Many RFP and RFQ responses today are page limited. You can supplement a page-limited narrative with appendices—but it’s essential to include a summary in the narrative. That’s because most evaluators either don’t read appendices—or read them only when choosing among the last few contenders.
So your challenge is to find ways to summarize and showcase your strongest points while using as little precious narrative space as possible.
Enter the meatball chart
One solution is a matrix with symbols indicating values where rows and columns intersect. We’re guessing here, but “meatball” likely comes from the popularity of dots as the symbol of choice.
In fact, you’re not limited to one symbol. As in the example above, you can use various symbols to represent different results—but we recommend a limit of 4 to avoid confusing readers.
This chart type is ideal for summarizing proposed team competencies and relevant experience. But they have other uses too.
Proposed team: You may have an appendix of well-organized team member resumes, but a meatball chart lets you provide a compact summary. The choice of axis is up to you—one is to use rows for team members and columns for capabilities and credentials as in the example above. You can also use a meatball chart to show how many key individuals in a joint venture project have worked together in the past.
Relevant experience: Most bid requests ask for the bidder’s experience with similar projects. In this case put past projects on one axis and key success criteria on the other.
Other: We have seen meatball charts used to compare features when explaining solution tradeoffs or pricing models and to ghost other procurement options. Keep this format in mind whenever you need to make comparisons or show relationships among multiple data points.
Plan before building
It’s not easy to build a meatball chart that tells the story without confusing the reader. You need to consider compliance requirements, client issues and the content. It's easy to begin building a chart, only to find a different presentation is needed. We find a brainstorming session is a good place to start. Sketch out options until you find one everyone agrees is clear, and then flesh it out and circulate for feedback.
Include a selling caption
A meatball chart is like any other visual; it needs a selling caption to be complete. Give your caption a figure number, results-focused headline and a benefits-oriented statement that delivers the "What's in it for me?" message you want evaluators to take away.
Busy evaluators will thank you
Meatball chart construction isn’t easy. It takes a lot of thought—and often a few false starts—to find an elegant way to present your information. But both detail-oriented evaluators and senior reviewers will appreciate any effort you make to aggregate information.
And having evaluators appreciate you is always good.
Challenged to present your best case in a critical bid proposal?
In last week’s post we made the case for visualizing key elements of your solution. Here we describe how to use flowcharts to show processes that differentiate your solution and/or involve client participation.
Teams developing very large proposals often work with Adobe Creative Suite and similar high-end publishing platforms. They will want to use those tools to build their diagrams.
But the majority of proposal teams don’t use special publishing software. If you’re among those who work in MS Office, here's a how-to post you can bookmark and share with your team.
Remember the goal
The purpose of inserting a flowchart into your narrative is not to diagram every step in a long and complex process. It’s to express a differentiator, such as efficiency or client involvement, in your solution. The diagram needs to be accurate, but to communicate it also needs to be uncluttered and easy to follow.
The two examples below show the idea. We took these from a recent proposal and grayed out the text for client confidentiality.
Steps in building a flowchart diagram
NOTE: Flowcharts for some industries (e.g. IT) may have to follow well-defined conventions. The steps below assume no such restrictions exist.
Lay out your process flow so lines don’t need to cross. Horizontal diagrams work best in most single column proposals. Ensure multiple conditional steps are ordered correctly. To save space, show task ownership using colours instead of responsibility lanes.
Build diagrams in PowerPoint or Visio. We use PowerPoint and create flowcharts actual size (usually 6 or 6.5 inches wide) for reasons explained in the following section.
Use text boxes of centred 8-pt. text (we use Calibri) with line spacing set to Multiple > 0.9. Use shift + return to control line breaks. Fill the boxes with white (or use pale colours if showing responsibilities by task), uncheck the shadow option and apply a dark gray .25 pt. rule.
At your option, vary the shapes of the task boxes to show specific task types. We recommend using diamonds for decisions, but otherwise stick to rectangles. (But see the note at top of this section.)
Use dark gray arrows and select a 0.5 pt. line and small heads. Make as much use as possible of elbow connectors and hotspot connections, so your lines will stay connected when you make adjustments. For a set of sequential steps, use one line or arrow behind all the boxes.
