I recently reviewed an important proposal for one of my engineering firm clients. Considering the $350,000 fee, you might argue that the firm exercised admirable restraint in limiting their submittal to 34 pages (well, if you don't count the 38 pages of resumes!). I've certainly seen many proposals of similar scope that were far less efficient.
But was this one efficient enough? Consider that it would take a client reviewer 56 minutes to read the entire submittal if we assume an average adult reading speed of 250 words per minute (excluding the resumes, of course). Do you think a client would spend that much time reviewing a proposal?
Over the years, I've asked hundreds of engineers and architects in workshops and seminars I've done if they believe that clients read their proposals word for word. I don't recall anyone suggesting that they do. My conversations with clients confirm this suspicion. So if clients don't read our proposals, if they skim them instead, why do we not prepare them accordingly?
Among the numerous proposals I've reviewed in my time, I've seen only a handful that I would consider relatively easy to skim. In fact, most proposals are quite the opposite—practically demanding substantial reading to try to extract even the most basic information. Now imagine being a client who has to review a stack of proposals like this. Do you think you would appreciate finding one that was designed to be user friendly?
That's why making proposals skimmable is one of the two tactics I advocate for setting your proposals apart from the rest (the other is making your proposals prominently client focused). Of course, there are many factors involved in creating a winning proposal. But skimmability is so rare, and so appreciated by clients, that you don't want to overlook its power to deliver a competitive advantage.
The most remarkable win in my career as a corporate proposal manager came with an existing client who thought so little of our capabilities to perform the requested scope of services that they didn't even send us the RFP. After we leveraged some relationships to receive a copy, we knew we had to work outside the box to have any chance at all.
Among the tactics we employed, I took creating a user-friendly submittal to a whole new level for our firm. It worked. The client told us that they were immediately intrigued when they opened the box containing copies of our proposal and found half-inch binders. Since it was a $30 million contract, I suppose the other firms determined it warranted more pages, with most of those firms using two-inch binders.
The client told us that our proposal was refreshingly easy to read and navigate, which was particularly important since our message diverged from the others. We presented a bold alternative strategy for addressing the client's needs, so it was critical that we made our point convincingly and concisely. We won an unlikely victory because we changed the game, and don't think that how we presented that message didn't matter as much as its content.
That win—and the positive feedback we got from the client—forever changed how I did proposals. No, not in taking the risky approach of changing the client's scope, but in making my proposals incomparably user friendly. Content matters, of course. But good content can be overlooked if you make it too burdensome for the client to find it. And most proposals err in this direction.
So how can you make your proposal more user friendly? A few pointers:
Understand how the client handles your proposal. This is particularly important for clients who have a more structured review and evaluation process. A Navy contracting officer once told me that they spent an average of about 30 seconds making their initial review of submittals. Think about that: 30 seconds to make the first cut! Obviously, you want to know what sections they look at in that time period and what screening criteria they apply at that point.
But even less formal clients don't typically read your proposal from front to back. They may go through it based on the order of written selection criteria. They may have one factor they're particularly interested in and look for that information first. Whatever the case, you want to understand how the client handles your submittal and design it accordingly. This may involve custom tabbed dividers, graphic presentation of critical information, or an executive summary that specifically addresses what matters most to the client.
Clarify what you really need to communicate. I've stressed in this space before the importance of developing a proposal theme. You also want to identify a few core messages—perhaps critical success factors—that you believe will distinguish your proposal from the others. If you've been talking to the client, these core messages should be evident. In any case, it's immensely valuable to distill the essence of your proposal down to a few points that are prominently displayed in your submittal. One suggestion for clarifying your core messages is to employ what I call the "two-minute drill." This exercise involves imagining you only had two minutes to orally present your proposal to the client. What would you need to say in that span to win?
Use an economy of words. Did you know that you can typically communicate more information if you use fewer words? In this age of information overload, people naturally filter what they hear and read to fit their available time and interest level. When you use more words than needed to make your point, you increase the likelihood that your message will be filtered—or perhaps ignored altogether. Ever tuned someone out because they used more words than you had the patience to hear or read? Of course you have, and so do clients.
One tactic I've used to encourage brevity is to set page limits for each section of the proposal. Be stingy. The less space you make available, the more the proposal team has to refine their message, both in terms of content and presentation. If you later feel you need to add more detail, fine. But it's better to work in that direction than to try to condense excess, unfocused verbiage down to a concise, coherent message.
Make the most important messages easy to skim. I imagine you read the newspaper much as I do; you skim the headlines to get the gist of the news. Occasionally you read a bit further to get more information, which is aided by the typical "inverted pyramid" structure that involves putting the most important information first in the write-up. You may scan photos and captions, or glance at a chart for more detail. And then you'll find a few articles that merit your reading them all the way through.
Most newspapers and magazines (and some books) are specifically designed to be skim friendly. The editors acknowledge up front that their audience isn't going to read everything, so they design their publication to maximize quick, efficient communication. Shouldn't you be doing the same with your proposals (and other written documents)?
Draw your design ideas from mainstream publications that excel in user friendliness. USA Today revolutionized how newspapers were designed and still deserves your attention. Check out the magazine rack at your local bookstore and find those that are the easiest to scan. Buy a few of them and take them back to the office for further study. This is how I learned to master skimmable proposals and other written communications.
Now make sure the key information in your proposal—the points that need to be clearly conveyed to enhance your chances of winning—is presented at both the skim and read levels. The skim level helps ensure that it's not overlooked and makes key points more memorable. The read level provides the additional detail that the client may want to better understand your point or be persuaded by it.
Get feedback from clients. Yeah, it's harder these days to get open and honest proposal debriefings than when I first started writing proposals in the 80s. But I find that most clients still share valuable information if you ask the right questions. Naturally, you want to know why you won or lost, but clients are often the least comfortable telling you what they found deficient in your proposal (if you lost).
They may be more receptive to sharing general advice on how to improve future proposals. I used to tell clients that our goal was to prepare proposals that clients enjoyed reviewing (not a goal that A/E firms typically express to clients). Among the questions I'd ask in that regard: "How can we make our proposals easier for you to review? What's the most important thing you're typically looking for? What would you like to see in a proposal that you don't normally see?"
I didn't settle for the usual generic answers. For example, if the client said, "I'm looking for the most qualified firm," I might ask, "Do qualifications really set one firm apart in most cases? If so, how? Is it their experience, project team, understanding of your project?" The point is, I'm not convinced that qualifications are typically the main point of differentiation. And my pointed questions to clients over the years have confirmed this.
As long as you don't put clients on the defensive, you'll typically find them accommodating. And if you ask questions that probe a little deeper than the usual, "How can we make our proposals better?" you're more likely to uncover some valuable insights. The subtle difference here, compared to most proposal debriefings, is that you're focusing on how to make the proposal process easier for the client. Do that and the wins will follow.