Part of persuasion is getting people to understand your point of view. It is convincing someone that what you’re saying is true and that they should do what you suggest. With proposals, you don’t have the advantage of being face to face with your customer. You can’t read their body language, you don’t have the opportunity to adjust your approach based on their reactions, and you don’t gain the benefits that come with a direct exchange of ideas in real-time. We have to include everything the government evaluators need in our proposal.
With proposals, you’re dependent on the written word. But storytelling and oral histories existed long before the written text, and it’s that human inclination toward storytelling that can give you an edge in your proposals. If you look around modern marketing today, the most successful ads and commercials are based on storytelling. That’s how humans relate. Through a story, they can take a complicated idea and relate it to themselves. That relating to someone else is the type of experience we need to use in our proposals. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful element of persuasion in proposals, and it should permeate your proposal.
So how do you tell a story? A good proposal story has three main parts. You have to set the scene, introduce the problem or complication, and show a positive outcome through your actions. Of course, the story you’re telling us about your company or your key personnel, and how they encountered challenges and overcame them. A story that conveys the everyday heroics that happen at work will resonate more with your evaluators than a rote statement like, “We always go above and beyond for our customers.” Show the evaluator how you’ve gone above and beyond. Tell them a hero story.
Hero stories are often hidden in your past performance, but you need to interview project personnel to find the best stories. For example, we once had a client that installed generators. Some of their initial written information to us stated that they finished a six-month project in just three months and that they did a good job. By digging deeper, we discovered that our client took over a contract that was already three months behind, and they wanted to get the project back on track.
We asked them how they managed to meet that timeframe, what specifically happened in those three months? That’s how we found the story. People canceled their vacations and started working in two shifts. They built scaffolding in the rooms so that people could literally work on top of each other at the same time. The work itself was hot, grueling, and dangerous. The workers had to wear protective rubber suits, and despite the long hours and the heat inside the suits, the employees operated efficiently and safely. There were zero safety incidents during this push to finish in three months.
Their desire to meet their original schedule commitment, despite the other contractor, and get the project back on the track resulted in an excellent story. Telling that story is much more persuasive than saying, “We care about our client’s mission, and we do everything to support it,” which is just an empty statement. Prove it. Canceling your vacations and working in two shifts to wrench a late-running project back on schedule proves to the evaluator that you care about your client’s mission.
Here are some additional tips on incorporating storytelling into your proposal:
- If you are an incumbent, use “horror” stories, scaring the customer into selecting you. Show how things would break down if it weren’t for you.
- For proposals that involve health, safety, or security, use drama and tension, using your solution as the means to a good resolution.
- A “lessons learned” story shows how you’ve overcome and grown from setbacks, making you a stronger and better fit for the project than any other competitor.
- Anecdotes on past performance — what happened on a similar project in similar circumstances — may be the inspiring story of overcoming challenges and triumphing over the hardest of circumstances.
- When describing your solution, you may want to use a technique used in science fiction: Describe a future result of your work that transforms the customer.
- Try the “before and after” story, detailing how much better your customer has operated since you won the contract.
- In a research and development proposal, you might tell a mystery, defining the challenging problem and showing how you could find the solution.
- Tell a story about your process. What do the steps mean, why are they necessary, and why did you develop them? What problems are they meant to circumvent?
- A positioning story that shows how you stack up against your competitors gives you an opportunity to show how you’re superior.
Remember that when you end your story, you need to show a favorable resolution. The story just can’t end with something like, “Our contract was canceled for convenience by the government.” Find a positive conclusion for your story and end there.
In proposal writing, teams often question whether they have enough space for storytelling, or whether it’s relevant in a technical volume or past performance narratives. Yes, stories are always needed. Even on severely page-limited proposals, you need to have proof. One way to convince the government that your technical approach is the best approach is by proving that you’ve done it before. If your approach has worked in the past, that makes it less risky than other possible solutions. And the risk is the benefit that government customers tend to value above all others. They want a solution that isn’t risky. Stories show the government that you’ve done it before, and you can do it again. They are a critical element of persuasion that a lot of proposals are missing, and they make a huge difference in your win probability.
If you would like to learn more about how to tell stories in your proposal, then check our Writing Persuasive Federal Proposals class [link].
OST also supports our clients by helping win their strategic bids through capture and proposal consulting services. Reach out to us if you would like to hear about how we can help you secure your next contract.
Here are some upcoming OST courses you may be interested in:
Proposal Win Strategy and Win Themes Development
September 7, 2021 9:00 am – 5:00 pm>
September 16 – 17 2021 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Contact us to learn more.