A proposal is a sales document. It’s not a technical paper, a white paper, or a point paper. When you create a proposal, you must convince your client to buy from your company. A professional proposal writer needs to demonstrate mastery of knowledge, expertise, and skills necessary to write a proposal that persuades the reader to buy.
Sometimes, a proposal writer relies on subject matter experts or other people for inputs, but it’s the writer’s job to turn those inputs into persuasive prose. Obviously, it helps to be talented, but proposal writing doesn’t take exceptional talent. Passion in proposals is conveyed through clear plans, customer knowledge, facts, and overwhelming proof. Clever words and large vocabularies are overrated.
It’s possible to improve as a proposal writer and, maybe, even enjoy it. Let’s talk about 3 ways to become a better proposal writer.

1. Learn What Sells—Understanding Neuroscience

First and foremost, we aren’t writing proposals into the void of our customers’ organizations. We’re writing proposals for people, and all people are emotional buyers. The unconscious mind drives how the evaluators respond to the proposal outside of compliance.
There are many different emotional desires that people have, but they all boil down to the desire for gain and/or the fear of consequence and failure. Our job is to satisfy the evaluators’ desires without setting off any alarms. People are defensive when they feel like they are being sold to. Here are some ways to get past that defensive feeling that people naturally have and put evaluators at ease:

  • Start with the customer: this sets the right tone of the proposal from the beginning – this proposal is about you, the customer. So many proposals seem like they were written to sell something to their own organization because it’s all about them and the customer is hardly in the proposal. Perfectly framing the customer’s problem, environment, or key challenge up front tells the evaluator that you understand them and that you will take care of them.
  • Speak the customer’s language: this shows that you are part of the “flock.” For example, different branches of the military have different lingo and jargon for the same thing. People buy from people that are like them. An evaluator from the Army will feel more at ease speaking with someone from the Army than from the Navy. The same principle applies in proposals.
  • Include win themes with targeted benefits: these will show the value the customer can expect to receive from whatever you’re offering. A benefit explains what’s in it for the customer and explains how so. All benefits for any offering can be boiled down to four categories; something can be better, faster, cheaper, and/or less risky. It’s extremely rare to be all four because higher quality (better) is generally more expensive. Win themes are a capture task not a proposal task.
  • Use clear accessible writing: this means that you are writing at the 11th or 12th grade reading level for the technical sections and 9th or 10th grade reading level for all other sections. Generally, we should average 4-5 sentences per paragraph, 20 words per sentence, less than 20% passive voice, and a Felsch Reading Ease score of 40-50 or higher. Microsoft Word measures these “readability statistics” for you. Look up how to view them.

2. Claim Leadership of Your Proposal Section 

Don’t abdicate responsibility of the technical content in the proposal. Subject matter experts are busy and aren’t always as available as we would like. Sometimes they work in secure locations and can’t have their phones. Other times, they can’t talk around other contractors from competing companies. SMEs work full-time jobs and don’t have time after work hours or during weekends.
When the SMEs aren’t available then it falls to the proposal writer to learn about the subject and research the technical matter. This may seem like a daunting task, but human minds are designed to learn. Start by suspending the panic and insecurity about learning a new subject. It’s likely that you won’t understand much at first, but you’re just trying to absorb as much as possible as quickly as possible. The key is to relax and pay attention as the information flows through you. You will absorb passive vocabulary.
A great place to start learning a new subject matter is the statement of work’s background and scope sections. Use internet searches to look up key words and concepts you don’t understand. The key is to quickly identify things that are useful.
Write out key terminology and look up acronyms and concepts – just like learning a foreign language. Preview documents by looking at the table of contents and pay attention to titles, structure, organization, and key landmarks. Then isolate relevant information into sections that you will skim versus read in detail. Write out any questions that still need answering, take notes, and then organize the material in a way that is useful in the proposal.
The goal is to get a contextual understanding. You don’t have to understand everything. This will make you a much better and faster proposal writer.

3. Partner with your SMEs to Create Outstanding Sections

As discussed earlier, SMEs are busy. A proposal writer’s job is to simplify complex subject matters into simple, easy to understand proposal sections. A good way to start is to picture yourself as the user who needs this system, service, or product instead of the provider. You can do this by asking questions.

  • What is the customer or end users’ problems?
  • What are their challenges?
  • What do they struggle with on a day-to-day basis?

If you can’t figure it out yourself, then you can ask your SME to explain it to you as if you were a 7th grader. Never be afraid to ask questions, but you do need to know the difference between a question that will distract the group and destroy your credibility versus one that is helpful for the group and you. Sticking to who, what, and how questions will generally keep you safe. There’s always the failsafe excuse, “I’m a proposal writer, not a SME.”
Many SMEs don’t know how to write, are bad writers, or just don’t like to write. Interviewing SMEs will save everyone time and headaches. Before the interview, you need to have a firm grasp of the questions that need to be answered in the proposal section.
Generally, questions boil down to what are we going to do, who is going to do it, and how are we going to do it in response to the requirements?
This means that you need to have planned out your section by analyzing where this section falls in the proposal. Are you writing a summary section or a very technical section? You also have to determine the overall focus on the section as in what are the most important requirements for this section.
Then you can start a structured interview process to get the information you need. Explain the process when you start the interview. Tell the SME to just talk and answer the question – you will take notes. If you have planned well enough, then you should have enough for a first draft. Most SMEs are very good at picking something apart once it’s written. By creating the first draft and letting the SME edit, you will relieve a lot of stress that comes from the proposal process. Learning the subject matter will make all of this better.

Federal Proposal Writing Skill Demand Will Only Increase

Writers with great proposal writing skills will continue to be in high demand. Whether you’re an independent or in-house writer, you only benefit from improving your skills. Companies who encourage their proposal writers to get professional development will see increased win probability (Pwin) and better ROI for their bid and proposal dollars.

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