The art of proposal writing

At VisibleThread, we know how important proposal writing is. In our latest webinar – The art of proposal writing, we brought together some very experienced proposal writers. They talked about the biggest challenges they face and gave us their best proposal writing tips. We compiled their learning into this blog post

Kees Hendrickx

Published

Length

8 min read

In our webinar, “The Art Of Proposal Writing”, we explored the biggest writing challenges facing proposal teams. And, with the help of:

We’ve put together their learnings to help you write better proposals.

Largest barriers to success

Prior to the webinar, we surveyed the registrants on what they felt was the largest barrier to success. These were people working in Proposal writing roles. And we asked them to rank these specific factors in order of importance.

  • Complex language
  • Not focusing on the customer
  • Keeping a single tone of voice
  • Not having a consistent structure

Twenty-two separate organizations completed the survey. 72.73% (16 respondents) said that the largest barrier was not focusing on the customer.

“Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. They don’t want brochures they could pull off the web. They want to know how you will customize for them.”

From the data, you can see that ‘Not having a consistent structure’ came in second with 13.64% (3 respondents). Followed by ‘complex language’ with 9.09% (2 respondents). And finally, ‘keeping a single tone of voice’ with 4.55% (1 respondent).

Industry professionals have raised these four barriers with us time and time again. So, we wanted to address each in turn. And with the help of our panel of industry professionals, give you tips and best practices.

Speaking your customer’s language and other challenges

An analogy we heard from one customer was that their proposals were like a book, with each chapter written by a different author. In addition to not focusing on the customer, point 1 below, we found three more common challenges from our research.

  1. Speaking customer language
    When reviewing proposals, identifying & mirroring customer phrasing and writing style can be one of the best ways to resonate with your customer. Doing so can create a response in a style that the customer is familiar with. This will avoid conflicting terms and keep the language consistent throughout the proposal. We blogged on mirroring before, and this is one important aspect of this technique.

  2. Being compelling
    Being compelling is all about demonstrating the value of the partnership over the competition. This speaks to the human level of evaluating a proposal. Often it is the differentiator between proposals. To do this right, the proposal needs to be constructed from the customer’s position. It should link their challenges back to how best you solve them rather than leading with what you do and using excessive boilerplate. The proposal needs to focus on why you are the best fit to solve the customer’s specific problem. As opposed to focusing on what you do well.

  3. Aligning tech contributors
    When you have multiple people from different teams contributing to a proposal, writing may not be their primary focus. The challenge is being able to focus on compliance and addressing requirements in a direct and concise manner. And in a way that is easily digestible for valuators. Avoiding over complication is key here and making that message stick with the overall theme of the proposal.

  4. Single tone of voice
    A major struggle we see with our customers is crafting a single style which consistently supports an overall theme. Often, they need to deliver complex information in a concise and digestible way. Part of this challenge is the ability to incorporate industry and company style guides. The goal is that the effect of the overall proposal is greater than the sum of its parts. And for that to be the case, the sections must deliver a cohesive message in a singular style.

How do our panel of professionals do it

In the webinar, we asked each of our 4 experienced writers to share their best practices and tips. Here’s what they said:

"You have to prioritize what the customer is looking for and tie it into your proposal. While still being compliant and keeping your language simple. It is the full story. This is why it is the art of proposal writing. It is an art and a science at the same time"

Targeted focus

Here are Anatalia’s key tips: 

  • Keep it simple
    Use plain language. If customers or valuators can’t understand what we are writing. They are not going to be able to evaluate our solution. We want them to say, “Yes, they are answering my questions and have the solution we want”. After all the work and resources that were put into the proposal. We do not want to cause confusion and have them evaluate poorly. This point is critical. Keeping all that hard work and taking it down to simple sentences can mean the world to your business.

  • Focus on compliance
    If you miss the mark on the compliance requirements, your bid can get thrown out. You must focus on compliance, ensure everything is compliant and answer every customer question. It is easy to make a mistake when trying to juggle a lot of bids at once. All your work could be wasted with something as simple as we did not separate out all the CD’s.

  • Prioritize your customer needs over your sales pitch
    A lot of times, we have our message we want to get across. And concentrate on what we want to talk about. But is that what your customer wants to hear? A lot of the time, it is not about your sales pitch; it is about your customer needs. Tailor your sales pitch to your customer needs. When those areas line up, it is phenomenal. And you will have something that can truly win and create a great partnership.

“From my experience, the proposal development team needs to play the long game. Be part of the capture meetings. Be part of the technical team. And contribute to the whole story of the response. After this a proposal micro culture starts to emerge where you are re-enforcing the important points.”

Highlighting key areas

Here’s what Julia suggests:

  • Using headings with a dash of messaging
    Every proposal professional has been in a situation where you are an incumbent. And part of your win theme is emphasizing – we know what we are doing, there is no transition risk with us, and we will keep giving you the excellence you have come to expect. You can then connect this to a common heading in your instructions – key personnel.
    Using a colon here, you can emphasize your messaging, for example:

    Key Personnel: Ready to continue with excellence on Day 1 – For an incumbent

    Key Personnel: Innovators from across the community – For an offering in a new market.

  • Every page needs a visual clue indicating the most important point
    A tactic I’ve seen is to create your compliant outline. But use your headings to re-enforce some of the win themes. Once you have sat in with your capture team, listened to your solutioning team, and created great win themes. Look at your response and identify any opportunities to tuck some of that messaging into headings.

