The Art of Proposal Writing
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In this webinar we discussed
“Proposal writing is an art – and your toolkit is your pallet.”
Senior Vice President, Strategic Services
Vice President – Proposal and Capture Management at Chickasaw Nation Industries, Inc.
Improve the efficiency, clarity and compliance of RFPs, contracts and mission-critical business writing with quantifiable metrics. 9 of the Top 15 US government contractors use VisibleThread including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics.
“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”
Patricia A Fieldson
Manager / Capture Advancement Team
Lori Manav (00:00:01):
Welcome one and all. We’re happy to have you with us here today to join VisibleThread and an esteemed panel of speakers for The Art of Proposal writing webinar today. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Lori Manav. I am a key account manager here at VisibleThread. Along with me on the VisibleThread team is Allison Ritz, one of our Enterprise Account Executives. We’re excited to have an esteemed panel with us. I’m going to let Amy go ahead and start the introductions.
Amy McGeady (00:01:23):
Hi, thanks, Lori. I’m Amy McGeady, and I am the Senior Vice President of Strategic Services at Shipley Associates.
Anatalia Macik (00:01:36):
I am Anatalia Macik. I am the bid and Proposal Director with Leidos Security Enterprise Solutions Division.
Julia Desantis (00:01:47):
I’m Julia Desantis. I am a proposal writer at Meridian, and I have been working in a couple of different federal markets for quite some time. Defense, Medicare, all around.
Ginny Carson (00:02:06):
I’m Ginny Carson. I’m the Vice President of Proposal and Capture at Chickasaw Nation Industries.
Lori Manav (00:02:14):
Prior to the event today we did send out a survey and out of asking what the largest barrier to success was, and out of the 22 separate organizations that did respond to the survey, the key focus that was astounding was not focusing on the customer. Allison, would you agree with this?
Allison Ritz (00:02:44):
Yeah, absolutely. I think that with a lot of the customers that I work with, the biggest piece of that puzzle is the bridge between, this is what we do and this is what we do really well. To, this is your issue and this is what you’re looking for. how are we going to get there? And how are we best exemplifying that we are the ones that you want to partner with and focus on the customer issue and the value that they’re bringing to the customer? Rather than just how you’re going to satisfy requirements.
Lori Manav (00:03:20):
Perfect. Thanks. We’re going to let you go ahead and expand upon that and go through me the common challenges that we see, Allison.
Allison Ritz (00:03:29):
Yeah, absolutely. From a challenges perspective, there are four things that I’m going to highlight. I think these are the things that I hear most often when working with customers. The first one, talking about the single tone of voice. The best analogy I’ve heard from a customer was that their proposals were reading like a book where every chapter was written by a different author. The goal is that the effect of the overall proposal is greater than the sum of the parts. for that to be the case, the sections have to deliver a cohesive message, in a singular style. the struggle for many of our customers is crafting a single style that consistently supports an overall theme. You want to be as effective as possible while often delivering complex information in a concise and digestible way. In addition, you want to incorporate industry and company style guides to speak the language of the evaluator while simultaneously differentiating your message. And that can be complicated in the creation and review process.
Allison Ritz (00:04:29):
And the next is being compelling. And I hear this a lot. Compelling is one of my favorite of the Cs because I think it really speaks to the human level of evaluating proposals and what being compelling can do and the differentiator that can be for a customer. Often it is a differentiator between proposals. And in order to do that, you have to construct a proposal from a customer center position. The goal is to focus on why you’re the best fit to solve the customer-specific problem as opposed to just focusing on what you do well. Being compelling is about demonstrating the value of the partnership. How will your proposal best solve the issue at hand? And what additional value can you demonstrate beyond your competition?
Allison Ritz (00:05:19):
And aligning contributors, I know that this is a conversation over and over again. You have multiple people contributing to a proposal. We have, multiple SMEs and a lot of people where writing may not be their primary focus. It’s being able to focus on compliance and addressing requirements in a direct concise manner. In a way that is easily digestible for evaluators, prioritizing those critical success factors and really avoiding over complication, but making that message stick with the overall theme of the proposal. I think one of the most important things and the things that can be really impactful is speaking the customer language. When you’re reviewing proposals, and this is something that a lot of our VisibleThread customers rely heavily on me of the aspects of the platform for, to really break down the documents, identify customer jargon and phrasing that you can then use to create the style of your response.
Allison Ritz (00:06:15):
Melding together your style and your thematic way of proposal writing with the terms and me of the jargon and style that the customer is using. Avoiding, conflicting identifying terms and titles. A lot of times when you’re compiling submissions from different writers, you can end up with, different descriptions of the same things. Breaking through and making sure that’s consistent, and then really addressing the underlying goals of the customer. Figuring out the why, addressing their concerns, and being able to articulate that in your proposal response.
