Posted by Jon
A charming email popped up in my inbox the other day from a total stranger:
I’d like to add you to my network on LinkedIn as I feel that we maybe able to offer some support to yourselves. We currently work with a wide range of different companies including providing I.T purchasing support for [one if the UK's to property companies] and onsite support for [a major European bank].
I’ve taken out the names of the clients concerned, but otherwise reproduced it verbatim.
Interesting, isn’t it, how the use of inappropriate client references can undermine your story, rather than enhance it.
As an evaluator, I want the confidence that follows from knowing you’ve done similar things for other clients in the recent past; that that work is viewed as successful by key individuals in their organisation and that you have delivered real, quantifiable benefits. “Are you confident they can do it?” is an important challenge that I need to be able to answer, for my own peace of mind and to reassure any senior executives on high who have final sign-off on the contract award.
But, as a principal director of a business with 25 or so staff worldwide, “we’ve done work with major corporations” hits all the wrong notes for me. “We don’t understand the needs – or the financial cost base – of companies like yours” is an entirely counter-productive message, and a salutary lesson in how not to use proof points.
Posted by Jon
A lovely comment by the New Yorker’s James Wood, in a review of a book by acclaimed Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard…
“Even when I was bored, I was interested.”
We’ve long advocated that proposals should be “a joy to read”. That certainly holds true in terms of the eloquence of the writing, and the proposal’s overall storytelling.
However, perhaps this needs to be tempered with the Wood Test (as I hereby declare it shall henceforth be known) – recognising that some content is, by its very nature, not exactly going to be the most scintillatingly exciting, yet that even the driest or most technical sections of your document need to keep the readers at least interested!
Posted by Jon
Providing peer review support for a client over the past couple of weeks. On day one, I checked with the account manager: “Is there any limit on the length of our answers? It doesn’t specify one in the ITT…”
“This came up in the bidders’ conference. There is. It’s 2,000 words.” A good day of critiquing rough-cut first drafts followed, and we kicked the material back to the contributors with encouraging comments as to how they could sharpen their answers.
Fast forward to the start of the following week, when I rolled up on site to work on the next drafts of their material. But something was nagging me about the responses: such an important limit being mentioned in the bidder Q&A but not elsewhere? Despite the robust assurances I’d been given: odd.
I made the account manager call the client, just to double check. He turned ashen-faced.
“It’s not 2,000 words. It’s 2,000 characters.”
Fortunately, we were still nearly two weeks away from submission, with decent drafts in hand or due within a day for each of the 33 answers. An intense burst of decimating their answers – many of which at this stage were over even the 2,000 word target – duly followed over the next 36 hours, cutting them down to much nearer the acceptable size. And then it was back to the subject matter experts to review the newly-scythed drafts, check them for accuracy, and spend the final week of the bid polishing up the content still further.
“Excuse me writing you a long letter: I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” Indeed…
Posted by BJ
Like many of our readers and fans of the written word, I love the subtly of our language. I came across a great example of how a minor shift in words can make a significant difference in the message.
In a recent newspaper article a company that involved in an accident wherein a customer was seriously injured stated, “We have established a policy that we do not comment whenever we are under investigation or involved in litigation.”
Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but think of the message this sends. If you are like me, the message this sends to you is that this company is under investigation/involved in litigation so often, they have had to establish a policy to ensure employees don’t provide comments in in such cases.
Had this company worded this differently they could have delivered the message they probably intended. They might have stated it something like, “As we are currently involved in litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment.” Said this way, the message is, “We behave appropriately when we’re litigated” and “We’re involved in litigation at the moment.” (rather than often or continuously).
Of course, making sure the message being sent is the one the writer intended takes time and careful consideration of the words used and their order. That’s why an appropriate amount of time needs to be allowed for rewriting and editing content when developing a proposal. It’s also why proposals which are rushed out the door often unintentionally deliver the wrong message.
Posted by Jon
A friend who’s a schoolteacher commented to me the other evening, about one of her more challenging teenage pupils:
“He’s incredibly articulate, but when I ask him to write anything it’s like asking a monkey to colour in a picture.”