“It occurs to me that we can’t do any of these complex things. Like keeping it simple and focusing on compliance, unless we have a stable toolbox. This is the artists palette.”

Methods and tools

Ginny has these suggestions:

  • Style guide
    Create, follow, and improve a consistent style guide across all proposals. We deployed a consistent style guide across all our proposals. It does not mean we do not deviate from it. But we deviate from it with intention and purpose based on the specific requirements.

  • Style sheets
    Resulting from the consistent style guide, we can create and follow a singular style sheet for individual proposals. When you have a specific proposal and a diverse set of writers, you can provide a style sheet. This style sheet is anchored to the fundamental style guide that goes across everything we create. And it has been specifically tailored for this bid. This will have all contributors working in the same style, which saves the proposal manager a lot of time.

  • Standard template
    Create a template as a starting point for all responses. This is an easy grab-and-go containing all the formatting needed to start a response. Creating this can take a bit of time and work across the team. But it is worth doing and keeps our thoughts on the more important and higher-level aspects.

  • Create, use, and update content for oft-repeated information
    For certain things, you are often citing. Make it easy on yourself and have a standard that you reach to.

“Be prepared to edit, edit, edit. You can use a storyboard, use mind mapping techniques. Try to focus on have I taken a reader from point A to point D in a way that they don’t have to fill in the gaps. But that I have avoided providing so much detail that I have lost them.”

Criteria and evaluation

Here are Amy’s tips:

  • Focus on the 4 c’s
    Be compliant, be compelling, be clear and be concise. The thing about being clear is you can be very direct using the simplest language that you can. Write in active voice, be well organized and be concise. We work with Subject Matter Experts who give us a lot of information, but sometimes less is more. The more we can present an idea clearly, the easier it is for a busy evaluator.

  • Place your most important message first
    Readers may be familiar with the military term BLUF, Bottom Line Up Front. Others know the vernacular ‘Too long, didn’t read’. Make your main point first. We do not want our readers to hunt for what we are trying to say and risk losing them.

  • Organize the proposal for ease of evaluation
    Organize with evaluation in mind. Make sure the proposal is scannable. Make sure the headings contain the important information for easy scanning. Organize to the bid request. Use their numbering, their labelling, headings, summaries, and lists. Call attention to your main points.

  • Focus on measurable and tangible benefits
    Be explicit about what is in it for them.

Tips from our webinar attendees

In our survey, we also asked, what advice would you give to proposal writers?
Most of the advice has been covered by our industry experts, but we received some more great insights. There were many mentions of putting yourself in the customers’ shoes. Also, keeping it simple and double checking everything in your proposal.

Here are some more useful tips:

“Write for a non-technical audience and be direct.”

“Understand the customers’ needs before you attempt to solve them.”

“Read, reread, and read the solicitation.”

“Structure outline of proposal to match RFP. So, it is easy for customers to review it. And really highlight the benefits of why they should choose you.”

The proposal writing checklist

As you have read above, proposal writing is both an art and a science. There are many aspects we need to keep in mind. To help you, we have put together a checklist that you can refer to when writing your proposals.

  1. Keep to a consistent template
    Use templates to support a single tone of voice, coherence, and efficiency. Understanding what the structure is going to look like and making something that is repeatable. Not only in a specific proposal but things you can reuse in additional proposals.

  2. Check for troublesome words and definitions
    Create watchword lists to support your writers. Creating your own style guide with key terms, references, and key themes, so that everyone is writing the same way. This results in a much more cohesive proposal.

  3. Use data to lead your proposal
    Identifying patterns and key terminology within customer documents. Understanding consistencies will allow you to address underlying pain points and effectively communicate your value proposition.

  4. Make sure you are answering the reviewer’s requirements
    Craft a cohesive message in a consistent tone. By using dictionaries and watch word lists, you can shape the style of contributors. And control the level of complexity.

  5. Check for a single tone of voice
    The proposal needs to be easy to follow, needs to be clear and cohesive. Your message should be clear, concise and customer-centric. Think of the customer and speak to their “why”. The value that you are going to bring to the partnership. And why you are the correct person to partner with.

"VisibleThread is rocking our world. It has dramatically helped improve the quality and readability of our documents. Saves editing time and helps to flag problem areas quickly."

Conclusion

Proposal writing has many layers to it. And there are many challenges.

These best practices and tips will help you with your next proposal. Using our checklist will have your team working on a cohesive, clear, and customer-focused reply. Like a book that has been written by one author.

VT Writer can help with many of the challenges and best practices mentioned by the professionals. With objective metrics and the ability to score every paragraph for clarity, readability, and grade level.

The primary focus for VT Writer is to improve the clarity of content by scoring every paragraph. You get a readability “Grade Level” score for every paragraph, not just the bad ones. No other solution takes this approach.

VT Writer scores for language clarity against your organization’s language thresholds. It suggests content to improve by

  • Reducing long sentences,
  • Changing passive to active voice,
  • Changing nominalizations to verbs,
  • Highlighting adverbs for inclusion or deletion.

VT Writer scores every paragraph for clarity using grade level. And that is very useful as a feedback loop. Since as we edit, we will want to see paragraphs turning green.

Improving the grade level will automatically improve the readability of the full document too.

Now with our latest VT Writer release, you can score your business writing directly in MS Word. The VT writer Word Add-in lets you analyze and edit your documents within your Microsoft Word environment. As you evolve each revision, score when you’re ready, and see improvement.

Contact us today to see how VT Writer can help you improve your proposal writing process. And don’t forget to register for our upcoming webinars.

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