considered a world-expert. That person will be open to attack post bid-win in case of any issues.
expertise Be careful of ‘expertise’. In the context of personnel bios and resumes look to re-phrase instead with evidence of expertise qualifications. It is rare that someone can be truly considered a world-expert and that person will be open to attack post bid-win in case of any issues.
Cliches and Professionalism Trite statements and claims damage your professionalism. Review all statements and either put hard evidence from past bids to back up your claim or remove the superlatives.
seamless Comes across as marketing boilerplate. Damages credibility. Look to either drop or rephrase with evidence.
seam-less Comes across as marketing boilerplate. Damages credibility. Look to either drop or rephrase with evidence.
turnkey Comes across as marketing boilerplate. Damages credibility. Look to either drop or rephrase with benefit statement of what it is you are really looking to communicate.
turn-key Comes across as marketing boilerplate. Damages credibility. Look to either drop or rephrase with benefit statement of what it is you are really looking to communicate.
state of the art Comes across as market-ese. Damages credibility. Look to either drop or rephrase with benefit statement or measurable features. Rephrase.
state-of-the-art Comes across as market-ese. Damages credibility. Look to either drop or rephrase with benefit statement or measurable features. Rephrase.
uniquely qualified Can you back this up? rarely is somebody uniquely qualified state the actual achievements
unique Are you sure you are ‘unique’? Why? This comes across as trite & market-ese in many cases. Remove it & state the evidence that makes you or your offering unique.
uniquely Are you sure you are ‘uniquely’ doing something? Why? This comes across as trite & market-ese in many cases. Remove it & state the evidence that makes you or your offering unique.
unparalleled Likely a trite claim & market-ese remove it otherwise state the evidence and drop the ‘unparalleled’ word. It simply comes across as not being credible.
unmatched Likely a trite claim & market-ese remove it otherwise state the evidence and drop the ‘unmatched’ word. It simply comes across as not being credible.
enthusiastically Grovelling tone damages credibility. Rephrase. Just state the facts
best of breed Seriously? State facts, appears to reviewers as a lift form a marketing brochure. Damages the tone.
best-of-breed Seriously? State facts, appears to reviewers as a lift form a marketing brochure. Damages the tone.
best in class Seriously? State facts, appears to reviewers as a lift form a marketing brochure. Damages the tone.
best-in-class Seriously? State facts appears to reviewers as a lift form a marketing brochure. Damages the tone.
ground breaking Really trite. Re-phrase this and state measurable evidence of what this means. If you can’t state evidence simply lose the statement as it’s waffle.
next level Really trite. Re-phrase this and state measurable evidence of what this means. If you can’t state evidence simply lose the statement as it’s waffle.
world class Really trite. Re-phrase this and state measurable evidence of what this means. If you can’t state evidence simply lose the statement as it’s waffle.
world-class Really trite. Re-phrase this and state measurable evidence of what this means. If you can’t state evidence simply lose the statement as it’s waffle.
Deliverability Delivery Cost: Requirement statements that are not testable or measurable may result in unintended consequences to include: product/system defects components built outside acceptable tolerances systems that meet the proposal guidelines but not the intent of the SOW or RFP.
as appropriate Under what circumstances. Very loose and non-specific. Need to re-phrase.
as necessary Under what circumstances. Very loose and non-specific. Need to re-phrase.
countless Most things in life are measurable. Reviewers treat this as fudge and non-specific. Re-phrase with numbers.
full service Ensure this is defined in terms of measurable numbers. Re-phrase.
quality focused Rephrase so that you emphasise evidence of this.
top quality Trite. Show evidence using numbers. Re-phrase.
efficient What measurements to demonstrate this efficiency? Is it clear. Re-phrase if not.
such as Is your list fully inclusive? Tighten it by including all aspects and drop ‘such as’ if possible.
timely How do you measure timely? Re-phrase with numbers.
Credibility Grovelling style statements. Frequently used incorrect English. Statements that can have very poor tone.
irregardless Nonsense word that is often used. Use ‘regardless’ in the correct context
hopefully Often either means the author is hopeful or the subject of the phrase is hopeful. Re-write this.
anxious Implies negative sentiment use ‘eager’ instead eg: ‘we are eager to…’
committed to Reviewers assume you are committed to provide something. Remove it & cut your word count.
pleased to Damages your credibility. Whether you are happy to provide something is incidental. Remove it & cut your word count.
happy to Damages your credibility. Whether you are happy to provide something is incidental. Remove it & cut your word count.
can provide Be definitive. Re-phrase to communicate what it is you will or will not do.
may provide Be definitive re-phrase with measurable deliverables in certain timeframes.
might deliver Be definitive re-phrase with measurable deliverables in certain timeframes.
bells and whistles Market-ese of the worst type. Remove.
are confident If you are not confident there’s some serious issues! This is assumed and does nothing to help your case. Remove it and cut your word count.
delighted to Eliminate this. It goes without saying. State what you will do.

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2 thoughts on “Which words are (still) killing your best proposals?”

  1. ‘Editing Content is hard: In many organisations especially tecnical heavy ones, ‘fixing the language’ is considered almost easy and an afterthought. This viewpoint needs to change. Editing content out is a skilled task and takes time.’

    The above statement alone made this post worth reading. Thanks for getting the word out!

  2. What surprises me is how bidders invest heavily in writing about past performances, yet do not use these real-life experiences and all their descriptive and true fullness in their narratives. Share four details: the crisis (or problem); the obstacles facing them; what they did to overcome the obstacles; and the results. Write these in a bulleted list as Fergal recommends. You will never resort to empty claims again.

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