Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.


Writing clearer narratives

 March 26, 2019
by Paul Heron

Proposals are often the only strategic, outward-facing documents for which companies rely on non-writers. That’s because proposal writing requires technical expertise and, although some subject matter experts (SMEs) are fine writers, many are not.

Copyediting will correct flawed writing, but often gets crowded out by deadlines and budget constraints. For that reason, we recommend working to improve SMEs’ ability and comfort when drafting narratives.

Begin this process by fostering the following writing habits:

1. Client focus

Proposals are selling documents—and selling is all about the prospect. Here are some ways to demonstrate client focus:

  • Show understanding: Proposal evaluators frequently complain about vendors who launch into describing their solutions without first showing they understand the requirements. Showcase your understanding by citing requirements and how key solution features will address them.
  • Explain trade-offs: Whenever you choose one option over others in developing a solution, show how each trade-off improves alignment with one or more of the specific requirements and goals.
  • Remember WIIFM: Evaluators are always asking: What’s in it for me? Subject your content to the same question. If it’s not clear why your prospect should care about a paragraph of content, ask yourself if you need it. Remember, your aim is to explain and persuade, not to fill pages.

2. Rely on facts not fluff

When writing about your company’s history, performance and experience, use facts to make the case. Descriptors such as “world-class,” “a leading provider of,” “one of the best,” etc. are empty claims that will get you no points. Instead, state your case using facts.

3. Write in the active voice

Active voice writing is stronger and more persuasive than passive voice. It should be used by default in proposal writing. In the active voice, it’s clear who is doing what. For example:

  • Passive: Safety Committee meetings will be held every week.
  • Active: The Safety Committee will meet weekly.

This link provides more examples and ways to spot the passive voice.

Use the passive voice where:

  • A process performs the action: “Effluent is piped to the digester and treated with enzymes.”
  • Who carries out the action is unimportant: “If you do not perform this maintenance monthly, your warranty will be cancelled.”

NOTE: In some situations, a bid team will purposefully use passive voice to avoid making commitments that could limit flexibility in future contract negotiations. If your company employs this strategy, communicate it to your SMEs and/or use copyediting to manage commitments.

4. Use plain language

People typically use more complex words and longer sentences when writing than speaking—either unconsciously or because they believe it sounds more authoritative. The goal should be to write as plainly as possible, considering the subject matter and audience.

Evaluators scan and score proposals, rather than reading them closely. Write for fast, easy reading by:

  • Avoiding wordiness and unnecessarily complex phrases and verb forms
  • Using simple sentences and short paragraphs
  • Managing jargon and acronyms carefully: Jargon is useful as insider shorthand, for example among aircraft cockpit crew. But some proposal evaluators may not be technical experts, so use it sparingly. Redefine unfamiliar acronyms the first time you use them in a section. Where appropriate, use a nickname (“the Committee” or “the Project”) instead of an acronym.

The U.S. Plain Language Guidelines, source of the above links, are an excellent guide for proposal writing. They make great first time or refresher reading for any writer serious about his or her craft.

It takes a strategy

Wordy, ambiguous writing often signals a lack of knowledge. Habit 1: Client focus is only achievable when writers are armed with a win strategy before they begin. Start with this post on proposal strategy basics, and then scan our blog Index under the column headings U and S to learn more.

Making good habits stick

All this is easier to say (or write about) than to do. Aim to gradually improve the level of writing over time, rather than expecting immediate changes in habits developed over years or decades.


Need help writing powerful proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Writing effective callouts

 March 19, 2019
by Paul Heron

Callouts are short text strings set in an eye-catching font and/or colour block designed to draw attention. Proposal teams use the attention-grabbing power of callouts to ensure evaluators note and remember key messages. This post explains how to use callouts to greatest effect.

How to write strong callouts

Effective callouts are:

  • Brief: Limit callouts to 15 words or less. Editing a callout to this length is hard work, but brief callouts are more likely to get read and remembered.
  • Benefits-focussed: How does the feature you’re emphasizing benefit your prospect? Even if the benefit is obvious, state it in the callout.
  • Responsive: Address your prospect’s known hot button issues to ensure callouts resonate with evaluators.
  • Unique: Reserve callouts for claims other vendors can’t match. This means focussing on narrow features and benefits—but in a close competition, evaluators need only remember one or two things about a section to lift your score above the others.
  • Factual: Use facts, not empty claims in callouts. This is standard advice for all proposal content—but especially true here.
  • Specific: Make callouts more powerful by adding specifics. Instead of: “Our process will reduce costs by 30%,” consider, “Reduce current cycle time by 42% and labour costs by 30%.”

Define and use a callout style

Define a callout style that attracts attention and works with your proposal template. In MS Word, you can use a combination of the following options:

  • Type attributes— font, size, bold, italic, colour
  • Border—boxed, rule above and/or below and/or to the right and/or left
  • Shading—tint the text block containing the callout

Style and place callouts consistently

Because evaluators typically scan proposals quickly, consider using callouts in the same style and location(s) on each page. This, plus persuasive writing, increases the chance evaluators will see them as reliable summaries of your sales arguments.

Position your offer to win

Remember, the goal is to differentiate your offer in ways that matter to your prospect. That’s what the attributes described above aim to accomplish.

