Is poor readability killing your exec summary? 5 metrics that will fix it

Is poor readability killing your exec summary? 5 metrics that will fix it

Have you ever walked into a job interview with a creased blouse or with ketchup on your tie? If you did, I suspect you weren’t successful. None of us would deliberately do so. It sends the wrong signal. First impressions count.

Yet every day, contractors kill their chances of success by doing the proposal equivalent of showing up sloppily dressed. They submit rambling bid proposal exec summaries, filled with copious amounts of marketing boilerplate. They often attempt to throw in the ‘kitchen sink’.

With help from Barbara Esmedina of health care provider Conexis, we recently analyzed the exec summary from the winner and nearest loser of an RFP. The RFP was to administer a COBRA health plan for the City of Albuquerque. Both submissions achieved an almost identical compliance score (I show the scores later), but the language was radically different.

Here are the statistics for the 2 executive summaries that came in 1st and 2nd

bid proposal

Now here is the sloppy bit, the losing proposal’s exec summary (FMBC) was:

  • 5 times the size (num. words 1867 vs. 330) of the winner,
  • Had close to 2 times  (21% vs. 12%) more passive voice,
  • Contained 6 times longer sentences. (long sentences > 25 words.)

We scanned the exec summaries using VisibleThread.

Let’s dive deeper

Here’s a few extracts from the exec summary of the 2nd placed, losing submission:

It would be our privilege to be selected to provide administrative services for the City of Albuquerque’s (the City’s) COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) and Flexible Spending Account (FSA) Program.

Fringe Benefits Management Company (FBMC) has carefully reviewed the Request for Proposal (RFP), subsequent addendum, Appendices, Draft Agreement, Scope of Work and Instructions to Offerors and can complete the services set forth herein within the proposed time limits, to the complete satisfaction of the City.

Enclosed in our proposal, we have outlined a scalable method of performance to ensure that all deliverables are met for the City’s with ultimate satisfaction as the primary goal.

Blue – Long sentences in excess of 25 words

Maroon – Passive voice, subject of the verb is the recipient of the action.

Green – Nominalisations (also known as hidden verbs). In this case, ‘satisfaction’ hides ‘satisfy’.

I hope I don’t have to convince you why these examples are so awful. A good edit would have fixed it.

A special note on passive voice

Passive is where subject of the verb is the recipient of the action. we see this in the opening example: ‘…we have outlined a scalable method of performance to ensure that all deliverables are met’. In this case, the subject is ‘all deliverables’. It appears before ‘met’. A tell take of passive is where you see forms like; ‘are met’, ‘have told’.

Active voice is stronger. Better to rephrase as; ‘we will meet all deliverables using a scalable method of performance’.

But wait a sec! What the heck does ‘scalable method of performance’ even mean? Now, I’m a fairly techie person with a 3rd level qualification and plenty of project management. But, I’ve no clue what that means. Active voice forces clarity and often flushes out waffle or ill defined claims.

Tip: Passive voice often masks marketing claptrap! If you can’t understand it, how will the reviewer? Be ruthless, just remove it. It does nothing for your case.

Does language alone account for the loss?

Now we’re not saying that language alone accounts for a losing bid. Other factors including incumbency, pricing etc. obviously play a part. But when it’s a close call, you don’t want to be the guy with the non-ironed shirt. That’s how it was in this case.

The top two proposals had practically identical reviewer scores. We looked at the formal scorecard. Here are the top 4 scores in order:

1st  4845
2nd  4835
3rd  3790
4th  3345

The winner scored 4845, the loser 4835, a mere 10 marks difference. The vendor who came in 3rd position scored 3790, so it wasn’t even close. When you compete for Fed, State or Local dollars and you are neck and neck with your competitors, then a tightly written response puts you ahead.

Interpreting the 5 stats, what should you do?