Lori Manav (00:06:52):
I know we hear lots of this from our various customers, but now we’re going to go ahead and let the wonderful folks from the industry share as well. Anatalia, I’ll hand it over to you to go through your insights.
Anatalia Macik (00:07:09):
Yeah, absolutely. And this is one of my favorite things to talk about because of all of the hard work that goes into winning business all of the capture activities, all of the customer meetings, and all of the solutioning. None of that matters if we don’t write it well in our proposal, right? The first key takeaway that I have is to keep it simple. Use plain language, because if our customers, our evaluators, can’t read it, can’t understand what we’re writing, they’re not going to be able to evaluate our wonderful solution. They’re not going to be able to say, yes, they’re answering my questions, yes, they have the solution I want. They’re going to get confused. They’re not going to understand it. And even if you have the right answer, the perfect answer for their question they’re going to get confused. They’re going to evaluate it poorly, and you’re going to end up losing the bid.
Anatalia Macik (00:08:04):
All the hard work that goes into winning this bid, if you’ve spent years on it, if you’ve spent months on it, all the hours, all of the resources, all of the money that goes into it can be lost just because you didn’t keep it simple. You didn’t write it in plain language. That first point is, critical at the end of the day. Keeping all of that hard work, taking it down to just a few simple sentences can mean the world to your business. And, then the next one as well, focus on compliance. Because if you miss the mark on the compliance requirements, you don’t give them specifically what they’re asking for. Even something as simple as I had a bid once years ago, and it’s funny because I talk to many proposal managers who say, I’ve never lost a bid on compliance. I’m impressed I’ve lost bids on compliance and I consider myself to be a really good proposal manager.
Anatalia Macik (00:08:59):
But there was a proposal where we had to have the pricing and the technical completely separate, which is very common for federal bids. And we did that. The volumes were completely separate, but we didn’t have them on the CDEs, and our bid was thrown out. You have to focus on compliance and make sure that every single thing is compliant. Answer every single customer question that they’re asking. And it’s easy to make a mistake. No matter where you’re working, what customer you’re working for especially when you have a lot of bids that you’re trying to juggle all at once, it’s very easy to make a mistake. And again, all the hard work that goes into these opportunities can be lost on something as simple as, not separating the CDEs, right?
And of course, that was many, many years ago very young in my career. But focus on compliance, keep the language simple, and then prioritize your customer needs over your sales pitch. I’ve talked about this before. A lot of times we have things that we want to say, we have our message, the thing that we want to talk about. But is that what your customer wants to hear? You’ve got to focus on that. It’s not about necessarily what you want to say. When those things line up, that’s phenomenal. And you have something that can be truly winning and a truly great partnership is in front of you.
But at the end of the day, it’s not always about your sales pitch, it’s about your customer’s needs and you tailor your sales pitch to your customer’s needs. Not the other way around, because if it doesn’t resonate with your customer first, you’re not going to be successful in that bit. You have to put your ego aside first and focus on what is the customer asking for. What are their specific requirements? Again, compliance but also even beyond the compliance requirements. What aren’t they mentioning in the RFP that might be underlying? Why does this RFP even exist? What are the things that are keeping my customer up at night? What are the things that they’re hoping to achieve? What are their underlying goals? What are they actually working for that this RFP or these requirements are going to help them achieve in the long run?
What’s their mission? What are the things that they’re looking for? All of that can be tied into your proposal writing while you’re still being compliant, and while you’re still keeping your language simple. It’s a full story. That’s why this is the art of proposal writing. It’s an art and a science at the same time. It’s part of why I love, this work. But you have to prioritize what they’re looking for over what you’re specifically trying to sell. And that’s how you can become the most successful proposal writer, winning the business that you’re looking for when it’s not about you and what you’re trying to sell, but what your customer is looking for. And those are my key takeaways.
Lori Manav (00:12:11):
Can you also answer how you ensure that the right questions of the business development and capture teams are being asked to ensure consistency of the themes and the differentiators for your organization?
Anatalia Macik (00:12:28):
And I would start by saying there’s no right question to ask. And thinking in that way is a fallacy that can lead you to failure. Because there’s no right or wrong question. It’s about having a beginner mindset no matter what it is that you’re working towards. I’ve been in the BD industry, for my entire career, which is closing in on two decades, but no matter what, I approach every opportunity as if it’s a brand new opportunity. And I’m going to learn something with this opportunity. When I go into a solution session or a win theme session, I ask all the questions. I start with a lot of hows and whys and whats and what ifs and what about.