Will every callout include all six desired attributes? Likely not—but even if you manage three or four, you’ll be on your way to submitting stronger proposals.




Need help making your proposals stand out?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




How to write selling captions

 March 12, 2019
by Paul Heron

Most proposal teams use graphics (photos, illustrations, charts, graphs, etc.) to avoid endless “walls of text” in their proposals. Graphics add interest—but they only have selling power when accompanied by strong captions.

Think about how you read a magazine

Do you go straight to an article and start reading? Or do you flip the pages, scanning images before beginning to read?  Most people are flippers. And evaluators are no different. When asked, they confirm that—just like everyone else—their eyes are drawn to images when reading proposals.

So let’s tap into this tendency and get maximum benefit from evaluators' first impressions of your proposals.

Putting graphics to work

Captions can turn graphics from mere decorations into powerful selling tools that help you win. But not every caption has equal value. Consider a safety meeting photo. Here are your four caption options:

  • No caption: The graphic just sits there on the page. Evaluators must decide for themselves what it shows and what—if any—message it conveys.
  • Label: “Daily safety meeting.” Now evaluators know it’s a safety meeting, but they still need to decide why it’s important—including whether your team even uses them.
  • Descriptive: “We conduct a 10-minute safety meeting for all staff at the start of each shift.” From this caption, evaluators may infer that these 10-minute sessions have value—or they may not.
  • Benefits-focussed: “Our ISO-compliant safety program has delivered a perfect no-lost time accident record at all construction sites over the past 3 years. We will implement our program for this Project.” This caption delivers a tangible benefit—peace of mind and reduced liability—as a result of your safety program.

Notice how a caption focussed on benefits takes an eye-catching, but otherwise passive photo, and turns it into a reason to select your company over others with weaker safety records.

Graphs and charts need captions too

Presenting data graphically is a great idea—but only if an evaluator can grasp the underlying message within a few seconds. Otherwise, he or she will just move on. For that reason, caption every graph and chart with the message and benefit it conveys.

A Gantt chart of your implementation schedule, for example, could include the following caption: “Our on-time delivery schedule is based on the same completion estimates used to deliver 11 similar projects on-time and on-budget in the past 3 years.”

Write compactly, but don’t worry about a caption that runs to 20 words or more. Once you have the evaluator’s attention, be sure to make your case.

Get bid evaluators leaning in early

Bid evaluators have the job of reading and scoring your proposal. For them this is work. If you get them leaning in with strong graphics and benefits-laden captions in those critical first few minutes, you’ll be well on your way to a strong technical score.


Need help making your proposals stronger?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




List editing tips

 March 5, 2019
by Paul Heron

Evaluators tend to skim RFP responses, rather than reading them carefully. For this reason, lists are an excellent way to ensure important information is easy for evaluators to find and score.

When creating lists, or copyediting lists created by content developers, use the following ideas to maximize impact.

1. Confine lists to like items

Lists should only contain like items. For example, limit a list of benefits to benefits, daily tasks to daily tasks, etc. This may seem self-evident, but drafters will often include features in a benefits list or explain the reasons for one or more tasks in a task list—simply because they don’t know where else to put the information.

The information may belong in the proposal—just not in the list. Alternatively, the item may be rewritten to fit the list. For example, rather than remove a feature from a benefits list, add the benefit the feature conveys, if it is not already included.

2. Use parallel structure

Begin every list with the same part of speech (verb, noun, adjective, adverb). Of all forms, verbs are the strongest. Where possible, rewrite list items to begin with a verb, as in the example below:

Nouns used to begin items (weak) Verbs used to begin items (stronger)
Weekly Maintenance Weekly Maintenance
Filter inspection Inspect all filters
Bearing lubrication Grease all bearings
Sewer flushing Flush sewers
Blockage response Correct any blockages
Manpower scheduling Schedule manpower

3. In the setup paragraph, place the list descriptor last

To make evaluation easier, organize the introductory paragraph so the list name immediately precedes the list. See the following options for introducing a list of request types:

  • CONFUSING: Our maintenance team will respond to the following request types within 24 hours, if our help desk receives a request between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. EST Monday to Friday:
  • BETTER: If our help desk receives a request between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. EST Monday to Friday, our maintenance team will respond within 24 hours to the following request types:

4. Keep nesting to a minimum

Avoid multiple levels of sub bullets within lists, to reduce complexity

5. Use bullets unless numbers are required

Order list items in declining order of importance and use bullets to separate items. Use numbers only where they serve a purpose—for example, to mirror the RFP structure, to indicate a sequence of process steps, or when you will refer to the items by number in the surrounding narrative.

6. Use display lists for emphasis

Consider setting very important lists in display type with check marks or some other symbol to introduce each item. Another option for achieving emphasis is to combine a list with a photograph or illustration to create a graphic. These ideas work best when each list item contains few words.

7. Don’t overuse lists

Some content writers use bulleted lists to separate thoughts better structured as sentences in one or more paragraphs. This is a mistake. Overuse of lists diminishes their impact and usefulness to evaluators.

Instead, confine your use of lists to items required for compliance, or to highlight benefits and highlight alignment with the prospect’s needs and hot button issues. As a rule, use lists only to set out five or more items.


Need help organizing and editing proposal content?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 





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