VisibleThread – Language Analysis Platform

How readable is your proposal? Readability metrics that improve proposal quality

4 min read

Fergal McGovern

CEO & Founder

Readability metrics for proposals

Readability metrics that improve the quality of your proposal writing.

Larry Newman of Shipley posted this example of poor proposal writing the other day. It was part of a very active discussion thread about overused clichés on the APMP linkedin group:

To ensure optimum delivery of services for its membership, Mini Healthcare of Elbonia will leverage the administrative and legal structure of its parent company, Maxi Healthcare, Inc. to administer a cost-effective combination of local plan operations and shared corporate resources that ensure a person-centered, outcomes-focused approach to delivering managed care services.

It was taken from a proposal he was reviewing (actual names removed). You should take a look at the entire thread; it has a lot of good stuff around clichés. As author of the Shipley proposal guide, Larry is extremely well qualified on the subject of ‘trash talk’ in proposals.

Proposal readability, an on-going challenge 

So, I wanted to write on the topic of readability metrics.

If you’re a proposal manager or team reviewer, you likely spend a lot of time editing contributions from colleagues.

Similar to Larry’s example, you will see marketing boilerplate filled with clichés and trite language, commonly in executive summary sections. You will see technical contributions from SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), often dense and hard to understand.

It is likely you are spending valuable time tidying the content, editing it out. But if you’re anything like our customers, you face these two issues:

  1. Not enough time, since editing content is hard, at the end of a development cycle you don’t have enough time to sufficiently fix it. So, your company ends up submitting sloppy responses, despite your best efforts.
  2. Offering feedback is emotive. If you do offer feedback to colleagues on their writing, it is by definition subjective, and a very delicate conversation. Here’s how it often goes:
    • You say: ‘I’m not sure the way you’re writing this is all that clear’
    • Your SME hears: ‘Your content sucks’.
    • Your SME is thinking: ‘I know what I’m talking about; you’re just glorified window dressing. I’ve done the hard work!’

We work with many proposal managers who privately admit frustration with this status quo. Some of these same people use VisibleThread scans to help unblock the emotive dynamic in 2 above.

Here’s how. Imagine we change the conversation to: “32% of the sentences in your content are longer than 25 words, whereas winning proposals tend to have 5% or less”. Then, metrics become a tool to drive way better quality in an objective way. Indeed, metrics are especially useful when dealing with technical SMEs. They respect metrics way more than opinion.

What are these readability metrics and how to apply them?

So, let’s revisit Larry’s example statement. I repeat the example here for ease. Below, you will see the metrics:

To ensure optimum delivery of services for its membership, Mini Healthcare of Elbonia will leverage the administrative and legal structure of its parent company, Maxi Healthcare, Inc. to administer a cost-effective combination of local plan operations and shared corporate resources that ensure a person-centered, outcomes-focused approach to delivering managed care services.

Sentence Length: 50 Words

Cliches: Multiple, including: ‘outcomes-focused approach’, ‘person-centered’ etc.

Passive Voice: none

So looking at the metrics, we see; long sentences and clichés.

If there is any positive in Larry’s example, it is the absence of passive language. Unfortunately, even without passive language, a sentence of 50 words is a disaster. You need to put it on a diet and bring out the critical customer benefits, ideally using bullets or lists. So, identifying long sentences is our first port of call.

Now let’s say you have a lengthy proposal. If you scan the full proposal and identify all examples of long sentences and passive voice, then you can prioritize areas for edits. This saves review time.

So, this is exactly what our customers are doing with VisibleThread. They upload proposals at pink or red team stage. In minutes, they can review the statistics, pin pointing long sentences and passive language. This forms the basis of rapid prioritization of edits.

Sharing the metrics with SMEs and marketing teams means that the quality of base contributions starts to improve too.

Let’s see how this works in reality

To show you how this works, I took 6 recent proposal documents from 4 contractors (3 federal, 1 commercial). I uploaded them to VisibleThread for analysis.

For fun and so that we have a reasonable benchmark of ‘good proposal writing’; I analyzed Isaac Asimov’s; ‘The Best of Isaac Asimov’ alongside. (Worth a read if you have a moment.)

So, here are the long sentence statistics. The rank column gives you a fairly clear understanding of best and worst performers. The % measure is the proportion of total sentences exceeding 25 words.

  Long Sentences
  Score Rank
Novels / Isaac Asimov – The Best of Isaac Asimov.pdf 7% 1
Proposals / Contractor 3: RFP_XXX_Technical_Services2.docx 7% 2
Proposals / Contractor 1: XXX – with pricing – FINAL.docx 8% 3
Proposals / Contractor 2: XXX Comm Shell rev8.doc 10% 4
Proposals / Contractor 4: T-1 Vol 2 TechnicalPart1.docx 10% 5
Proposals / Contractor 2: XXX-Combined NearFinal.doc 12% 6
Proposals / Contractor 4: T-1 Vol 2 TechnicalPart2.docx 26% 7

Based on this report, we should immediately pay closest attention to ‘Contractor 2: XXX-Combined NearFinal.doc’ and ‘Contractor 4: T-1 Vol 2 TechnicalPart2.docx’.

Uncovering long sentences is the first step to cleaner and tighter docs.

Once you have long sentences down to a nice 5% or below, then it’s onto passive language removal and so on down the line.

Summary Takeaways

Readability metrics have these advantages:

  1. Rapid Insight to Weak Content: They provide rapid insight into the weakest content in a proposal much sooner than manual review.
  2. Encourage better writing from colleagues: They can help your colleagues tighten their submissions, so that ultimately a better quality response is submitted. With tighter inputs, you have more time to focus on being truly responsive to customer need.
  3. Remove Subjective and emotive discussion, introduce objectivity: You say to me: ‘I’d like to suggest some edits’. As an SME, I hear ‘Your content sucks’. As an SME, I say to myself: ‘well, you can take a flying leap!’
    Metrics provide objectivity and move the conversation to a different place. If I change the conversation to: “32% of the sentences in your content are longer than 25 words, whereas winning proposals tend to have 5% or less”, then metrics become a way to drive towards better quality.
  4. Alleviate Editorial Bottlenecks: Metrics and better quality base submissions shift the onus back to contributors. They provide a needed line of defense for the proposal manager.
 

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