Even if I already know the answer to the question, I’m still going to ask the question. And I would challenge everybody, even if it’s a proposal for something that you’ve already done a million times still ask the question because you might get the answer in a different way than you’ve received it before, which might cause you to think about it differently. Let’s say you’re doing something for a new cloud infrastructure, and I’ve done those hundreds of times, but I still would ask the question, you know, how is this different than what we’ve done before? Or how are we going to do it this time? And maybe you get a new answer that you haven’t thought of before.
Even if, the technical SMEs or the BD guys that you’re working with, might start a little annoyed like, “Hey, you know this”. Over time as you’re asking these questions, they’ll start to think about it differently too. And by the time we get through maybe like, you know, 30 minutes of this conversation, we’re all sitting there like I hadn’t thought of that. Hang on a second, let’s start drawing this out.
And, and, you know, we might come up with a new CONOPS or we might have a whole new idea about what we’re offering that we didn’t think of before. Or we’re tying together a solution from another opportunity. And it’s just an exercise for our brains to come up with a new idea, a new way to think about every single proposal, every single solution, every single win theme for each opportunity. Because let’s not lie to ourselves when we’ve done a lot of these proposals and in the federal space even in the commercial space, we’re doing a lot of the same proposals over and over again. Or a lot of the same topics over and over again. It’s very easy for us to get into a rut and think, oh yeah, we’ll just use these win themes from the last few proposals.
It’s a similar customer, we can just, repeat what we’ve done before. Right? A lot of us do it, especially in our busy seasons. I don’t think that means the same thing it used to. But a lot of us will say, we can reuse the same thing over and over again. And that doesn’t work. That’s not a formula for success. Let’s just come at it with a beginner mindset. Ask the questions that we would ask if we didn’t know the answer. Pretend we don’t know the answer. And you’ll find that you get new answers. Actually. You get new solutions, you get new win themes, you get new ideas, and the team that you’re working with will find that that’s more valuable than not asking the question because you think that you already know the answer. Another thing to keep in mind is that this doesn’t always happen in one meeting or one conversation. You might have to have multiple meetings or multiple conversations, and you want to make sure that you’re also including the right people in the conversation. Maybe it’s one conversation with your BD team, another conversation with your technical SMEs, and then maybe another conversation with your leadership if you can’t get them all in one in one sitting, which I know for me is very difficult given time zones and things like that. Hopefully, that answers the question.
Lori Manav (00:16:56):
Thank you. And yes, it’s continuing to dwell on more information that you’re seeking to make sure that it’s customized for that response. We’re all trying to win, but we don’t want them to be cookie-cutters by any means. Julia, I’m going to bring you forward and ask you to cover the highlights and key areas from your perspective.
Julia Desantis (00:17:25):
Thank you. I enjoyed everything that Anatalia had to say One connection that made me sit up with my key takeaways. I sometimes feel like there might be a perceived distance between writing a compliant response and writing a compelling response. Where maybe it feels like you get your headings and your instructions and it just feels constrained. There are page constraints, and heading constraints, we have to get these little tiny requirements that don’t need too much narrative to support them, but yet they need a heading. Those kinds of things. I am thinking that one connection between the takeaways might be to create a compelling or compliant outline. But then use your headings. This is a tactic I’ve seen, to use your headings to reinforce the win themes.
After you’ve sat in with your capture and you’ve listened to your solutioning team you’ve got great win themes, well then you’re looking at your compliant response. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to tuck some of that messaging into your headings. I saw a question here in the chat about how to incorporate evaluation criteria. And that can also be a tactic to draw your attention to whatever those factors are. The little example I have here is one every proposal professional has been in a situation where you’re an incumbent. The marching anthem of the incumbent is, we know what you’re doing. We’re doing great. Everything is peachy. There’s no transition risk with us. You don’t have to ramp anybody up. We’re going to keep giving you the excellence that you’ve come to expect.
That’s probably part of your win themes, probably something your capture team has been reinforcing. Hopefully with the client day to day and you can connect it to a common heading in your instructions. Key personnel shows up in all kinds of things. Well, if you just put a little call in there, key personnel continuing with excellence ready on day one. Now you’ve got your compliant response and you’ve also tucked a little win theme message in there. The other example here is if you’re on the other side of it, you’re not the incumbent and you’re the insurgent. You’re trying to break into a market where there’s a strong incumbent. Well, the anthem there that we always use is we’re innovators. We’ve got something new to offer you. Those guys are old and stale and not keeping up with what we do there. You could have that same key personnel heading, innovators from across the community. And again, it’s a way to reinforce the win themes and the hard work that your capture team and those professionals have done in a compliant response that follows the instructions. Those are my takeaways.
Lori Manav (00:20:59):
And can you share how your team ensures a single tone of voice and a cohesive message in a proposal with multiple contributors? Cause this is certainly something that we all face.
