Proposal writing is no easy task. Even with basic proposals, a significant effort is required to create a persuasive, high-quality document.
But here’s the thing: With all the time that teams spend pouring over RFP requirements and drafting content, we’re always surprised at how little time is dedicated to considering the proposal’s reviewers. After all, their opinions are the only ones that matter.
With that in mind, we recently conducted our biennial survey of commercial and government reviewers to learn about their preferences, processes, pet peeves, and propensities. In this two-part blog article, we discuss our findings around pet peeves, namely the ten proposal qualities that most annoy reviewers.
Part one detailed the first five. Here are the next five.
A Quick Note Before We Begin: In conjunction with each of our findings, this year we’ve included a corresponding quote from Gary Coover’s Secrets of the Selection Committee, which provides an inside look at the frustrations of proposal reviewers. It is one of the many useful proposal books to hit the market lately, and we recommend picking up a copy.
1. Bombarding the Reader with Qualifications
Proposals shouldn’t be a dumping ground for every qualification, award, capability, and project ever logged in your content library. Sounds logical, but the “more is better” attitude can be a tough one to change.
Just remind yourself and your team that other people must evaluate your proposal. Do they really want to wade through five pages of meandering, cut-and-paste content when they could have two paragraphs of concise, relevant information? And if you make them read the five pages, do you think they’ll be happy when they’re done?
Tip: Don’t make a reviewer’s job more time consuming, no matter the circumstance or proposal section. If the RFP asks for three references, provide three. If it asks a yes/no question, begin your answer with a “yes” or “no.” And above all, never drop long-winded, boilerplate info into your executive summary.
Some companies try to dance around this reality by moving their additional capabilities, marketing content, or other indirect info to an appendix. Don’t do it. Imagine a reviewer has five proposals sitting on their desk, and four have 50 pages. Yours has 100. By the time they see that your proposal is 50 pages of body content and 50 pages of appendices, you’ve already made a bad first impression.
“Why do so many firms think they have to throw everything into their proposal whether it is pertinent or not? You waste our time and we’ll reciprocate by ensuring you’ve wasted yours.”
2. Going Heavy on the Data, Light on the Context
As part of their information bombardment, some companies address relevant experience by chronicling every detail of recent, related projects. From contract details to the core components and sub-components of the scope of work, this information is often tedious, voluminous, and—regrettably—devoid of context or outcomes.
While data is important when it comes to conveying expertise and past performance, reviewers want to know the story behind the data. What were the outcomes? Were any challenges overcome? Was the client happy?
Tip: When reading through project descriptions, ensure you present data in a way that shows how the project was successful. For instance, in addition to cutting down on excessive lists and scope of work details, highlight if there were no budget overruns or deadlines missed, as well as whether the client was satisfied. Have a client testimonial? Feature it.
“Instead of giving us long-winded rehashes of the statement of work or a laundry list of excessive data, focus on the key issues that we might care about…Give us context, give us meaning.”
3. Burying Key Information
Often the data dump mindset is accompanied by an assumption that reviewers read though each sentence of a proposal, carefully progressing from the front to back of the document. They don’t. Most reviewers skim through proposals to find key points, and they don’t appreciate the challenge of digging for information.
So, pay attention to your document structure, and draw out key points by including headings and subheadings, section summaries, callouts, and graphics with captions. These elements are the first things a reader’s eye will be drawn to, and they’ll save reviewers time through easier navigation.
Tip: When you’re done with your proposal draft, go back through your document and only read the headings, section summaries, callouts, graphics, and captions. Be sure they express each key point you want to emphasize.
“If you’re lucky, we’ll spend maybe 5 seconds on each page…so if your message isn’t readily clear, you need to consider how to best represent your information…Don’t beat around the bush, don’t hide your key information in a mountain of unreadable text. Get to the point. Fast.”
4. Filling Space with Empty Claims
How often do your proposals claim that your company or team has extensive experience, unparalleled expertise, or the ability to deliver seamless, top-notch service? If your company is like most, these kinds of buzzwords and empty descriptors regularly appear throughout key proposal sections. They are like a comfort blanket, an easy way to fill a page with positive-sounding “substance.”
Unfortunately, they are meaningless without proof. Further, since nearly every one of your competitors’ proposals make similar claims, including them can weaken trust, damage your persuasive messaging, and give an impression of insecurity. In fact, a recent New York University study found that readers are significantly more likely to think your statements are untruthful when written with abstract language, rather than with concrete terms and phrasing. Not good.
Tip: While it is fine to make assertions regarding your experience and qualifications, always ensure that they are accompanied by supporting evidence and an explanation of how they will benefit the prospect. For example, replace variations of many with actual numbers, cite third-party acknowledgements of your qualifications, and note quantifiable benefits you’ve delivered on similar projects.
“Most proposals are chock-full of unsubstantiated claims, some more preposterous than others, some even laughable. If you’re going to make bold statements, you’d better be able to back up all of them—show me or else.”
5. Lacking Pride in Preparation
Proposals often espouse the bidder’s proven quality, attention to detail, and care for the customer. Unfortunately, many do so on pages littered with grammar and spelling mistakes, inconsistent information, poor graphics and formatting, other prospect names, and incorrect page and graphic numbering.
People are more apt to believe what they see than what they’re told, and reviewers are no different. If you submit one of these proposals, think of the impression (conscious or unconscious) it leaves about your company’s thoroughness and ability to manage a project. Your message is undermined.
Tip: Don’t make reviewers feel like an afterthought. Carve out more time in your proposal process for quality control, and identify resources for editing, layout, and graphics. They make a big difference.
“Appearances are important…I’ve seen great big gobs of stuff that were carefully tailored for one client, copied into a new proposal for a completely different client, totally unchanged. The sweetest part is where the proposal talks about what an excellent QA/QC program you have. Yeah right.”
Shameless Plug Alert: A great way to ensure you have persuasive, reviewer-friendly proposals is by hiring a professional proposal writer, editor, or trainer. You know, like the ones at Freestyle Editorial Services. Check out our website and contact us today to discuss how we can make your company stand apart from the competition.