Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Creating Skimmable Proposal Content

Making your proposals skimmable and easy to navigate is the competitive advantage that no one is talking about. Yet the A/E professionals I talk to broadly agree on two things: (1) that clients don't read but skim their proposals and (2) that their proposals aren't very skimmable. So what needs to be done seems clear.

But what's not so clear is how. I've touched on skimmable design concepts in previous posts: "Are Your Proposals User-Friendly?" and "Proposals: Two Chances to Shine." In this post, I want to focus on the writing process, especially for those technical professionals whose writing tends to be anything but skimmable. How can you do better? 

Set aggressive page limits. A key constraint to creating skimmable proposals is the prevalent verbosity in our profession. I could offer guidelines on writing shorter sentences (15-20 words is recommended) or shorter paragraphs (3-6 sentences or about 150 words). But the best way to combat wordiness is to limit the number of pages. Increasingly, clients are taking this step in their RFP instructions. But you should impose limits regardless, perhaps even more aggressive than the client.

I've worked on many proposals for large projects and big fees and rarely found the need to use more than 30 pages, excluding forms and appendices. I generally advise my clients to start with a limit of 25 pages. If that seems over the top, try it. Even if you find you need to exceed that limit, your proposal will likely be more concise and readable. Your detailed scope of work and resumes can be reserved for the appendices. Instead, write a project approach that focuses on the bigger issues and use mini-resumes in the body of the proposal.

Do the "two-minute drill" to define your key messages. Imagine you only had two minutes to verbally summarize the essence of your proposal. What would you absolutely have to say in that time to make your best case for being selected? That's a good starting point for identifying your proposal's overall theme and key messages.

Your proposal theme is the basic story that you want to tell. It should be the client's story—how you envision making their project a success—not your firm's story. Yes, the RFP asks you to describe your qualifications and experience. But these are a means to an end (a successful project), not the focus of your proposal. From that story should emerge 3-5 key messages that will be prominently featured in your proposal.

List supporting points for each of your key messages. Your proposal outline starts by listing your key messages. These should be clear, compelling, and verifiable. So what additional information do you need to share to bolster your key messages? List all points that come to mind; you'll pare your list in the next step.

Organize supporting points based on importance. Assign each point listed to one of the following categories: (1) what you must say, (2) what you should say, and (3) what you could say. Put the points in the first category at the top of the list, then the second and the third. This approach embraces the journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid" where the most important information is placed first, followed by less important information in descending order. The inverted pyramid facilitates skimming.

Whatever points fall into the third category—what you could say—should generally be eliminated. They add information that's not necessary to communicate your key messages. The exceptions are items that are of significant interest or that help clarify your message. For example, you might want to refer to how your proposed design concept was used at another site or provide results of a study that bolster your preferred option.

Develop a detailed content outline. When technical professionals prepare an outline for a proposal or report, they usually create what might be called a structural outline. That is, it shows how sections of the document will be ordered—like a table of contents. This is often easily derived from the RFP. But a structural outline falls well short of defining the specific content of your proposal.

A better approach is to create a content outline, which combines the organizational structure with the key content that will be included. If you followed the preceding steps, you're most of the way there. What remains is to fit the proposal theme, key messages, and supporting points into the overall structure of the proposal, which in many cases is prescribed by the client RFP. There will be other content you'll need to add, but the most important content (see above) will receive the priority it deserves in your outline.

Write the proposal narrative building out your outline. With a detailed content outline, you will find it much easier to write a more clear and compelling proposal narrative. The key thing here is not to diverge much from your outline. This is like a building where the structural components are still visible after final construction. Your outline should help you properly feature your most important messages (your structural elements). Don't let them get buried in the text!


Your key messages become prominent sections of your proposal. Your supporting points can be highlighted in much the same way as I've highlighted the key steps in this post—using what I call bold, inline headings. If you're reading this sentence, you probably read the whole post. But many undoubtedly will skim it, which is made easier by the bold headings. Graphic elements, such as the figure above, are also critical to skimmability. I suggest a guideline of including at least one graphic element per page of your proposal.

By the way, the process described above is recommended for all your documents. When we overhauled how we did proposals at my former firm—making them more skimmable and easy to use—we started to get a few complaints from clients that our reports didn't measure up. So we applied the same concepts to our work products. You can't go wrong making things easier for the client, can you?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Best Proposal Differentiator That Almost Everyone Ignores

"How many of you think that clients read your entire proposal?"

No hands went up among the approximately 80 engineers, architects, and marketers in the room.

"What do they do then?" I asked. Everyone seemed to agree: They skim, they skip, they read the parts that matter most to them. "Why, then," I questioned, "do you make it so hard for them to do that?"

I then projected on the screen several sample pages from A/E proposals. They were pretty typical for our profession—long blocks of text mixed with a few bullets and occasional graphics. Often with small fonts and precious little white space. Hardly skim friendly. 

These samples came from some of the most recognizable firms in the A/E industry (all found on the internet). In other words, even the big boys don't get it.

Newspapers do. They have long recognized that their readers scan the news, reading only those articles that interest them. So they design their publications accordingly. Many magazines do the same. Why don't we?

Over the years I've asked many clients how they review proposals. They've generally confirmed our suspicions. They don't read everything we write. They often don't read from front to back. They search for specific information. 

One Navy contracts officer said that he spent less than one minute per proposal in his initial screening. Imagine that—all that work and your firm was potentially out of the running in 60 seconds. How many of those proposals were designed with that in mind? Ours were after that conversation!

This is the differentiator that no one talks about. There's a lot that goes into crafting a winning proposal. You need to provide the information the client requested. You need a compelling narrative. You want it to look attractive and professional. But have you considered how well it communicates the core messages? It benefits you little if you have the right content but it's missed by the client.

Don't think that doesn't happen. I've reviewed hundreds of proposals (albeit not as client) and I find most of them a taxing read. They're usually not well written, too wordy and often too technical. Many are hard on the eyes, with few text breaks, little white space, sparse graphic elements. And perhaps what bothers me most: They're too much alike.

Now imagine sitting there with a stack of them. How closely are you going to read each one, especially when you're working on proposal number 15...23...32?

Did you know that it takes the average American adult about an hour to read 35 pages of text? Most A/E proposals are longer than that, some several times that length. How much time do you expect the client to spend with your proposal?

So if the client doesn't read your whole proposal, how do you know if the most important points will be read? If you make those points skimmable, the risk of them being overlooked is greatly diminished. Plus clients appreciate being able to determine the gist of your proposal quickly, without having to read it all.

Years ago our firm beat seemingly insurmountable odds to win a major contract worth $30 million. Our 30-page proposal (one page for each million, I instructed the team) arrived in half-inch binders. The client told us they were immediately intrigued when they saw the size of our submittal, assuming that we either had taken a fresh approach or somehow had misunderstood the RFP requirements.

But inside they found 30 well-illustrated, skimmable, thought-provoking pages that soon moved us from underdogs to leaders of the pack. "You packed more insight into 30 pages," one reviewer told us, "than the others did in two to four times that many." They were among several clients over the years who told us they enjoyed reading our proposal.

Imagine that—clients enjoying your proposal because it's so user friendly! So how do you prepare a proposal like that? That's the topic for next week's post.