So how do you tell a story with a proposal? On the surface, it may seem that the RFP doesn't give you much room to construct a central narrative. But in most cases, the basic story elements are present. In my previous post on storytelling, I referenced a Fast Company article by consultant Kaihan Krippendorf who outlines the classic "story spine:"
- Reality introduced—We see the idyllic life of the Hobbits living in the picturesque Shire.
- Conflict arrives—The mystical ring is uncovered, putting the Hobbits in danger; so four intrepid souls leave on a journey to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
- Struggle ensues—On this journey, the four Hobbits and their newfound associates face many grave dangers and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
- Conflict is resolved—They ultimately are successful in completing their mission, destroying the ring and defeating the evil forces of Sauron.
- New reality exists—Peace is restored to Middle-earth, and the lives of the story's heroes are forever changed (for the better, of course).
- There is a problem or shortcoming to be solved (conflict)
- There are several negative consequences and challenges involved (struggle)
- A solution is developed (resolution)
- Life is better with the project completed (new reality)
I was asked by an engineering firm to help with their proposal for the design of a large rural wastewater collection system. The state had imposed a deadline on the County to take failing septic systems out of service and deliver the sewage to one or more area wastewater treatment plants. The project would require several miles of sewer line and pump stations.
As I usually do, I encouraged the team to develop a compelling proposal storyline. This narrative would help weave together all the sections required by the RFP into a cohesive whole. Here is the basic story spine we came up with:
Conflict: There is a regulatory deadline to vacate all septic systems within certain neighborhoods and deliver the sewage to one or more existing treatment facilities.
Struggle: With a conventional planning and design approach, it would be very difficult to meet the aggressive schedule. The County has also failed to reach agreements with area local governments that have treatment facilities that might be used. Because the design will have to accommodate future growth, there is concern that low initial flows in the oversized pipes will create odor and maintenance issues. Pipes of a certain size will also trigger the need for an environmental assessment, adding substantial costs to the project.
Resolution: We propose an expedited, collaborative planning and design process that will also facilitate reaching agreements with surrounding local governments. The design team has devised some creative design features to avoid the odor and maintenance problems. We also will be able to keep the pipe size below the threshold where an environmental assessment would be necessary.
New reality: Our proposal describes in detail how our firm will satisfactorily meet the deadline. And our design innovations will reduce the proposed construction cost by about $1.2 million.
Outlining your story spine is the critical first step in building your proposal storyline. But you still have to write your story into a nonlinear proposal structure that's not all that conducive to storytelling. How do you make it work? Here are some principles to keep in mind:
Stories involve actors, actions, and interactions. Most proposals, however, downplay these story elements. Many exclusively use third-person references to the entities—not the people—involved. There is often a corresponding prevalence of passive voice, removing actors from the action.
So one of the easiest ways to build story into your proposals is to plainly describe people doing things and interacting with each other. Don't write about your project approach in a way that suggests a technical manual. Instead write the story of how the project will unfold, describing how the principal actors will make it happen.
Stories are personal. They engage us imaginatively and emotionally, in large part by revealing the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. How is that appropriate in a proposal? Well, you can share your thought process. In fact, clients welcome it. Too often we dispense our recommendations without explaining how we came to those answers. Inviting clients into your thought process not only helps you connect with them on a personal basis, it gives greater credibility to your solutions.
You also want to judiciously include feeling words in your proposal narrative. "You shared your concerns about..." "The facilities manager is understandably frustrated..." "The user group was excited about the latest changes..." "We've really enjoyed the previous projects we've done together with your agency..." There are undoubtedly emotions associated with the project. Why would you exclude them from your proposal? Remember, emotions drive persuasion.
Make sure to use second person in your proposals. Several studies have concluded that the word you is the most persuasive word in the English language. That makes sense, because it's personal.
Stories have dramatic tension and release. If you want to provide more valuable solutions, help clients understand how big and complex their problems are. Most proposals I review spend too little time describing the problem, the consequences, and the challenges. They jump right into the project approach without adequately addressing the needs driving the project, or the challenges that could interfere with its success.
Perhaps you want to avoid any semblance to the salespeople we've all encountered who play up the problems to try to make a sale. But done correctly, there's real value in explicitly connecting your solutions to the problems you're solving. From a story perspective, it creates the dramatic tension that practically begs for release (i.e., your solution). Downplay the problem and you risk diminishing the perceived value of your solution. Isn't the story's hero measured by the magnitude of the obstacles he has to overcome?
Don't forget to link both problem and solution to human impacts. It's not really cost or performance that elevated the problem; it's how it impacted the client and their constituency. Thus the solution delivers human benefits as well as technical or financial ones. Fail to make that connection and you rob your proposal story of its real impact (not to mention the heart of the story, which is always ultimately about people).
Building a storyline into your proposal is a powerful way to differentiate it from your competitors. I'm convinced that weaving a story into the proposals I've worked on has played a large role in achieving a 75% win rate over the last 20 years. Try it and see if you don't get better results. After all, doesn't everyone like a good story?