Finding Your Focus When Starting a Proposal

Techniques to Help You Maximize Your Time and Deliver Quality Content

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All writers, whether they’re writing for business or for pleasure, sometimes struggle with focus — and how can we not? Statistica reports roughly 306 billion emails were sent and received every day in 2020. An ACM Digital Library study reports “mobile phone users receive an average of 63.5 alerts every day,” and a study by Deloitte found that “people check their phone, on average, 47 times a day — often in response to alerts.” It’s no wonder we sometimes struggle to find focus when researchers at Florida State University conclude that even “the simple sound or vibration accompanying the notification had a big impact on focus.”

While modern tools such as email and smartphones help us stay connected and communicate faster and more frequently, too much communication divides our attention. The more divided our attention, the less mental bandwidth we have for activities that take priority such as winning new business. When you’re having trouble focusing on a proposal writing task, use these techniques to help you get a firm grip on your writing and your time.

1. Go with the flow.

You find the time to write, things are going well, and you’re confident this will take less time than planned. Your focus has brought you into the writing flow, which makes proposal writing faster and easier.

Challenge: You run into a requirement or detail you don’t know how to answer. Your instinct tells you to be thorough and find the answer now.

Best Practice: Stop. Just put “TBA” in the text for “to be added” and keep writing. You can fix it later. You may find the answer now, but according to a University of California Irvine study, “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task” after an interruption in flow. That’s a lot of lost time. So, right now, the most important thing you can do is keep writing.

2. Disarm distractions.

You’re halfway into writing your first paragraph and your email or smartphone pings. You know you shouldn’t get it, it will break your flow and the deadline is looming. But there’s this strategic deal and they might be calling to ask…

Challenge: You peek at your email. You are a pro at multitasking, so you got this. Unfortunately, multitasking divides your attention. Consider those viral videos where they give people additional tasks to do while driving and how their driving performance plummets, as they hit cones left and right.

Best Practice: Tell yourself it’s OK to check the email, but not right now. Wait 10 minutes. Waiting means you neither push the email away nor act on it. In the meantime, you stay in the writing flow and get 10 minutes closer to finishing your proposal writing task.

3. Tame your muse.

Your proposal writing muse is your source of inspiration, tapping into experience and well-worded answers that keep your prospect front and center. It lives in the right, or creative, side of your brain, opposite the critic who lives in the logical, left side of your brain. Thinking about how to fill the blank page? That’s your muse at work. Editing? That’s your critic.

Challenge: You cannot simply tell your muse to come and go. And you don’t have time to sit and wait for it to arrive. That’s how deadlines are missed.

Best Practice: Entice your muse by scheduling time to work together. Put it on your calendar: 45 minutes on this proposal writing task. As the meeting approaches, your brain will be warming up to write and your muse will get that gentle nudge it needs to appear and perform.

4. Plan your destination.

When the blank page is still blank, you no doubt turn to your content library. Just remember, trying to compel a new prospect to take action based on content that was written for someone else is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It sort of fits, but fails to hit the mark.

Challenge: Proposal rejection boils down to any number of triggers, for example, compliance, deadlines, pricing and terms. Proposal evaluation and scoring, however, are simple to boil down; if your proposal doesn’t speak to the specific needs of the evaluating decision-makers, it will be difficult to read, understand, absorb, accept and score. Reusable content may get you to your first draft faster, but when it’s not presented from the evaluator’s perspective, it can quickly dilute or misrepresent your value proposition and damage your credibility.

Best Practice: The key to leveraging reusable content is to plan your writing destination first. How do you want the evaluator to feel when they finish reading? What do you want them to do? That is your destination.

To map your destination, look to your proposal themes, your section-specific feature/benefit or benefit/proof statements. They serve as section outlines, helping you source and organize reusable content, while anchoring it to your prospect’s context and your team’s win strategy.

To bring relatable context to your proposal and remove the taint of reusable content, start by separating the former prospect’s context (what is unique to them) from the requirement (what is your answer). Then tailor it by focusing on what is unique — the “what’s in it for me” aspect of your solution and the relevant, real-life details that make it relatable.

Tip: When you finish writing for the day, leave yourself a few destination notes. This will make it easier to jump-start your next writing session, while providing your proposal manager and reviewers insight into what work remains.

5. Ignore your inner critic.

As proposal writers, or experts who write proposals, we want our proposal creations to engage and persuade evaluators. But we know that before evaluators lay their eyes on our creation, it will be read by internal reviewers for compliance and quality. That thought can easily shift our brains from writing muse to writing critic mode.

Challenge: It’s only natural to want to stop and tweak while writing. But constantly breaking your writing flow can quickly drain your energy and lower your productivity.

Best Practice: Don’t let your inner critic get in the way of where your writing needs to go. Turn off “show misspelled words.” You can fix those later. Try writing to an allotted time, and don’t stop to edit. When you’re done, don’t read; schedule time to edit. When it’s time to edit, your critic will step in and help you make sense of it, correcting answers and emphasizing win strategy.

Proposal writing can often feel like a race to the finish line. Using these techniques to master focus will help you use your time wisely, deliver quality content and hit those deadlines.


Cheryl Smith has been writing and managing proposals since 1998. Shipley trained, she has helped establish proposal centers and advised on capture strategy, coached orals teams, and led marketing and communications programs. She recently joined Xait’s customer success team as part of their acquisition of Privia. She can be reached at cheryl.smith@xait.com.

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