Take your proposal from good to great in 30 minutes

Proposal expert Robert Lohfeld walks you through the process for lifting a good proposal to greatness. And it only takes 30 minutes.

Thirty minutes is all the time you need to redirect the writing of a mediocre proposal and put it on a clear path to victory.  In this article, I’ll explain how to use this simple yet effective technique.

Proposal mediocrity

We had just finished a Red Team review on a typical 100-page proposal.  The proposal manager instructed the review team on how to do an effective Red Team review. The reviewers had done an excellent job reviewing the proposal and documenting their comments electronically.

They briefed the proposal team and it was clear what needed to be done. While the proposal team could easily turn the comments in 48 hours and make the repairs needed to the proposal, there was a sense that the proposal just didn’t come across as a winner.

The proposal team knew they had done an admirable job building a compliant proposal outline that was easily traceable to the RFP instructions and evaluation criteria. The review team confirmed that the proposal text was, for the most part, compliant with the RFP. They pointed out where additional content was needed, where text and graphics could be improved and provided additional content that would help make the proposal more responsive to the requirements.

Yet, the team still had an uneasy feeling that it takes more to win than building a compliant, responsive bid.

We have talked in previous articles about the 7 factors we use to build winning proposals; the first two of these factors are compliance and responsiveness. But these alone are not sufficient to win.

A proposal must provide a compelling offer, rich in features that can be scored as strengths, and this is where our proposal was falling short. It was at best, a ho-hum, compliant, responsive bid without any distinguishing characteristics that would make it a winner. Enthusiasm lagged as no one had any brilliant ideas as to the path forward. 

I’m sure you have seen this situation many times before. The team is demoralized, but still committed to hunker down and go the distance to make this the best proposal they can.

Getting the proposal back on track

I explained to the team that writing a great proposal is often similar to creating a great oil painting. The great masters like Rembrandt and Ruben always created their oil paintings in three distinct layers --the foundation layer, the middle layer and the final glaze layer.

I explained to the team that like artwork, they had created a foundation layer with a compliant proposal structure. They were midway through completing the middle layer which is the responsive text that fills in all the voids in the proposal structure and were now ready to begin the final layer that provides the highlights and luster that is so recognizable in great art. 

In proposals, the winning layer is the features of your offer that the evaluators can score as strengths. You must highlight each strength in the appropriate place in your proposal in order to receive the maximum score. And of course, you do not want to have any weaknesses.

For government proposals, strengths must meet the “strength test”: features that exceed a contract requirement in a way that is beneficial to the government or increase the likelihood of mission or contract accomplishment. These strengths must be unique to your offer, or at least not offered by all bidders. Strengths are always tied to the evaluation factors or subfactors.

Building the final layer of the proposal

I instructed the proposal team and the reviewers to create an email message addressed to me, the capture manager and the proposal manager. Next, write four headers in the email – one for each evaluation factor.

In this case, the evaluation factors were Technical Approach, Management Plan, Transition Plan and Past Performance.

Next, I asked them to simulate writing their own briefing to the source selection official (SSO). The briefing had to follow the RFP evaluation factors and include each of the major strengths or significant strengths of the offer tied to the appropriate evaluation factor.

They were not constrained by what was written in the proposal. Instead, I asked them to write down all the reasons (strengths) that their offer should be selected for this award.  This heads down, independent exercise gave them five minutes to list all the features they want the SSO to find. They had five minutes to write down as many noteworthy strengths as possible cross-walked to the evaluation factors. Everyone was done within the five-minute timeline.

Next, we did a roll call of each member of the proposal review and writing teams asking them to tell us what strengths they had written for the first evaluation factor. We had 20 people on the call so in the next five minutes, all 20 people debriefed their strengths for the first factor. We then went to the next evaluation factor and continued until all four evaluation factors were briefed.

With the final roll call, the team had identified about 100 features that could potentially be scored as strengths. Yet, 80 percent of these identified strengths had not made it into the proposal.

This situation is not unusual because the writing process often focuses only on compliance and responsiveness to the RFP instructions. Writers respond to the RFP instructions rather than the strengths that are essential to winning.Many participants identified the same strengths under an evaluation factor.  These are likely to be the strengths that the evaluators will find as well.

To wrap up the process, I asked the participants to take an additional five minutes to ensure every strength had a well identified feature with a corresponding benefit offered to the customer and at least one proof point that substantiates the claim. Each strength must include a feature/benefit/proof construct in order to receive a maximum score, so I asked everyone to make sure their email followed that structure.

At the 30 minute mark, I asked everyone to hit the send key, and the exercise was done. I told them the proposal team would review each suggested strength, deliberate whether or not it met the strength test, and then place it in the proposal where each would receive the highest score.

Within 30 minutes, the morale of the proposal and review team had changed. Everyone could see the final layer of the proposal taking shape and bringing the luster and brightness that was promised. The final layer transformed a dull, ho-hum compliant, responsive bid into a winning proposal.

Of course, the proposal team still had more to do in order to polish this bid into a winning proposal. However, the trajectory of the bid had been lifted from a mediocre response to a winning offer in just 30 minutes. 

Give it a try and let me know if it works for you.