Why not all proposal writers are created equal

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Proposal writing is part art and part science and the best writers benefit from training, incentives and infrastructure.

Condensed from the just released: How to Win in the Government Market (co-authored with Mark Amtower)

My friend Don, not Donald’s real name, ran the proposal center for a large aerospace business unit on a west coast submarine base. He was having an extremely difficult time identifying project managers and engineers who understood the difference between technical writing and proposal writing. So, Don and his staff often had to work long hours re-writing or condensing proposal input. He was so frustrated that he included his resume when he emailed me with this horror story.

I emailed Don some suggestions for how he might improve his situation. These included giving writers a detailed proposal outline that described all the RFP requirements for each section, where graphics or tables were needed to demonstrate the company’s technical and management approach, and the individual section page limits (for the verbose writers). I explained how on more complex proposals, having the technical staff first prepare story boards would help them organize their thoughts, discourage them from just cutting and pasting long boring engineering and not necessarily relevant text, and ensure the inclusion of substantiated proposal themes and discriminators.

Companies I knew that submitted superior technical proposals invested in proposal training for targeted line staff. They made supporting a proposal part of their career progression, and implemented an incentive or bonus plan for all proposal team members.

In my experience, when companies train people in the proposal process (through workshops and an assigned mentor on the job), about one third take to it like a duck to water, one third just barely stay afloat, and one third sink to the bottom. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Technical writers not only need an in-depth understanding of the technical approach – they need to be able to write concise proposal text within page constraints that include specific examples that support their claims. Proposals, in most cases, shouldn’t be written to a college level. They should be comprehensible to the average government reviewer who may or may not be a technical expert.

The people who do make the transition to proposal writing will only succeed if their senior management enforces a consistent proposal development and bid decision process (including – executives, this part is for you -- saying no to dumb bids), and provides the necessary resources. Otherwise, these wonderfully trained proposal writers along with the proposal staff will just end up frustrated. There also must be a commitment to provide the sound infrastructure necessary to develop winning proposals.

By the way…Don moved to Big Sky, Montana, where the only proposal he had to make was to his girlfriend (who was a tough evaluator). They’re both successful ski instructors.

A (usually) retired GovCon expert, writer, and blues musician, Mike Lisagor is the founder of Celerity Works and a co-founder of GovFlex.com. His books include the just released, How to Win in the Government Market (with Mark Amtower), The Essential Guide to Managing a Government Project, and How to Develop a Winning SBIR Proposal (with Eric Adolphe). He can be reached at LinkedIn.com/in/mikelisagor and mike@celerityworks.com