Julia Desantis (00:21:13):
Well, my observation is that the proposal development team needs to, for a big response, especially, play the long game, be a part of the capture meetings, be part of the technical team, be part of whoever is working on staffing, sit in on meetings. Best if you can find a way to contribute to those meetings, taking minutes or something like that to drive the project forward, not just lurking there. Contribute to all of that whole story of the response. Then what I have observed is after interacting and hearing all of these different angles and asking them, “S what?” question, a little proposal, almost microculture starts to emerge. Where you are reinforcing the important points of your response and your solution and what you have to offer, you’ll find yourselves doing it just in a conversation using the same sort of words to describe your solution.
That’s just something that happens when you play this long game. Now you need to have it supported by a couple of things. Like a nice library of reference material that explains maybe more technical aspects that’s nice to have in your toolkit. It’s also nice to have a very good style guide for each submission has key elements. How are we going to refer to this client? Is it going to be and “a n d” or, and, ampersand and these kinds of things. These kinds of details put the finishing touches on your whole response to make it speak in one voice.
Lori Manav (00:23:10):
With that, we’re going to turn it over and now we’re going to move on to Ginny. I’m going to give the floor over to you and hear me of the methods from you.
Ginny Carson (00:23:25):
Thank you, Lori. That was a perfect segue into the key takeaways that I’d like to focus on. We’re talking about me pretty heavy stuff with being both compelling and compliant and the art and the science. When I looked across the takeaways from my fellow contributors, I just tried to think about what I might be able to add here. I emphasize and amplify everything that’s being brought to the table today But it occurs to me that we can’t do any of these t very complex things well unless we have a stable toolbox. If you’ll forgive me to take the analogy of the art of proposal writing a little bit further, this is the artist’s palette. For some, the methods and tools that I’ve encouraged my team to bring to the table that helps us get our head into that higher thinking space is just to have everything else in the fundamental blocking and tackling taken care of.
I’ll just run through these bullets with you. Julia just spoke about a consistent style guide. Last year we deployed a consistent style guide that’s true across all of our proposals. That doesn’t mean we don’t deviate from it, but we deviate from it with intention and with purpose based on what’s necessary for the RFP requirements and this specific customer. A beautiful thing that happened once we got a consistent style guide across the team and all of our proposals is we were able to create a singular style sheet for an individual proposal. And that’s what Julia was just in kind of indicating, I think, is that when you have a specific proposal and you’re bringing in a diverse set of writers, you can hand it off to them. Here is our style sheet, and this sheet is anchored back to our fundamental style guide that goes across everything that we create.
And it’s been specifically tailored for this particular bid that everybody who’s contributing knows that when we refer to the customer, we’re going to use these words and we re when we refer to our past performance, we’re going to use these words. And that saves the proposal manager a lot of time on the other side in terms of making things homogenous in the end when they’re a various set of contributors. A standard template is the third bullet here as a starting point for all responses. Just like the style guide, it’s a measuring stick It’s an easy grab-and-go when we begin a project, we don’t have to think about what font size our headings are going to be. Or our subheads or how those bullets are going to look. It’s already built into a common template for us.
And that sounds a lot easier than it is. I was surprised by how long it took us to create a standard template. I will say that there’s both art and science to that. It probably doesn’t surprise anybody on this call that proposal managers are pretty particular about how their bullets look and about how their headings look. Finding something that was agreeable across the team was a real challenge, and it took a lot of love and it took a lot of give and take across the team. Again, this is not a 100% fix across all the proposals that you can wiggle with it. But it is a strong starting point and it just saves us a lot of thinking space. When it’s time to begin an effort and when it’s time to continue an effort and edit an effort that we can keep our active thoughts focused on the more important higher level things about like, what is our customer trying to achieve here? Not what font size should my heading be.
And then the fourth bullet I’m sure this is not rocket surgery, but to create, and use updated content for often repeated information. if there’s something you find yourself citing a lot, just make it easy on yourself and have, have a standard that you reach. to These are fundabasic. There’s nothing earth-shattering in what I’m sharing here, but I think investing my time and energy and locking these things allows me to open my mind to think about things in a more creative and problem-solving way. Because you’re not going back and cleaning up and dialing in frustrations throughout the effort of the proposal development.
Lori Manav (00:27:46):
And in that creation, what metrics did you rely on to support a consistent style guide?
Ginny Carson (00:27:56):
Your question indicates that it should have been a more scientific effort, but I will say that it was much more art than science. We took, we took a lot of opinions under advisement and, and we just, we did our best to get there. And, I do know that there are metrics available to us to check our use of that style guide to make sure that we are as consistent as we want to be. But I’ll say that our check has to date been more subjective, and that subjectivity has been based on questions like, you know, did you feel like you, you, you spun your wheels in, in working on style issues? Or were you able to solve customer problems here? And as long as we’re able to spend most of our thinking time around the true heart and content of the proposal, then I think our style guide is working for us.