Placing the diagram into the narrative
You can link or embed PowerPoint graphics in a Word document—but we advise against these practices. They allow you to easily edit the placed flowchart—but you have much less control than you get with static images. Since we believe looks matter, we use the following alternative.
Save or print the PowerPoint flowchart as a PDF
Select the area containing the flowchart and crop
Insert or paste the PDF image into the Word document
Select the image and go to Format Picture > Layout and select > Tight
Select the image and go to Format Picture > Line and select Solid > 0.5 and colour dark gray
Because the diagram was produced at or close to final size in the Word doc, the line weights and type size will be very close to those in the PowerPoint file.
NOTE: You could save the image in any of several image formats (JPEG, PNG, TIFF etc.), but we’ve found that none of these formats render as crisp an image as does PDF.
CAUTION: Because of the way PDF files render, computers displaying the Word document will need the fonts used in your flowchart. Calibri has been the standard MS Office font since 2007, but users running earlier Word versions may see artifacts in the diagram.
Add a caption
Be sure to add a selling caption that delivers the message you want to your diagram to convey.
The rest of this month’s posts explain how to create budget-friendly visualization.
Why and how to visualize
Using graphics as mere decoration is a waste of space. Instead use them to:
Make important nformation easier to understand: Use tables and meatball charts to provide a snapshot of your team’s credentials, the range of services you provide, or relevant experience or performance. Use graphs to show trends, such as an improving on-time delivery record. Use flowcharts and illustrations to show key features of your solution.
Make key messages more memorable: Draw the evaluator’s attention to one of your differentiators by pairing it with a graphic or photo. In fact, the main reason we include photos in a proposal is to make key messages stand out. See Figure 1. for an example of using a photo to add impact to a message.
Figure 1: Add punch with a photo: Add eye appeal to an important message by pairing it with a photo.
Low- or no-cost graphics
Assuming you are using MS Word or Publisher as your proposal platform, here’s how to create or acquire commonly used graphics:
Tables: Create these in Word, using a sans serif font in a slightly smaller type size than your proposal body copy. Format your paragraph spacing to 3 points above and below and use single line spacing. Set your borders to half point and shade every other line 12.5% gray. Use a strong colour for the header row and set the header text to bold white.
Meatball Charts: Use an Excel worksheet, add colour, save as PDF and crop to insert as a graphic. We'll describe meatball charts more fully in a futher post.
Graphs: Use Excel’s charting feature and create simple bar or doughnut charts. In the case of doughnuts, we like to select and right-click the doughnut graphic, select Format Data Series (see Figure 2) and add a 1-point white line. Copy the doughnut and paste it into PowerPoint for labelling, then print as a PDF and crop to insert in your proposals
Figure 2:Easy doughnut charts: Select the doughnut inside the frame, go to format data series and format the image, then copy and paste the doughnut into PowerPoint to add labels.
Flowcharts: Use PowerPoint, save as PDF and crop. See next month's post on creating flowcharts.
Illustrations: These are more ambitious but you can use clipart plus imagination. To make your illustration look professional, choose clipart components created in the same style and colour palette.
Photos: Since the goal is to attract attention to the caption, choose photos with visual appeal, rather than opting for prosaic alternatives, just because they show your equipment or people. To quickly find free photos large enough to use in print, use Google Advanced Image Search and filter for your topic, image size larger than 1024 x 768, and usage type = free to use, even commercially.
Complex2Clear works on high-stakes proposals, including some vying for multi-billion dollar contracts. Invariably, graphics content rises with contract value. Successful teams running very large proposal efforts typically aim for 50% graphics content, even when working within strict page limits.
If the biggest and best agree visualization improves their chance to win, why not use it?
Visualizing key aspects of your solution is a powerful way to engage evaluators and help them remember your key strengths and benefits.
Many bid teams get excited about this idea, and then fail to make it happen because of process. And that's unfortunate–because bidders on huge, highly competitive RFPs devote about HALF their precious narrative space to visualizations.
How to build rich visualization into your proposals
At the kickoff, stress the aim of increasing visualization as a way to improve evaluator interest and impact. Ask the section leads to introduce their content teams to the following process:
Brainstorm ways to show each main idea you want to express. Consider all visualization options—graphs, charts, tables, photographs, illustrations, diagrams, etc.—and choose the one best suited to the information you want to convey. The first time you do this, consider Googling samples and make a slide show or print and post them in the room as thought-starters.
