Proposal Writing Secrets: How to Make Sure Your Bid Gets Noticed

3/9/17 1:44 PM Anna Duin RFP Responding

Not only did you spend 65 hours putting together your last proposal, but several of those hours were long evenings early weekend mornings. 

You had to hunt down your difficult SMEs and wring some intelligible content out of them, and you yourself had to answer the same 50 questions you always get with each new RFP. Not to mention having to remind everyone of the deadline and requirements ten times. 

And now that you've done all that, you know, deep down that your perfectly crafted proposal sitting in a stack somewhere. Worse, you know when it is finally read, it will probably get a mere 10 minutes of consideration. 

But you don't have to leave it all to chance. Tip the scale with these three secrets to making sure your bids get all the attention they deserve. 

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Secret 1. Skim-ability & Readability 

The biggest secret of getting your proposal really read, is to make it easy to read. It's that hard, and that simple.

After all, we live in an age where if a website takes longer than 3 seconds to load, 40% will abandon the attempt and move on. If it's too hard, too long, or too confusing, people will give up, period. 

There is a great book on web design called Don't Make Me Think -- the title says it all. Users, or in our case evalutors, don't want to waste precious thinking time trying to figure out what you're really saying.

I recently read a great post from The Seibert Group called Proposal Readability: Is Your Proposal Easy to Skim? It was all about why hard-to-read proposals simply don't get read and how to better cater to the "skimmer" evaluator. 

If you take care to craft the wording of your headings and subheadings so they are meaningful and telling, the reader should be able to comprehend the sales message you’re trying to communicate even if she doesn’t read all of the content in between. Think about this for a moment. If you have 30 pages to read, but only 15 minutes until your next meeting, and you want to get out on time tonight so you can make it to your daughter’s band performance, you don’t have time to read every word. But if the proposal in front of you is carefully structured with meaningful headings and subheadings, you can make it through those 30 pages with time to spare. And get something beneficial from the time you invested.

As proposal writers, we still have to write answers and sometimes detailed answers to RFP questions, both to be compliant and to provide the details for those reviewers who read the answers we write. But we must also recognize that being an effective proposal writer necessarily means writing in a way that works for the 95% of reviewers who only skim our proposals. [Emphasis added.]

We couldn't agree more. Your evaluators are busy and tired. Make it easy for them to get the facts they need. 

There's a common misconception that proposal writing has to be very formal. But honestly that just makes things confusing. Yes, we need to be professional and appropriate, but we also need to be simple and easy to understand. 

In fact, you should be writing so simply a 5th or 6th grader could easily understand it. Why? Because that's how the bulk of the most highly esteemed and best-selling literature is written. In fact, most Americans don't effectively comprehend content written above an eighth grade level complexity.

Scholars have various accepted formulas for determining the grade reading level of any piece of writing based on how complex it is, what kind of vocabulary uses it, etc. The most common scale is the Flesch-Kincaid index. 

The natural assumption would be that sophisticated writing such as "classics" like Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice, etc. would be evaluated at a high reading level, say 11th grade+. But that's not the case at all. 

The initial surprise from my little data experiment is that writers whose work we regard highly tend to be produce work at a lower reading level than we’d intuit. Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, and Hunter S. Thompson join J.K. Rowling in the readability realm of pre-teens. The content of McCarthy’s and Thompson’s novels isn’t meant for children, but these writers’ comprehensibility is rather universal. - Source 

That same article shares this disturbing graph: 

Reading Level graph .jpg

You'll notice the significant drop off after eighth grade. Yet somehow, most of us believe that formal and complicated is better; we'll be taken more seriously. The creator of the graph cited: 

I did an informal poll of some friends while writing this post. Every one of them told me that they assumed that higher reading level meant better writing. We’re trained to think that in school. But data shows the opposite: lower reading level often correlates with commercial popularity and in many cases, how good we think a writer is. [Emphasis added.] 

It's not an isolated opinion either. This helpful article suggests when writing for fundraising, you should keep it between a 4-6th grade reading level. 

Here's the important thing about reading grade levels: It's not about education. It's about ease of comprehension. Low grade level copy is not 'talking down' to educated readers or treating them like children. Think of it instead as a form of courtesy, like enunciating clearly when you talk. The most super-educated PhD. will appreciate and respond to copy that's easy to read. 

Copy that's 4th to 6th grade level is barrier-free and can be read quickly and comprehended well by all adult readers. Go much above that and it takes extra concentration. A reader who's in a hurry will have trouble comprehending, and will be more likely to skim or to stop reading. And it just gets worse as the grade level climbs. [Emphasis added.] 