But I will say that we have a very close relationship with VisibleThread at Chickasaw Nation Industries, and we have routine check-ins with our, our success consultants there. And there are features to the tool that would allow us to do a more scientific check against the proposals that are walking out of our shop Checking those against our style guide just to make sure that we’re not deviating if consistency was the guiding star. But really, simplification is the guiding star for us at this point in our maturity. We’re just applying a more subjective ask. Were we able in this effort to focus on the content of the proposal?
Lori Manav (00:29:33):
And we’re going to hand it now over to Amy to share my experience as well around criteria and evaluation.
Amy McGeady (00:29:51):
Many great points far. Thank you much for everything you’ve shared. I think the main thing, my points are all about putting yourself in the shoes of the evaluator. And remember that we’re trying to score points that will get us to be able to win. Or back in the days when we were in school, we were trying to get the highest grade that we can. Me of the points we’ve already covered. On the four Cs, be compliant, be compelling, be clear, and be concise. I think we’ve spoken about compliance quite a bit and we’ve spoken about being compelling quite a bit, but I think about being clear, being very direct using simpler language that we can write in active voice, being well organized, concise. Less is more that I know me of us, you know, we work with subject matter experts and others who are passionate about giving us a lot of details and a lot of information, but sometimes, you know, less is more.
And the more simply we can present an idea, the easier it is for an evaluator. Especially someone busy, they’re, reviewing a whole stack of information that they can get through. one of the questions that someone asked early on is, you know, I have a new confusing role and there’s a lot of details to it, how do I balance providing enough information that someone can understand what I’m saying was focusing on the need? And I think that was such a great question. And for me, the only thing I can think to answer that is really in the mechanics of proposal writing, just be prepared to edit, edit, edit. Sometimes in my case when I have something like that even in the pre-writing, you can do that as a storyboard. You can use mind-mapping techniques. But, try to focus on whether have I taken a reader from point A to point D that they don’t have to fill in the gaps, but that I’ve avoided providing much detail that I’ve lost them.
My litmus test is if I took this over to my next-door neighbor who knows nothing about what I do, could she read through this and get the gist of how I’ve explained that we accomplished, things, that we accomplished this with this tool or technique? Have I explained just enough that she can understand and follow the logic of how that works? The next thing is, to place your most important message up front. Me of us that work on proposals to readers that come out of the military have heard the phrase BLUFor bottom line up front. Others use, the vernacular too long, didn’t read(TL;DR). What is the main point? And not make our readers have to hunt for it because we might lose them in the process and then organize with evaluation in mind.
Make sure that our proposals are skimmable. Julia talked about the technique of making sure that our headings might have our main message there so that our reader who’s just skimming through the headings can get the gist of what we’re trying to say and what’s important about, our solution. Organized the bid request. Using their numbering, their labeling, use headings summaries list and call attention to our main points. Whether that’s through using that headings technique, it’s through the visuals that we use, having enough white space that you can see where there are bullets of key points, and then focus on really tangible and measurable benefits. What’s in it for them? Be explicit.
Lori Manav (00:33:40):
Amy, what would be the best way that you find to establish trust with a customer in a proposal?
Amy McGeady (00:33:54):
The biggest thing is just demonstrating that you get them, that you understand them. You’ve kept the focus on their success. Not that you’re selling something in all the elements of your solution, but their success. Keeping that at the forefront of everything that you’re writing and even the forefront of your conversations in the background, because that will help you as you’re writing to have that in your mind. Use words that reflect their values, their priorities, and how they talk about the arena in which they work. Remember also that you’re writing for multiple audiences and I think that establishes trust. You know, you’re going to have those senior-level executives that are just skimming and that they need to get to the main point quickly. You’ve written to them.
You’re now going to have also readers who are the more technical detail-oriented people. Have you made sure that the details in your proposal are accurate and they’re consistent? Cause I think one of the quickest ways to lose someone’s trust is if on page one you say it’s going to take five months to get something done, and on page 20, you say seven months, and on page 100 you say four and a half. All of a sudden it feels like, do these people know what they’re doing? How do I trust? I mean, is it done in six months? Are you going to do that or not? And then I think the other audience is just that evaluator who has the scorecard and that that’s all they’re doing is just checking off her points. I think you establish trust when you remember that different people are reading your proposal with different end games in mind and that you are making it easy for them to be successful.
