VisibleThread – Language Analysis Platform

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

Every day, contractors kill their chances of success by submiting rambling exec summaries, filled with copious amounts of marketing boilerplate.5 Readability metrics to fix this.
4 min read

Fergal McGovern

CEO & Founder

Readability metrics for exec summary

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 writing equivalent of showing up sloppily dressed. They submit rambling 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

Summary

  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.