Everyone knows that if you don’t bid then you can’t win. There is much to be said about a thorough and rigorous capture and bid/no-bid process, but companies that grow aggressively also write lots of proposals. If your goal is to submit more bids, then you must get better at developing higher-quality proposals in less time. Here are six tips on how to write faster and better proposals.
- Get cross-trained in all proposal disciplines.
To be a well-rounded proposal expert, you need to study all aspects of the profession. That includes proposal management, writing, editing, graphics, desktop publishing, capture (especially win themes and solution development), and developing cost volumes. You need all these skills to know how to lead your proposal team, perform well under pressure, and develop compelling and compliant content. You also need to understand enough about pricing and the elements of writing a winning cost proposal to ensure that your volumes are consistent and complementary. Check out our upcoming class on Winning Government Cost Proposals.
As you develop your skills, you will be able to tackle many tasks in a single pass that normally take multiple specialized proposal professionals to complete. For example, you could edit and do desktop publishing at the same time, or you could edit the graphics yourself instead of marking them up and sending them to the graphic artist, then proofing them again, and so on. It saves a lot of time in coordination and reduces the risk of miscommunication.
Additionally, many proposal professionals in large companies get cross-trained to prevent burnout. After several proposals in a row, it’s nice to be able to run capture on opportunities that have a slower operational tempo. Conversely, capture managers are cross-trained in proposals so they can understand how their preparation and capture efforts affect the process further downstream. Understanding what it takes to develop a winning proposal is key to becoming a great capture manager.
- Get the help of the Subject Matter Experts (SME)
Proposal managers tackle many challenges, but they are usually not expected to develop the proposed solution. A proposal manager’s job is to make content more compelling, not generate it from scratch or from boilerplate. You need help from your team with this task. Sometimes there is limited technical expertise or the team does not have the right experts. Other times, the company has the right experts, but they are unavailable for proposal support. To overcome these challenges, the best proposal managers know how to quickly digest new material and become experts. This skill allows them to improve content themselves and help SMEs develop the most relevant and compelling content by leading a brainstorming session or asking great questions. Our Advanced Proposal Management class covers how to learn quickly.
However, proposal managers can only do so much. Company leadership needs to support your proposal effort. This could be the carrot or the stick. The carrot is to compensate SMEs for writing proposals with money or time off, and the stick is to set expectations for SMEs to contribute to proposals as part of their jobs. Don’t compromise your leadership reputation by always picking up the slack for SMEs or faking it. It will negatively impact your confidence in your ability to lead a winning proposal effort when your company suffers frequent losses.
- Get training in speed writing
Most people are not taught how to write proposals, so they do not understand the correct writing process. A backward, convoluted proposal writing process leads to painful writing experiences. Many proposal writers write a sentence, edit that sentence, stop, research, come back, correct, rewrite, berate themselves, and procrastinate. The problem with a typical proposal team is that the proposal manager doesn’t know how to write fast, which means they cannot teach their SMEs how to write either. The entire team burns the midnight oil, going through a painful process of procrastinating, then gaining some momentum, then losing it again.
The correct writing process includes 3 steps, which are: 1) Brainstorming and Researching, 2) Writing, and 3) Editing, Rewriting, and Polishing. Using the correct process reduces the frustration that comes along with writing proposals and results in a better document. Our Writing Persuasive Government Proposals class goes into depth on how to write persuasive proposals faster, and training SMEs on how to write proposals will prevent having to rewrite the proposal at the 11th hour.
- Think pre-built
The more you build in advance, the less time you will need to spend after the Request for Proposal (RFP) is out. To save time, create a set of process tools and management templates you can use during every proposal. For example, you can create all the forms you generally use for proposal management, such as the RFP distribution list, collection of questions for the RFP, tracking matrixes, compliance matrix, proposal status meeting agenda, proposal schedule, a proposal kickoff brief template, style guide, Pink Team kickoff and debrief, Red Team kickoff and debrief, and so on. If you have everything organized at your fingertips, you won’t have to fish in recent proposal folders to figure out what you want to reuse, and you won’t risk having leftover artifacts from an old proposal embarrass you during meetings.
Another massive time-saver is to pre-program your company’s styles into Word as a proposal template. Set the default Paste rules to “Keep Text Only” to prevent importing styles from the Internet or boilerplate materials from other proposal contributors. You can build a style for attractive tables, so they appear with a single click. As you submit more and more proposals, you can create and use a library of easily modifiable graphics. Easily modifiable means graphics created in Microsoft PowerPoint that don’t require editing by a proposal graphics artist using Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. A good artist can create attractive graphics with any tool, and PowerPoint has become significantly more powerful. Don’t hesitate to make the switch if you still think that Adobe is the only way to go, but your graphics budget are typically low. You can get more done in less time if you cut out steps in developing graphics and make easy changes yourself.
- Use Checklists for everything
Checklists for repeated tasks are important even for seasoned professionals. This is why pilots with thousands of flight hours use checklists for everything: “before takeoff,” “cruise,” “pre-descent,” “in-range,” and so on. Checklists eliminate mistakes and oversights, and — just like in aviation — the proposal profession places a tremendous responsibility on the proposal manager’s shoulders. Although not a matter of life and death, a proposal outcome determines the company’s and its employees’ livelihoods. We recommend using a set of checklists for the proposal management process. For example, we use a checklist for RFP analysis, pre-kickoff preparations, data call issuance, day-to-day management, review preparations, and proposal printing and delivery. You can get your own copy of A Proposal Manager’s Essential Checklists to help you with managing your proposals as well.
We use another set of checklists for content development. These checklists help eliminate tangents during solution brainstorming meetings where participants may freewheel through topics for hours without producing usable proposal material. The checklists for management and technical sections help structure the discussion and remind your SMEs about successful solutions offered previously. These checklists must be tailored to your set of offerings and updated with each original solution you develop. They form a powerful framework for writing proposals faster. You can get a sample copy of technical and management solution checklists in our Advanced Capture Management class.
- Get the right tools in place
If you run proposals off of email, you are either a team of one or two people, or you are stuck in the past century. Coordinating a proposal via email risks version control issues, and it is unnecessarily difficult when so many great collaboration tools are readily available.
We have apps on our smartphones for nearly everything, but surprisingly few tools make it into the world of proposals. Here are a few worth mentioning. Microsoft SharePoint and OneDrive come standard with professional Office. However, dozens of other superb collaboration platforms exist to help manage version control, simultaneous proposal writing and reviews, communication, workflows, and other proposal tasks that can take up to forty percent of a proposal manager’s time. Ensure your collaboration suite is properly configured and your proposal team is trained to use it.
Develop a proposal content library you can reuse in addition to your checklists. Include your old proposals, reusable proposal content, graphics library, past performance library, resume, various plan templates, “golden nuggets” about your company, and other proposal assembly line components. Keep your library up to date by dedicating one of your staff members to maintaining it.
Use mind mapping tools for brainstorming by yourself or in a group. Our favorites are Mindjet and xMind. Mind mapping tools have rich uses in proposals including analyzing an RFP, outlining, and brainstorming on solutions and proposal win themes.
Finally, consider using proposal software that automates some portions of the proposal development process. Make sure it can fetch content from your proposal library. It must work well with Microsoft Word and not distort formatting when you try to change the document outside of the software. It should be also easy to use. The goal is for the software to save you time instead of causing headaches.
With all of these components in place, you will be well on your way to writing proposals better and faster. If you need assistance at any stage in the business development cycle — from opportunity identification and capture to proposal writing — contact us to find out how we can meet your needs.
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