And just two other points that we’ve touched on, but I think are important. If you are reusing content, which we all do to be efficient, really make sure that you have scrubbed out other client information, that you’ve not misspelled their name, put in the wrong name, talk about it, a city that they’re not in, or a country that they’re not working in. Me of those things, again, start undermining your connection to the reader when you start getting those things wrong. And then, you know, again, just be real. Use very simple language. Use graphics that make it easy to understand your main point, and if you are making claims, back them up with data and proof points. That’s kind of a lot. But I think the main thing to building trust is demonstrating that you are focused on them. You understand their needs and that your goal is to help them be successful.
Lori Manav (00:36:44):
You want them to feel heard, seen, and that you’re here to respond and help them. I appreciate all of that insight. Thank you, Amy. We’re going to hand it back over to Allison, to go through a couple of checklist items that would be helpful. The first on the checklist is keeping a consistent template. Both Ginny, and Julia talked about this. Looking at templates to support the single tone of voice coherency and efficiency, the setup of the front end. Understanding what the structure’s going to look like and making something that’s repeatable throughout not only this specific proposal but things you can iterate on as you move forward on additional proposals.
I like the conversation around company style guides. Creating watchword lists and following industry-style guides, throughout a proposal helps to support your writers. It helps to support them as they work through, and to make sure that key terms and, key themes, that you are consistently speaking about this. They’re not seeing things referenced in different ways throughout the proposal. It makes everything much more cohesive and reinforces your win themes. Using data to lead the proposal, identifying patterns and key terminology within customer documents. I know that this is something that many of our VisibleThread customers use the platform to do. Understanding the consistencies and understanding themes that are coming up in the customer proposal will allow you to address the underlying pain point. Me of what Anatalia talked about, the why, the underlying pain, what’s the real value there, and help you effectively communicate how you’re going to solve for that.
And making sure that you are answering requirements. We want to craft a cohesive message and have a consistent tone.The dictionary’s WatchWord list helps to shape the style of the contributors and controls that level of complexity. Keeping the themes consistent, keeping it simple, and focusing on being concise and specific, answer requirements, and make it easy for evaluators to understand what you are going to do. How that fixes their problem, and how you’re going to get there most effectively. And then for a single tone of voice, we know that the proposal needs to be easy to follow. It needs to be clear, and it needs to be cohesive. We need it to be, clear, concise, and customer-centric, and speak to their why and speak to the value that you are going to bring with this partnership. Why you are the correct person to partner with.
Allison Ritz (00:41:08):
What I want to talk about is VT Writer Word Add-In. This lets you analyze your proposal writing for clarity directly in your MS Word environment. This compliments, the web-based staff, and VT Writer email service. For example, I’m editing a document from a financial services SME. This is a notice going to a business that appears to be bankrupt These are the type of important documents that we’re talking about and that we often see. if the communication here is overly complex, it can result in friction during the process. And the bigger issue there is non-compliance on the part of the recipient. To analyze and simplify the doc, all we have to do now is click on the VT Writer icon within the ribbon and sign in, and analyze.
The first thing we see here in our analysis is this traffic-style report card at the top of the doc. This shows scores for clarity with objective metrics. For example, one in three sentences here, 35% of the sentences obtained are too long. We see a similarly high percentage of passive voice and a grade level that’s higher than what’s standard for this type of communication. Grade level is a leading indicator of how complex the content is. Therefore, how much cognitive overhead will it take to understand the information contained within them? for a document like this, we need to get it down to grade eight or below to satisfy industry standards, but more important to ensure compliance with our recipient. Looking at the analysis, you can see that VT Writer analyzes every paragraph for clarity using grade level.
This is incredibly important in our feedback loop as we give, begin to see paragraphs turn green as we edit. We can begin our edits. The easiest way to start to simplify a document is by splitting long sentences. I’m going to click on our issues drop-down here. And you see that there are a lot of ways that we can kind of slice and dice this. I want to focus our analysis and streamline our editing a little bit. we’re just going to focus on long sentences. When we click on our sentence, it is highlighted in our word doc. The first sentence is 45 words with a grade level of 21.6. Let’s split that up because obviously, that isn’t incredibly effective. All I have to do is go to start my edits by breaking up the sentences at natural points.
By breaking up the centers at natural points and simplifying the language, we’re going to make this more digestible. You can repeat the same editing cycle throughout the rest of the document. Begin to expand your focus to passive voice, long words, grammar, and more. And additionally, you can begin to apply those industry and company style guides and WatchWords to begin to shape the tone and structure of your communications. When we’re finished editing, all we have to do is click reanalyze and we’ll see our improved score and what kind of progress we’ve made.
We see here that we’re down to 8.1, right at the grade level we want it to be. And the real impact is now the document is easier to understand and therefore more accessible to a broader swath of the population. This will result in a better experience for the reader and a higher likelihood of compliance with the instructions contained within. The word add-in communicates directly. The word add-in communicates directly with your organization’s VT Writer workspace. Within the browser, the analysis history of the document, we will see the progression of our editing cycle, and we can see our improvements there. Coming down to VT insights and then into our quality of content and our content pain here, the organization can see all edits across all businesses.
