Moving house, divorce and bereavement are often quoted as the three most stressful things that life can throw at us. But some of us suffer stress of a different kind on a more regular basis as part of our working life. I'm thinking in particular of people who write proposals.
If you're reading this article then you are probably not in the middle of writing a proposal. It's such an all-consuming task that it leaves little time for anything else.
No matter how organised we think we are, somehow we find ourselves rushing to meet the deadline every time.
When we should be at the final review stage we're still chasing others for their contributions and rewriting stuff that isn't up to scratch, so it's no wonder that our blood pressure soars.
To add to the stress there is often a lot more riding on the proposal than just the kudos of winning.
The organisation we work for may be depending on a positive outcome and our jobs, and those of our colleagues, may even be on the line if we don't win.
So how can we minimise our stress levels? Well, there are a number of steps you can take that will save time in the long run, improve the quality of the proposal and reduce your stress:
Most organisations keep copies of their proposals and either use them as a template for the next proposal or cut and paste material as required.
Apart from being time consuming this is dangerous. Everyone knows someone who has accidentally left the previous client's name in a new proposal.
The best way to re-use information is to create a proposal library. It takes time to create a library and maintain it, but believe me it's worth it.
A good proposal library:
To create an effective library look at your successful proposals and divide the information into generic and client-specific. The information can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a section.
When you compare several proposals, the chances are that the facts and messages in the generic information are very similar.
Take the best version, polish the prose to make it even better, give it a meaningful filename and then store it. You'll need to do this for each piece of generic information and then move on to the client-specific information.
Make sure you keep your library up to date, and incorporate new useful materials that come out of proposals you have written.
Depending on your product or service you will either be able to re-use specific information or create a template from it to use as a prompt when writing.
Whatever you do, remember to remove the client's name or any other specific references from the text before you store it in your library. Insert ‘placeholders’ instead like [CUSTOMER NAME].
The ‘look and feel’ of a proposal is as important as the words. But a lot of bid writers spend far too much time trying to sort out formatting problems, inconsistent fonts and colours, or graphics that mysteriously disappear or move! A good clean template with a starting structure and basic information will resolve a lot of these problems.
We all know that a good proposal is targeted to the client's specific needs and that ‘one size fits all’ definitely should not apply. But if you automate as much of the process as you can, it will leave you time to concentrate on tailoring your response.
Once you've got your proposal library you need to be able to retrieve and use the information quickly. A proposal compilation tool will enable you to combine any number of documents from your library in whatever order you choose without needing to cut and paste manually.
The result is a draft proposal in seconds, based on carefully-crafted, error-free text. And, as the first draft is the hardest to write it will give you a psychological boost and put you in a positive frame of mind to concentrate on tailoring your solution to the client's requirements.
When you've been working on a proposal for weeks and you're feeling under pressure it's easy to lose focus. I rely on a detailed checklist to keep me on track. It's divided into six main areas:
Here's a sample of the type of questions your checklist should include:
By asking yourself questions like these you can check that your proposal is fit for purpose. If you do this regularly throughout the proposal writing process then it will be easy to make any necessary adjustments as you go along.
No matter how careful we are, it is virtually impossible to review our own writing effectively. When we become familiar with a proposal we start to see what we expect to see, not what is really there.
The worst time to review your own work is at the end of a long, stressful proposal writing session. This is the time for a fresh pair of eyes.
When choosing a reviewer, first decide what the purpose of the review is. For example, in most cases you need to review a proposal for technical accuracy, commercial considerations, correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Bear in mind that the person with the best technical knowledge isn't necessarily the one with the best grasp of English. So, don't expect one person to carry out three types of review.
In fact, it's easier for the reviewer if you ask them to concentrate on one thing alone.
Also think about the timing. You don't want to find out two days before the deadline that the financial model on which you've based your whole solution is flawed. Stage your reviews and leave the spelling, grammar and punctuation check as close to the end as possible.
Give the reviewers the relevant parts of the RFP (Request for Proposal) or ITT (Invitation to Tender), your proposal response strategy document and your checklist.
If you give them a careful brief they are more likely to give you an equally careful and considered response.
If you choose appropriate reviewers and give them enough time to do a good job, you will relieve the pressure on yourself.
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