What does simpler copy look like practically? If you were to ask the RFP365 team if our product was cloud-based, we could answer in a variety of ways: 

Proposal Writing - Simpler Copy Ex..png

The first response is clearly vague and too colloquial, and while the second may sound better, it gives no real details either. But the third actually begins to answer the question. 

Wondering how your proposals rank on readability? Use this easy Hemingway Editor website (it's free!) to check. Bonus, it also checks for passive voice and highlights which of your sentences are specifically hard to read. 

Hemingway Editor.png

Making your writing simpler won't detract from your credibility, it will actually enhance it.  

Key takeaways

  • Use headings, subheadings, call-outs, and bullets to make your proposal easy to skim
  • Be thorough in your responses, but also be aware most evaluators are pressed for time
  • Don't be afraid to write simply, check the reading level of your proposals
  • Data shows the majority of people only effectively read at or below an eighth grade reading level

Secret 2. Use Your Most Compelling Content Every Time

Of course your evaluators aren't the only ones pressed for time, you are as well. And regardless of how much they skim you still need to submit thorough and compelling RFP responses. 

Meaning your first priority needs to be writing winning content. You simply can't afford to waste time reinventing the wheel or searching through Word docs. Hurriedly recreating content is not only a recipe for inconsistency, but also for slapdash responses. 

The number one mistake I see is proposal writers spending all this time writing responses and content, but then can't effectively find and repurpose it. In many ways their hard earned work becomes wasted.

Your goal is to be able to consistently use your best content. 

So whatever proposal management software or system you're using, make sure it allows you to:

  • Search by keyword so you can easily find relevant past responses
  • See who wrote the content (don't muddy the waters by sharing logins) 
  • Track when it was written and/or last updated
  • A revision history
  • How often it's been used

What is Proposal Management Software Ebook

If you're not getting those capabilities you're not working as fast as you could be. It means you're spending too much of your precious time on the process, rather than on the content. 

If that's where you are, you have a couple of options. The easiest, is to track those content details with proposal software (see how our team keeps our content fresh here).

Your second option, is to create a workaround. You'll likely have to combine a task tracking system with a content sharing platform. If you have a small team and only a few previous proposals to keep track of, you may be able to get away with storing and searching on Google Drive (just be sure to clarify/rename the document version), using something like Trello for ideas and tasks, and setting reminders on a shared team calendar. 

But bottom line, a winning proposal requires your best responses. Do whatever you need to ensure you can find them when you need them. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Your first priority is to put your effort into writing compelling responses
  • Your second priority is to make easy to organize and find those responses 
  • Write it well once, don't reinvent the wheel, rather make sure you can easily leverage the original


Secret 3. Give the Right, Concise, Details

Picture a CEO. In my experience they're usually short on time and asking to you quickly give them "the bottom line."

They want the critical details -- concisely if you please. Great. But how do we actually write that?  

Last year I attended the APMP conference where I heard a genius session from Julia Quigley of Lohfeld Consulting Group. Quigley has a Master's in Rhetoric and Composition and created a brilliant formula for getting better responses from SMEs. (Technically her presentation was specifically focused on how to win government projects, but the approach is widely applicable.) 

Best of all she gave great, detailed examples of what upgrades a response from mediocre to mesmerizing. 

Download her presentation here, just look for the "Quigley" presentation.

Quigley Slide 12-1.png

Quigley Slide 14-073602-edited.png

Quigley Slide 16-002857-edited.png

Download her presentation here, just look for the "Quigley" presentation.

Below is what I got from her presentation, but it really is worth reading for yourself. Several of the Sales Engineers who attended the session with me said it was the first time they understood what their Proposal Manager wanted from them. 

 Key takeaways: 

  • Use the broad outline of Approach, Process, and Benefits (APB) 
  • Using said outline, reiterate the given requirement and provide detailed descriptions as to how you'll satisfy and/or exceed it  
  • Have a shortened version of your APB in the executive summary for those who want the quick gist, saving the in-depth explanations for the technical sections ad evaluators who will want all the details


  • Cater to the skimmer evaluator: use headings, subheadings, and bullets
  • Use your best content consistently, make sure it's easy to find and reuse
  • Write simply, and check the reading level of your proposals, aim for eighth grade or lower
  • Include your short & sweet APB in the executive summary, save the details for the technical sections

Bottom line, if we want to win, our proposal writing must be clear and concise. And if it's not, then as Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply you don't understand it well enough." 


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