Decide on the rough width and depth of each proposed graphic. Sketch out or describe each one (e.g. graph showing 5-year decline in backorders) and draft a caption containing the benefit to the prospect, so the illustrator can understand the graphic’s purpose.
Use a section content visualizer (Figure 1) to block out the section pages, reserving space for text and the proposed graphics. Estimate the word count, based on the available column inches. Click on this link to download C2C's Section Content Visualizer (236 KB PowerPoint file).
Use the content visualizer as a guide to copy length. NOTE: Avoid the temptation to repeat information in the visualization in the copy.
Figure 1.Engage evaluators with rich visualization: Use the Section Content Visualizer (above left) to reserve space and define graphics as part of your strategy process. Completed storyboards for four pages are shown at right.
Following this process dramatically improves efficiency. It gets the visualization process started immediately instead of making it a last-minute rush.
Equally important, it avoids wasting writer energy describing features and benefits better illustrated with a graphic. Few things frustrate writers more than sweating over copy—only to see it cut to make way for graphics that could have been planned in advance.
How much visualization it too much?
We’ve had clients say, “The RFP only allows six pages for this section. Can we really use up space on graphics?”
The answer is “YES”—provided the graphics express important ideas and don't simply decorate the page. In fact, replacing half a page of explanation with a one-third page graphic containing the same information saves space and adds impact. Visualization should save space, not compete for it.
Here’s evidence: Complex2Clear has supported teams bidding for contracts worth billions of dollars. These teams follow the process described above—and some aim for a 50% ratio of graphics-to-text—even in page-limited proposals.
Are your proposals nearly all text? Use the ideas above to improve impact and win rate.
Need help increasing the impact of your proposals?
In the last three posts we covered proposal kick-off goals, preparation and people. Now let’s look at a recommended structure and tips for running the meeting.
The agenda below will fit most proposals. For very large proposals, volume managers and senior editors may attend kick-offs, and then kick off individual volumes with their teams of writers, editors, graphics specialists and designers.
Welcomes and introduces participants, reviews agenda
Explains the importance of the project and the organization’s commitment, thanks the team members for their participation
Provides background on the prospect and project, including any competitive intelligence indicating the bid is winnable
Describes the proposed solution, its main features and successful deployments elsewhere
Outlines the proposal structure, prospects strategic drivers and key issues, and win themes; distributes writers’ packages, key dates
Reviews in detail the proposal plan, ATOC, work organization and allocation, writer’s packages (SCPs) and executive summary
Reviews the schedule, online storage set-up, versioning protocols and daily management procedure
Invites questions from writers/editors, subject matter experts, graphics specialists and designers
*These individuals and any non-presenting managers may leave at the break
** If there isn't a separate project manager, the proposal manager presents this session
Aim for in-person attendance
Get as many people to attend in person as possible. Kick-offs have less energy and impact when most attendees dial in. Also, we find some individuals feel less obliged to meet commitments made on a conference call.
Set the right pace and tone
Plan a professional meeting that moves briskly through the agenda items. Aim to balance achieving motivation, information and clear direction. Schedule the meeting to run no more than two hours.
Here's where the effort you put into strategy making will pay off. Content developers—your main audience—are sceptics by nature. Part of their value lies in knowing that facts beat fluff. They’ll be looking for the meat in the meeting. Your prework and a strong agenda above will ensure you deliver.
Need help kicking off an important upcoming proposal?
Because the kick-off needs to motivate, inform and direct the team—especially the subject matter experts, writers and editors—for the long days ahead, you need to choose and prepare presenters carefully.
Participants and roles
The table below lists individuals who should attend a major kick-off and their roles in the meeting.
MOTIVATORS AND INFORMATION PROVIDERS
Motivates the proposal team, demonstrates organizational commitment to the proposal
Describes the prospect, nature of the relationship, key drivers and hot button issues
Describes the solution and its key performance features
Explains the proposal schedule, reporting and other protocols
Managers assigning (losing) resources to the proposal project demonstrate support by their presence
Subject matter experts**
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Writers and editors***
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments, receive Section Content Planners
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Understand proposal strategy and scope, schedule, procedures and work assignments
Size proposal teams and kick-offs to fit your organization, specific opportunities and solution complexity. On smaller proposal teams, the proposal manager can assume the project coordination role. Very large proposal teams may include several volume managers, each responsible for a major section, reporting to the proposal manager. In this case, the volume managers may kick off the proposal with the relevant subject matter experts in separate meetings.