These metrics can be used to quantify improvement across the organization. this is invaluable when it comes to identifying areas for coaching and recognition. Additionally, there’s a huge amount of data power here to support improvement at a contributor level, all the way up to large-scale change at an organizational level. Beyond this specific example, the functionality here is universal. The same concise communication is crucial when developing a proposal that needs to be easily digestible and compelling while we’re remaining customer-centric. just one example of how the word add-in makes VT Writer super accessible, and another way that we can focus on clear and concise communication with plain language.
Lori Manav (00:47:10):
The first question is, how do you structure for compliance with the instructions and criteria that are inconsistent? Anatalia, I think this one feeds into what you were talking about at the beginning, I’ll pass that one to you.
Anatalia Macik (00:48:02):
Yeah, thank you. And I love this question. It’s like the debate of the century when it comes to proposals. Because it happens so often. And right now I’m in the commercial international space and we have a lot of fun with our proposals because there are times when we don’t have instructions or we don’t have evaluation criteria. And what do you do with that? I don’t know what to do with these bids. So those are lots of fun, but when you have instructions, that’s the rule of what you’re supposed to provide. And you focus on the instructions first. That’s how you lay out your bid because that’s what they’re asking you to provide. That’s the laundry list of what you need to put into your proposal, and that’s what you’re going to be checked for compliance against.
Did you provide your small business plan? Did you provide whatever sets of requirements they’re looking for? Did you respond to section C? I know sometimes that stuff is included in the evaluation criteria. But ideally, if they’re following the rules you follow the instructions. That’s step one. And then you look at the evaluation criteria. In a perfect world, the evaluation criteria do align with the instructions. And you should be able to do a one-to-one. But the question isn’t that because we don’t live in a perfect world.?
You have to do a deep dive and see what does align and align it where it can. It’s also a good time to ask the question of your customer, “Hey this is unclear. Can you please review?” Or “can you provide some clarity on…”? Whatever makes sense. Now, I am a fan of not asking unnecessary questions. So if it’s enough that you can make sense of it yourself, do so. If you can figure it out on your own, do so and only ask the question if it’s critical. If you have evaluation criteria or an instruction that’s come completely out of the blue and you have no idea what to do with it, please ask the question. Don’t try to make sense of it on your own.
Make the one-to-one between the evaluation criteria and the instructions as much as you can. If you cannot, then I’m a fan of creating your outline based on the instructions first, because those are the instructions. And then you take the evaluation criteria, weave it in as much as you can into the instructions, and then if not you can add onto your outline with the additional information from the evaluation criteria, either putting it in advance, like in advance of those sections of the evaluation criteria. But typically your evaluation criteria is where you have the weighting that’s, depending on the customer, depending on what the evaluation criteria look like, it may or may not even be weighted.
If it is weighted, then that’s what needs to be upfront because that’s what you’re going to be scored on. I would put that upfront so that what’s being scored on they see first. And that’s where, you know, they’re going to be checking those things off first. If it’s not weighted, then use your best judgment. And it is hard, and this is where you know that art and science come in. It’s like putting together a puzzle. I’ve had whole day meetings where we’ve gone through and we’ve laid out, okay, here’s the instructions, here are the evaluation criteria. How do we map this together? And that’s the other thing. I wouldn’t do it by myself as a proposal manager or a proposal writer. Don’t do it by yourself. Include your capture manager if you have one or your BD lead. Include your leadership, whoever makes sense to be a part of that conversation.
Include them as well. It should not be one person deciding because I guarantee you they’re going to change it when they look at it. Don’t decide by yourself as the proposal leads on the opportunity, but have a wider discussion, especially when it’s not clear and it’s kind of all over the place. have a conversation with whoever the key stakeholders are and look at what makes the most sense for that particular opportunity. But typically, if the evaluation criteria is weighted, then that needs to take priority. But you want tona also follow the instructions. It can be complicated. And again, it takes time. What’s key too, is don’t start writing until you have your outline settled.
Also, a lot of people will be like, well, let’s just start writing and we’ll figure it out., No, don’t start writing. Even if you have a short turnaround time, it’s better to take the time to figure out your outline first, get it settled, and then start writing, because then you’re just going to create a lot of rework. In the long run, if you are messing around with your outline in the midst of trying to write, it’s going to cause frustration and headache for everybody.
