Reflections of a Proposal Writing Princess

In my work I wear many hats. One is proposal writer. In fact, I’m a proposal princess.

Over the last 9 years I’ve pulled together dozens of proposals of varying scope, budget and complexity. Some are very long (over 100 pages), technical and/or scientific, and require collaboration with many people – say, in response to a formal solicitation from a large corporation or federal agency.

Others are shorter, simpler and less formal – the kind one might prepare for a non-profit organization, industry association or existing client.

It’s not a job for everyone and certainly not for folks who crack under pressure and tight deadlines. I liken it to herding cats – rounding up a team of folks from different organizations, disciplines, locations, schedules and time zones. You need flexibility, diplomacy and the ability to manage many moving parts and minute details at once without losing sight of the big picture.

Much as I try to adhere to my defined proposal management process, there are times when things fly at me from all directions and I’m forced to rely on a quirky memory and multi-tasking skills to keep it all straight.

As the person who typically holds the pen (or “master editor” in proposal parlance), I’m often the first to review the opportunity – be it a Request for Proposal (RFP), Request for Quotation (RFQ), Request for Information (RFI) Request for Vendor of Record (RVOR) – or, on occasion, research grant application. If the opportunity looks like a fit for our firm’s capabilities, I let my colleagues know, along with the critical deadlines (including the deadline to ask questions of the contracting officer) and an estimate of how long it’ll take to complete. If it’s a “go” decision, we have a team meeting to determine our strategy, approach and who does what by when.

Next step is to start blocking out headings of the draft master proposal, according to what RFP asks for – company information, team qualifications, background, proposed approach, work plan, budget, team bios/CVs, project summaries, references and anything else that may be required.

Then the fun begins and my role as proposal princess gains momentum. The further I get into “populating” the various sections with content, assembling the draft and sending and receiving sections for review, editing and insertion, the faster I have to work my magic. Keeping track of which iteration I need to insert into the master document is a formidable task, as various sections can undergo many changes between now and submission time. Hey, no pressure!

Sometimes the RFP issuer will issue an Addendum (or five) which will cause us to make additional changes or edits. Occasionally they might issue Addendum announcing a deadline extension. Love those!

Throughout the proposal life cycle deadlines are obviously important, but so are conventions, protocols and etiquette. Gaffes in any of these can disqualify your bid – and cost you dearly as a small business. Some very formal solicitations have an official “blackout period”, meaning that there can be no contact between the proposal issuer and the bidder from the time the blackout period starts right up to award notification – or your bid will be unresponsive. If you didn’t manage to get your questions in before the question deadline, now’s not the time.

Clarity, unity and consistency are also very important. That’s not always easy when people from different and disparate disciplines are contributing. Engineers and subject matter experts write one way; communications specialists another way. The challenge is to make sure that the language is consistent and understandable throughout, and let us not forget that technical terms and acronyms must be explained on first mention.

As with all aspects of life, stuff happens, and proposal writing is no exception. Your fellow contributor has a family emergency, your email server goes down, or your formatting function refuses to cooperate moments before deadline. Mishaps and misadventures can also happen after proposal submission. Once, after pulling off a particularly intense proposal in record time, I decided to reward myself with a celebratory cookie – only to break a tooth, requiring an emergency dental visit. Not the reward I had hoped for!

Of course, the reward we all hope for is to get the winning bid, and when we do, I know I can wear my proposal princess tiara proudly!

After 9 years in the business, I’ve learned a thing or two about successful proposal preparation so here are my 9 tips to help other proposal princesses – and princes – ensure a winning bid:

  1. Read the solicitation carefully – I mean very carefully and several times. Note the key deadlines (including the deadline to ask questions), submission rules, mandatory requirements and evaluation criteria. Be 100% sure you can handle all of these before you make your “go” decision.
  2. Keep in mind the devil’s in the details – One missed key detail can cost you the submission and all the time and money you invested, so when it comes to proposal writing, remember that details count.
  3. Focus on the issuer’s need – The potential client wants to know what you can do for him/her, so make sure your proposal shows that. How are you helping that organization solve a problem?
  4. Have a document control system – This is critical when multiple contributors and multiple versions of the document are circulating. Having a file labeling convention and insisting that all contributors adhere to it goes a long way to avoid the wrong content going into the wrong place in the master proposal.
  5. Have a quick reference sheet – Something that has up to date information on your company and all the material you use on a frequent basis all in one file. This will save you time and stress in the long run.
  6. Request team cooperation – Remind them that this job is not as easy as it might appear to them and that you’d appreciate their not leaving their input until the last minute.
  7. Remember Murphy’s Law – No, I’m not a negative person, but experience has taught me that Murphy’s Law is alive and well in the proposal writing realm. Make sure you have a back-up plan.
  8. Be careful when overwriting a previous document – Recycling material from previous submission is common in the proposal writing business, but make sure you don’t recycle the material that’s not supposed to be there. Use the edit/find tool when you do your final proofing to ensure you’ve removed them all.
  9. Allow ample time for proofing – A clean, well-written and error free proposal makes a good impression on those evaluating your bid, so make sure that you allow time for careful proofing. Not always easy or possible, I know, but try.