Friday, April 1, 2011

Don't Let Personal Preferences Dictate Proposal Standards

As an erstwhile proposal specialist, I prefer sewer lines running down the middle of the street instead of along the side in the grass. I like brick facades on bridges. And I really love a tall, sunny atrium with trees planted in it.

But in all my years in this business, I don't recall my engineering and architectural colleagues ever allowing my preferences to influence even a single design decision. Why should they? I lack expertise in those areas. Yet I routinely find technical professionals dictating to their marketing colleagues what proposal standards should be because it's what they like or what they've always done.

Marketers unite; it's time to take control of your realm. There are established design principles in publishing just as there are in engineering and architecture. There's an abundance of research into how design affects reading speed, comprehension, retention, and persuasion. In a profession that so values expertise, shouldn't we be applying more of it to how we do proposals?

Now let's be clear, as I noted in previous posts in this series, success with proposals depends in large part on building client relationships, gaining critical insights before the RFP is released, and creating compelling content. But don't overlook the important role of design--how you present your insights, expertise, and qualifications in a proposal.

This is an underappreciated discipline in our business. Technical professionals tend to think it's simply a matter of aesthetics. I don't know how many times I was asked to "pretty up" a proposal or other document. Frankly, many so-called proposal specialists in our business lack strong expertise in this area. They settle for making the proposal look good without giving enough attention to how it functions.

Here are some things to consider relative to your firm's proposal standards:

Good design facilitates communication. This is particularly true for audiences who don't read the whole document or publication. That includes most client selection committees. Design helps navigate the reader to the content of most interest, it highlights the most important messages, it makes key points more memorable, it makes the proposal more user friendly and efficient. The vast majority of proposals I've seen, by contrast, require too much effort to review and fail to distinguish key points.

Your proposal should look like a professionally published document. If marketers designed buildings, the results would inevitably look amateurish, especially to a design professional. That's undoubtedly how most of our proposals would look to a publishing professional. But, you protest, that's not who are reviewing our proposals! True, but clients are exposed to professionally produced publications every day. Think they don't notice the difference? Given the emphasis we place on an image of "professionalism" in our business, why not apply the same standard to our proposals (not to mention the work products, like reports, that clients pay good money for)?

Proposal specialists should be masters of their craft. So who's going to lead the advance of professional-looking, function-driven, user-friendly proposals in our business? That role naturally falls on those whose job it is to produce them. Unfortunately, too many of our proposal specialists wield too little influence to bring about meaningful changes. I understand the organizational dynamics that contribute to this problem, but let's acknowledge that a big reason for this is that many proposal specialists haven't demonstrated that they're the real experts in this area.

I spent years building my skills as a proposal writer. I talked with clients, reviewed hundreds of competitors' proposals, read related books and articles, dug into the details of effective document design. I used research and published design standards to convince my bosses to allow some changes. Then as my win rate increased, my credibility grew to enable me to encourage further changes. Eventually, I was winning 75% of the major proposal efforts I led as the corporate proposal manager and had pretty much complete creative control. That comes with demonstrated expertise.

Borrow from the best. There are plenty of examples of good design out there. You can adapt those design principles to your proposals without ever having to read a study about font styles or characters per column width (although I would urge all proposal specialists to do the research). In particular, look for the design ideas that you see repeatedly in professional publications. That usually means it works. Look how USA Today transformed the design of other newspapers, in part because it was based on and confirmed by extensive reader research.

Imitation is a good way to be different. If your proposal looks like a professionally produced document, it will stand out. Sounds like a winning idea, so why the push back when such changes are proposed? Seems many technical professionals are more comfortable doing what they've always done, even if the results aren't all that impressive. Some assume that clients expect to see proposals in a predictable, time-tested format. And some simply have their preferences. Perhaps that helps explain why there's so little differentiation in our business.

Of course, good design without good content still equals a weak proposal. But good content presented in an ineffective manner can fail to gain the client's notice. An important strategy in winning more proposals is putting the two together--great content and great design. Is your firm ready to raise the bar? Let expertise, not personal preferences, lead the way.

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