The Art and Science of Writing a Successful Bid Proposal

How Style Fits into the Proposal Process

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Great proposal writers, like great movie directors, are something of an anachronism. Director Stanley Kubrick was renowned for his tight control of most aspects of the filmmaking process, from planning and selecting actors to music choices. But now, with $200 million budgets and multiple locations, such levels of control are impossible. We don’t tend to think in terms of great individuals anymore; we think more about great teams. Collaboration is key. No one person can make it all work.

The days of proposal writers being entirely responsible for a bid are all but over. The task of winning business falls to a team of people, with a wide variety of roles to play. A great proposal these days is much more “Game of Thrones” than “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It works at a level and on a scale far beyond a single individual and their own intuition. Yet, it still must present a unique vision in its own distinct style. “Game of Thrones” successfully conveys a complete world with an integrated set of values that its audience can buy into. Despite taking 3,589 people to bring “Game of Thrones” from page to screen, it immerses us in one vision.

Likewise, a winning business proposal, despite the number of people involved, needs to speak with one voice. It must convince its audience with every sentence that there is only one organization worthy of this contract.

Both a Science and an Art

Writing proposals has always been both a science and an art. The art is in the ability to say everything that matters from the buyer’s point of view and to say it in a way that sets you apart from the competition. It’s in getting inside the head of the buyer — their values, constraints, risks, motivators and problems — and then, in a word-limited answer, making the proposed solution spring to life.

The science is in incorporating all the tools and techniques required for a successful and structured approach to winning bids. Building a proposal is a complex task. Proposal content needs to attract and engage busy evaluators as well as provide enough detailed information to satisfy a deep dive by those who take the time to investigate more closely.

For many organizations these days, bid writing is more harvesting than writing. It often involves allocating sections to different writers and requesting input from various subject-matter experts. Then there is the inevitable cutting and pasting chunks of previous bids and trying to rework the content to match the differently focused questions of the new bid. Once all the individual sections are considered complete, they are put together and handed to the unlucky person who has the job of hunting down errors. Whether it’s inconsistent styles and spellings or the wrong company name left in from a previous tender, every error needs to be found to give that sense of one voice and avoid the calamity of a deal-breaking mistake.

Proposal teams often collaborate on a global scale. Yet the whole proposal needs to speak with one voice — from vision to detail. How do you achieve this with people from different parts of the world, from professional backgrounds quite unfamiliar to each other, dealing with technical and financial projects so specialized and complex that they are far beyond the scope of any individual?

The answer is a style manual. And for those proposal teams who use Chicago style, proofreading software PerfectIt has partnered with The Chicago Manual of Style, allowing subscribers to access the manual within the software to ensure their content meets style guidelines.

Many proposal teams have a house style that uses Chicago style as their base; others will use it to ensure their writing style is in line with their buyer’s style. The problem, until now, has always been how to get your team to apply the style, when that involves checking every sentence against a huge tome of advice.

PerfectIt users can now run their proposals through a Chicago style check, where it will not only flag hard-to-spot style or spelling inconsistencies, extra spaces and undefined acronyms, but it will also highlight places where the document does not comply with Chicago style. It offers a detailed explanation of the manual’s advice to users for each suggestion, so they learn as they edit. And because PerfectIt sits in the ribbon of Microsoft Word, users can embed Chicago style, your buyer’s style preferences or your own corporate style guide inside Microsoft Word.

Integrating Technology into the Proposal Writing Process

Tech tools are a growing and increasingly compelling part of the science side of proposal writing. If the bidding team cannot achieve consistency in style, syntax and punctuation of their written proposal, it augurs badly for their ability to master the quality requirements and detail of the contract once awarded.

Evaluation panels are increasingly using software themselves, in the form of acquisition software and content search tools, to locate scorable narrative and to check compliance. Some government agencies are even starting to use AI for proposal evaluation. Ensuring that proposals mirror the RFP requirements and evaluation criteria as much as possible, for example, by mapping strengths to keywords, can help proposals score well in an automated process.

In an increasingly complex and demanding proposal writing environment, using automation to assist with the scientific elements of proposal writing makes sense. If the latest tools can reduce the time proposal creators spend on administrative functions, allowing them more time to spend on strategic and creative functions, they can increase the effectiveness of their proposals and improve their win rates.

So where does this leave the art side of proposal writing? Will technology ever have an answer for that? The answer is, it’s unlikely. Humans are complex, emotional beings. Persuasive writing involves paying attention to things such as word choice and rhythm, and using anecdotes and imagery to capture the reader’s imagination.

We are not saying goodbye to the great proposal writer. We are saying hello to the gifted proposal team, supported by high-tech assistance.

Katy Alderson is head of relationships at PerfectIt™ for Microsoft Word. A freelance bid writer, she has over eight years of bid and proposal writing experience, and now works with proofreading software that assists with proposal writing. She is passionate about harnessing innovations in technology to optimize proposal creation and free up writers to do the things they do best — write!

This thought leadership article was sponsored by PerfectIt.

PerfectIt is the leading software among professional proofreaders and editors. From translators and lawyers to proposal managers and medical writers, a wide range of professionals in 72 countries rely on PerfectIt to improve their documents.

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