Ginny Carson (00:53:25):
I don’t have anything brilliant to add or change there. But I would say that in addition to engaging the stakeholders for outline approval across our team, we have another proposal manager approve every outline before it goes out to operations so that we have two proposal professionals who’ve blessed the outline and the incorporation of the evaluation criteria before it goes. And then any changes that happen after that just have to come back for a check for compliance to make sure that we didn’t change anything that moved us into a non-compliance space.
Amy McGeady (00:54:01):
Yeah, and I think the only other thing that I’d like to add, is sometimes it also makes sense to include a crosswalk. You can call it a compliance matrix. Something else with your proposal is that if, like anaNatalia suggests that you’ve decided that what you’re going to focus on is complying with the instructions, but you want to make sure that the reader knows where your main points that relate to their top evaluation criteria are. That could be in your executive summary, or that can be just in your front matter. That could be in independence, depending on the constraints of that particular client and their requirements. But you can go ahead and spell that out and put that in your proposal if the instructions don’t forbid that from happening.
Lori Manav (00:54:51):
Can you offer some great watchwords to include?
Amy McGeady (00:55:14):
Well, I think, there are a few things. This is not exactly a watchword, but a lot of acronyms, especially acronyms that are not universally understood or well explained, I think I’ve put that on my watch list. If you have some very specific jargon within your company that it’s difficult to understand someone when you were new, did you not understand what that was? Avoid that. And those grandiose statements that mean nothing. I think all of us have heard many times this is best in breed, this is industry-leading. This is the first and only of its kind that when you read those things, you’re like, well, is it really, it starts making you kind of question is this, true? Those are some of my WatchWords and things I’m always on the lookout for.
Ginny Carson (00:56:11):
I mentioned earlier, when we created that style guide, we have a section in there where the proposal managers can come in and continue to add things that pop up in the proposal. The word that comes to mind for me right now is “utilize”, there’s almost no instance where you can not use “use” versus “utilize”. And so simpler is better. Every rule has its exception, but I like having ownership in the living breathing document for those, watchwords to be built into.
Julia Desantis (00:56:46):
For making sure that you have a client-centered response is using watchwords simply to count how many times have you said your company name? How many times have you said your client’s name? And it requires some thought, some human analysis. But it does give you a quick bellwether, that’s 20 times to one that I’ve said my name and not theirs, and can trigger some conversations. That’s one easy one. And the other thing I wanted to mention, and I always think of it as far as watchwords are sometimes what I have observed is there is just almost like a trigger word. And one proposal that I worked on, was for a system for wage garnishment, for people that weren’t making their child support payments.
Well, this organization had identified that the word “users” could be off-putting to this population. That was their assessment. That’s what Capture had understood that word specifically was off-putting to them in that situation. that was a watchword every time we would look for users, it was software. A lot of programmers are used to saying ‘users’. So we watched it and then we just said, we would make a style guide decision to change it to participants. that was a very specific example of a watchword that we knew would cause people to put the fences up.
Lori Manav (00:58:33):
A final question. How do you all handle measuring grade level? Is eighth grade a standard? And Ginny, since we were with you last, I’ll pass it back to you to answer how you measure grade level.
We go with eighth grade unless there’s some reason not to. Sometimes we’re writing proposals to a very academic audience, in which case we may elevate that grade level. But it’s kinda like if you go to a cocktail party, it’s best to be overdressed. I would say that in the world of proposals, it’s best to be eighth-grade level even if they’re looking for a little bit higher because that allows you to be simple and direct, which wins the day. Versus being verbose and complex. That’s my general philosophy on grade level.
Lori Manav (00:59:32):
Perfect. And, and Julia, what are your thoughts?
Julia Desantis (00:59:40):
It depends on who you’re writing for, and what your grade level targets are. One thing that I have gone through recently actually using VisibleThread is that well part of the formula for figuring out a grade level is how many syllables are in a word. And I work for a company that has four syllables in the word. Simply adding that word to an exclude list could give us more accurate grade levels. That was a little tactic that I recently discovered. If the section is reporting, this is a 12th grade, and you can look a little more closely, are there words in there with a lot of syllables that are okay for this audience that are necessary words for this conversation with them on that exclude list?
Allison Ritz (01:00:36):
Lori, I have a good tip on that, that worked through with some of our customers if you’re looking at simplifying and looking at what can be brought down to more plain language or more concise language versus what can’t specifically in technical pieces, medical spaces. Some words are complex and there isn’t anything to supplement them. the example we used was ‘anesthesiologist’. There’s no replacement word for ‘anesthesiologist’. That’s something that you could manage in a watchword type of situation. things that you can’t find a replacement for and that you have to use, we understand, especially in technical writing, that’s a reality, but a lot of the writing can be more concise and more direct. And I think that especially in academic audiences, we tend to lean towards more complex writing where the actual effect of that may end is not something incredibly positive. Those are just a couple of kind of tips on ways you can approach that.
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