When downsizing participation, see the asterisks in the table above and the following guide:
*** Critical ** Important * Optional
Companies submitting multiple proposals each month typically reserve the kick-off process described in this series for one or two strategic opportunities each year that deserve this level of attention.
Motivate and inform
Much of the kick-off will cover information needed by team members responsible for developing and assembling the proposal. Those parts are likely to be dry.
So, when inviting participants, be sure to remind the opening acts—the senior manager, sales manager and product manager—that those in the trenches need to see—and feel—their enthusiasm for the project.
Successful kick-offs result from careful preparation—taking time to build, test and package a strategy, so team members know exactly what’s expected of them.
For any major proposal, the core proposal team should spend a week (or more if the response window allows) developing and testing strategy. Time invested here pays big dividends in team morale and focus.
To help with proposal strategy development, we’ve devoted more than 50 posts to the subject. Find these by scanning down the strategy column in our Blog Index, or jump straight to one or more of the following:
When complete, your strategy will identify the prospect’s issues and your relative competitiveness for each, key differentiators and value propositions—and an approach to each major proposal section. Collectively these are the win themes that drive your proposal.
When your strategy is set, draft the executive summary and have it available for circulation at the kick-off. Presenting your argument for selection in one coherent narrative is as important for your team as it will be for the prospect.
Assembling a proposal plan
Use a proposal plan to organize your strategy outputs and process components in one comprehensive and coherent document.
Strategy components include the following topics:
Prospect: Strategic drivers; hot button issues; perceptions of your company, etc.
Competitive Factors: Your strengths and perceived weaknesses; comparison matrix of bidders
Proposal Themes and Strategies: Key elements of your solution; your experience and performance; project partners and contractors; section strategies, summaries, and value propositions; executive summary
Process components include:
RFP summary: Deadlines; scope of work; duration and value of contract; client information; compliance matrix
Team: Members names, roles and contact information
Project management: Project schedule; reporting procedures; available support, etc.
Providing SME and/or writer guidance
The most important members of your kick-off audience are subject matter experts and writers. They’ll do the heavy lifting. If you can get these two groups on the right strategy track from the beginning, your proposal effort will run smoothly.
In our experience, SMEs and writers produce much better results, faster, when they:
Receive specific guidance tailored to their section(s)
Devote time to analysis and outlining before content writing
Check-in daily with the proposal manager for feedback on their section(s)
Prepare and distribute a customized Section Content Planner (SCP) to each SME and writer at the kick-off meeting. Prepopulate each SCP with a subset of the proposal plan contents tailored to his or her section(s). A junior member of the core team should be able to do this.
Preparing for and conducting a professional kick-off meeting takes more work than the sessions many bidders deliver. But your team will appreciate your effort and the respect it shows for their time—and they’ll produce more winning proposals as a result.
Imagine a general assembling his field commanders and saying, “We’re going into battle tomorrow morning. I think we can win this. You and your soldiers know how to fight. Be ready at zero-eight hundred hours. That’s it. Dismissed.”
It doesn’t take military experience to know that such a briefing is a recipe for demoralization and defeat. The field commanders have no strategy or story to tell their troops, no understanding of their tasks—and no faith they can carry the day.
Competent generals inspire their troops and show respect for their lives by carefully explaining the importance of the upcoming battle, laying out a detailed strategy for winning and providing cllear instructions for each battalion’s role.
Be a better general
Large bid proposals are like extended battles (or small wars) without the blood. Your team will need to sacrifice their regular work—and likely some personal time—to create the response you need to win.
And, like soldiers, their reward will be the chance to do it all over again the next time an opportunity appears. No wonder proposal managers often feel alone in their enthusiasm.
The solution: Motivate and equip your team to build better proposals by being a better general. That starts with carefully planned and well executed kickoff meetings.