I challenge you not to conjure up that image next time you’re working with a salesperson who’s brilliant in meetings and when presenting, but who struggles to convert that into similarly-eloquent proposal prose! Part of our role, as proposal professionals, is to take away the fear factor that so many of our business colleagues experience when it comes to the written word – allowing them to focus on the customer and proposition, drawing on our help to articulate their great stuff as powerfully and persuasively as possible.
Posted by Jon
Are you one of those people who just can’t help look for errors when reading documents – anydocuments, not just proposals? Me too! In which case, you might like this – from an Observer restaurant review a couple of weekends back from the marvellous Jay Rayner:
There used to be a cartoon stuck to the wall of this newspaper’s office, mocking the deadening effects of the pedantic subeditor. The sub is leaning over the shoulder of a Victorian chap who is scribbling away with a quill. “Come, come, Mr Dickens,” the sub is saying, “it cannot be both the best and the worst of times.”
Posted by BJ
A respected colleague and fellow proposal professional sent me the following piece of content. This is for a response by a company that provides transportation. The name of the company has been changed to protect the incompetent.)
Terrific Transport believes each day begins and ends with compliance. Your members’ safety is our number one priority and we will make the safety culture part of the call center and our relationship with each transportation provider. We will not compromise on safety and we will guarantee that safety will be the number one priority of Terrific Transport in the operation of the contract. Terrific Transport is committed to leading the way to world class safety. Through the dedicated efforts of every team member and programs designed to lead subcontracted transportation providers, Terrific Transport has become known as the safest and most reliable passenger transportation service in the world. Terrific Transport has many safety programs that are geared to making safety a visible and daily part of all of our operations. The Terrific Transport safety program is discussed at length in Section 7 of the proposal response.
As you can see, it is stated numerous times within this piece of content that safety is important to Terrific Transport. Too bad there is a single piece of evidence that demonstrates that the customers’ members will be transported safely and/or that safety is important to Terrific Transport.
Posted by Jon
I’ve written here before about one of my proposal bugbears – overly-lengthy captions for proposal graphics, which distract from the flow of the document. I’m on something of an anti-caption campaign altogether at the moment, having reflected at length on the advice in the APMP Foundation exam that a great caption should “invite the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the graphic”.
See, if your graphic is good enough, you shouldn’t need a caption to help the reader to draw the correct conclusion: that conclusion should be evident and obvious from the graphic itself.
I'm not arguing (altogether) that you should dispense with captions entirely: sometimes they can be useful, and sometimes they can be expected by the evaluators. But I would argue strongly that captions are often simply making up for the inadequacies of the graphics that they support. Next time you need a caption to explain what you were trying to illustrate, maybe it’s time to re-draw the graphic itself and making it clearer, and more focused on the customer and on the benefits of your approach?
Posted by Jon
A few years ago, BJ taught me a new word: “sesquipedalian” – defined as:
Characterized by long words; long-winded.
His contention? That the adjective applies to far too much proposal content. We want writing to appear natural, conversational: if you couldn’t imagine reading your answer aloud to the evaluators across a table in a meeting room, it’s probably too formal. Yet content contributors seem to feel the need to use grandiose words and phrases, as if this will impress the readers. (After all, at school you got higher marks for using more advanced language to impress the teacher with the range of your vocabulary, right? The same just isn’t true of proposals. You’re writing to win a contract, not the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
Three recent examples of unnecessarily-complicated writing that have caught my eye of late, the first from a proposal which noted that:
“The project will be delivered within a three-month timeframe.”
That’s like asking “how long do you need for lunch today” and finding your group saying: “We’d like a 45-minute timeframe, please.” They wouldn’t: they’d ask for “45 minutes” – just as: “”The project will be delivered within three months.”
The second comes from the coffee machine outside a meeting room in which I’ve been working regularly. Aside from the cappuccinos. lattes and americanos, it offers “hot water”. The sign next to the machine usefully add the explanation: “A portion-controlled hot water selection.” Just in case you were in any doubt…
And the third? Also drink-related, from a recent stay in Vegas. Here’s the blurb from the packaging:
Good things in Small Packages
A teabag, if you were wondering. (Actually, “a unique tea gift”, to be strictly accurate).
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BJ Lownie and Jon Williams are the co-founders of Strategic Proposals.