  1. Size:  The winner is almost 6 times shorter than the loser. 330 words versus 1867 words. Be ruthless on reducing word count. Split the sentences
  2. Number of sentences: The winner is half the nearest loser. Do not try to pack the ‘kitchen sink’.
  3. Average sentence length was an excessive 21 words for the loser. This is over 2 times that of the winner. Aim for 10-15 words for your average sentence.
  4. Passive Voice: Passive is where subject of the verb is the recipient of the action. In the opening example, we saw: ‘…we have outlined a scalable method of performance to ensure that all deliverables are met’. Active voice is stronger. So better to rephrase. As we saw earlier, passive voice often masks marketing claptrap! If so, be ruthless, just remove it. It does nothing for your case.
  5. Readability (Flesch): Of the 5 metrics, this is probably the most technical. This is based on the Flesch Reading Ease index, a formula based on average syllables per word and long sentences.  For example, Florida requires that life insurance policies have a Flesch Reading Ease score of 45 or greater. For proposal executive summaries, aim to score at least above 40, higher the better. For example, this blog post scores 53 when run through VisibleThread.

Note: Here are the scoring levels for Flesch Readability:

90.0–100.0          easily understood by an average 11-year-old student

60.0–70.0             easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students

0.0–30.0               best understood by university graduates


  1. All things being equal, this exec summary damaged the 2nd placed FBMC proposal. To submit an exec summary like this is akin to walking into the interview with a non-ironed shirt! It may not eliminate you, but you don’t do yourself any favors.
  2. In our work analyzing proposals, we continue to see waffle, and ‘kitchen sink’ style exec summaries. You should scrub the rubbish and articulate your value proposition using succinct language.
  3. Key takeaways; cut the word count, shorten your sentences and make your exec summary punchy with active voice.

If you want to see how we scan documents, check out these 3-minute demos to get a good sense.

8 thoughts on “Is poor readability killing your exec summary? 5 metrics that will fix it”

  1. Excellent post. Great idea comparing two almost identical scores. In this case, it is very likely that language has everything to do with picking the winner. After all, these are the people that will be communicating with your employees that have just lost health care coverage.

    It was hard to wade through your example paragraphs of the losing proposal, can you imagine how painful it was for the reviewer that had to read the whole thing? Would be interested in the scores of the other losing proposals as well.

    • Thanks Barbara, ya, when I read the exec summary of the 2nd placed loser I was pretty shocked. If they were presenting like this, how are they going to work if they win.

      The thing was that the stats were an immediate red-flag, so I was able to see issues in minutes. Let me see if I can get the 3rd and 4th place exec summary also into the mix.

  2. Extremely relevant post! Now, more than ever, firms are finding themselves facing one-time teaming partners with equal qualifications and mirrored past performances that makes for very steep competition. Once more, coupled with the government’s push for best technical – low cost awards the importance of delivering a succinct, yet explicative proposal is paramount. This proves that even the most sparse elements of proposal writing can lead to award or failure.

  3. Fergal, I support your analysis, points that we have been making at Shipley Associates for 25 years. Personal habits are difficult to change. Your points are new to many inexperienced writers, or writers coming from a scientific or academic background. More experienced writers can spot this in others’ writing, but often not in their own writing. Hence, the point of your tool.

  4. Great article! I struggle with using the passive voice … I think it’s because I’m originally from Canada and that’s just how Canadians tend to write. Will save this article for future reference. Thanks!

    • Thanks Larry. You make a powerful observation on habits. And I agree, we all have a bit of a blind spot in our own writing too. Call it ‘ego’, ‘pride’ or whatever, but to me we can all improve. I’ve found myself using active voice a heck of a lot more in the last year. Equally, I’m trying to chop long sentences from my own work.

      Even a blog post like this takes several iterations to get right. Thankfully, I scan it with VT, so these days, I spot issues in my own copy quickly. Also I’ve noticed that SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) and other technical contributors tend to respect metrics. So, I use metrics as ‘proof’ of goodness or badness. It is an objective measure. So VT’s power is to set a goal in measurable and objective terms. For example, hit < 4% passive voice and you're good. If I use this approach on proposals, it seems to provoke the start of behavior change. To Lori; Interesting that you see passive as tied to Canada's culture/educational system. I wonder if there is anything in the literature that develops that hypothesis? I must have a google. Thanks Myran for your insight. I agree, there's not much left to differentiate. A clear, understandable message is one of those items.

  5. Your revised sentence to replace passive voice with active voice still contains passive voice:

    ‘we will ensure all deliverables ***are met*** using a scalable method of performance’.

    The solution: “We will meet all dliverables using a scalable method of performance.”

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