Plan and orchestrate your proposal kickoff meetings to achieve three goals:
Motivate: Make participants feel part of something bigger than getting a bunch of pages out the door. Why exactly is winning this opportunity important to the organization? Why do we think we can win? How will our senior leaders support the team?
Inform: Satisfy the team’s hunger for information—especially inside information. Why is this purchase important to the buyer? What specific issues and features do evaluators care about most? Where is our solution strong? Do our competitors have an edge in any areas? What is our value proposition for each of the major sections?
In addition to the big picture, participants also need details: proposal framework, compliance items by section, workflow, deadlines, team organization and coordinates, etc.
Direct: Once team members have a sense of the mission, they need to know what to do next. Each participant needs detailed instructions outlining his or her tasks, including a completion date for each milestone. In addition participants need to be clear about team protocols—scheduled meetings, calls and other check-ins—and consequences if commitments are missed.
Kicking off a major proposal properly takes careful planning and preparation. The next three posts explain the process, including:
Kickoff participants and their roles
Running the meeting
When we're done, you and your troops will be fully prepared for every battle.
Need help planning and kicking off an important proposal?
Draft the executive summary as part of strategy making. Aim to get it 75 or 80% complete, close enough that it can guide content developers in drafting their sections.
Executive strategy structure
Organize the executive summary into four components:
An intro that links the prospect organization’s vision or strategic purpose to the planned purchase and aligns your response to that purpose
A series of short paragraphs that align with the major RFP sections and tie your key differentiators and offer for each requirement to one or more of the prospect’s strategic issues and hot button issues
Three- or four-paragraph sections expanding on each of the bullet points, including your value propositions, positioning statements, and proof points. Include visualizations for your key differentiators
A closing section summing up your strongest selling points
This draft doesn’t have to be polished, but it should include all the key sales arguments for the main response sections. It’s hard to be this focused early in the response window—but the effort will pay huge dividends in aligning your team on strategy and messaging.
Benefits of drafting the executive summary early
Because content developers will naturally be more productive and sure-footed, second drafts can focus on improving already sound content, instead of rewriting to align with strategy and messaging. The entire team will have more time and energy to devote to improving visualization and polish.
Result: Your proposals will be more coherent, more strategic and stronger—and stand a better chance of winning.
So you might ask: “Isn’t a cover letter that explains your proposal’s key selling points just an executive summary-lite?”
This post explains how we distinguish between these important opportunities.
Cover letter vs. exec summary
The following comparison assumes your proposal responds to a formal RFP or RFQ. Short and/or informal proposals may have different requirements.
PURPOSE: The cover letter’s job is to get the reader's attention and then position your offer highlighting three or four differentiators while sowing doubt about your competitors' offers. The executive summary’s purpose is more ambitious. It should serve as a mini proposal for the senior decision maker—typically the economic buyer—who may read this section and nothing more. As such, it needs to capture your key selling arguments in non-technical language.
FOCUS: The cover letter focuses on tactical reasons for the purchase; the executive summary ties the purchase to the prospect's strategic goals.
LENGTH: We recommend one or two pages for a cover letter. A typical executive summary is much longer—up to 10 percent of the narrative. Note: If your narrative runs more than 100 pages, consider limiting the summary to about 10 pages to ensure it ends before the reader loses interest. (Separately, your team should take a hard look at any long narrative for opportunities to slim it down, especially if the response is submitted in one volume and/or the evaluation team is small.)
OPENING: Two posts ago we provided a cover letter opening citing the RFP's tactical requirements. Aim higher with the executive summary by showing you understand the prospect organization’s strategic priorities. This demonstrates ability to think at the level of the economic decision maker and senior leadership and to be a strategic partner.
CONTENTS: As described last week, the cover letter cites three or four points of differentiation, and then expands on each. The executive summary uses a similar structure to demonstrate how key aspects of your solution support the prospect’s long-term goals. We’ll provide more detail in next week’s post.
Can a cover letter serve as the executive summary?
Yes. The cover letter can double as an executive summary in very short proposals, or in the case of page-limited proposals where the format doesn’t provide for a summary or introduction. In this case, the cover letter can run to four or five pages and should include visualizations.
Next Week: Developing powerful executive summaries
Does your team struggle to express value in proposals?