"In any battle you need a strong team. I would prefer to have you on my team than my competitors.”  Past Blog Contributor

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nFold has two blogs you can follow to improve your proposals and keep in touch. Read the latest posts below or click on the tip names to see the blog archives.

nFold Proposal Tips

Based on best practice and experience, these tips from Sandy Pullinger on a wide range of proposal topics will inspire you as you learn the art and science of proposals and tenders.

Proposal Adventures of Wendy Word

Relax and enjoy the tales of friendly witch and proposal pioneer Wendy Word as she keeps you in touch with the latest news in the local South African proposal community.

nFold Proposal Tips

Recipe for Success

ingredients of a good template

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I have two sons who deny that they are made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails. I must agree that to me they seem to be made of sugar and spice and all things nice. But how does this relate to proposals and what makes the perfect proposal template?


Let’s explore!

Before creating a proposal template, I look at both the bidder and the buyer’s websites to get some insight into their corporate identity and marketing messages. This helps me to decide what fonts, colours, styles and pictures will work in the template.


Grab Attention

I start any proposal template with a striking title page that includes a picture or design linked to the win theme of the proposal. I create a headline sized style for the strong title that links to the win theme slogan and a slightly smaller style for the subtitle that will emphasize the reason to pick the bidder. I also create styles for details such as the proposal due date, the bid number, the key decision-maker and the sender details. Since these details are less important, they appear in a much smaller font size.


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Add a Splash of Colour

I generally choose no more than 3 colours for my proposal. One colour matches the corporate identity of the buyer and I use this for the main headings and for emphasis such as bold text, bullets, captions and call-outs. I choose colours for the secondary headings and text to match the existing bidder template. I co-brand the proposal with both logos, putting the client’s logo first. I generally do a web search for the buyer logo and choose an image with high resolution to match the bidder logo.


Use Hot Headings

I define styles for 3 levels of heading, usually in alternating colours using 2 colours only. I start with a huge 24 point level 1 heading and make each level smaller than the last but bigger than the normal text size. I use bold or italics to make the headings different from each other. If the proposal is long enough then I create styles for numbering the different heading levels.

Next, I create styles for the contents page. I usually put confidentiality or disclaimer notices after the table of contents. I also create a cover letter template from the letterhead and any other templates needed for the bid, such as CD stickers or spine labels. Getting this done early in the bid leaves more contingency for things that may go wrong on the bid.


Save White Space

Our eyes are immediately drawn to words surrounded by white space. Leaving white space in the template is important. Use the one-thirds two-thirds layout creatively. Make divider pages for the different sections to slow down the pace of reading and create interest. If something is really important, then say it in a way that catches the reader’s eye.


Pick Pictures

Choose a style for pictures. I usually create diagrams for a proposal in slide format using the main colours for the bid. I re-draw or change existing pictures for consistency. Then I paste the pictures into my proposal as ‘enhanced metafiles’ or ‘jpg’ images so that they are easier to move, format and size in the proposal. Be careful not to choose grainy images. I have a library of images that have a resolution of 600x400 pixels or higher so that I can include them to support the messages in my proposals.

I also create pictures that give context in my proposal. For example, for different elements of the solution or for key goals the client has outlined. Visual context makes your proposal easier to skim read. Provide it to give your client clues about the proposal structure. Keeping these cues in the presentation also helps to provide consistency in your messages.


Create Captions & Call-Outs

Create sample action captions and call-outs in your template. Use figure numbers that update automatically for the action captions under each picture. Create call-outs for important claims or proof points and use them to draw attention to what matters. When you read a magazine, the call-outs alone give you clues about the story.


Share the Recipe

When your template is ready, save it to a template format such as .dotx so that your team can start using it to create sections of the proposal. Creating the template early in the proposal process saves a lot of time later when you’re doing the final collation.

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Now bake the perfect proposal

It’s not enough to create a fantastic template. Once the proposal is written, you should improve the layout to make it consistent for the reader and easy on the eye. Allow enough time for this step. Ideally, allow one day per 20-40 pages for layout before printing.

Finally assemble, package, hit send or submit and wait to win.

Posted 71 weeks ago

Start with the end in mind by creating a great outline

2016 has begun with a loud BANG. As the New Year begins, I am reminded of one of Stephen Covey’s habits of success: ‘Start with the end in mind’. In the proposal world, this relates to creating an outline that complies with what your client wants to see in your proposal. I’ve learnt a few tricks over the years that might help you to create better outlines. Here goes…

Where to begin?

If your client has issued an RFP then that’s the place to start. If not, then ask the sales person what the client wants to see in the proposal – or better yet, ask the client yourself if appropriate. Many RFPs set out exactly what information you must provide. Some even specify the sequence. Always comply and explain deviations.


Who is the lucky victim?

In my opinion, the proposal writer or bid strategist is the best person to create the outline. If you have multiple people contributing to the proposal document, then you may brainstorm multiple outlines - one for each section - to involve subject matter experts. Adapt your approach to suit the deadline and the bid, but ideally let one person create the outline.


How to do it?

You can either use storyboard and layout techniques, or simply create an annotated outline in document form. The ideal outline has headings, sub-headings, key ideas, page limits and ideas for pictures. By reading the outline, you should see the story line of the proposal emerging. When you give an outline to a writer or subject matter expert, it should be clear to them what details you need in what format and who must do what by when.


What headings in what order?

If the client did not specify the sequence, then I like to use the NOSE structure for my proposals.

First comes the cover letter, compliance matrix, glossary and executive summary. Then I include more details about the client’s needs and desired outcomes. Next is the solution, including who will deliver what by when, in what way, and how much it will cost to deliver what payback with relevant assumptions or exclusions.

Finally, I provide evidence that my solution is the best choice to deliver the desired outcomes and indicate next steps. If requested, I may include answers to questions then appendices right at the end, with a clear index to make it easy to find details.


Why do it at all?

I use dynamic sub-headings such as ‘Reduce Costs’ under telegraphic headings such as ‘Executive Summary’ so that the story shines out.

For me, this is the key reason to do an outline and the main benefit of having one person do it: to create a single story line in one voice, even if there are multiple contributors.

Planning also saves time and money. Fixing the story at outline stage is cheaper than doing it after the writing is done. So make sure you create a compelling outline for your next proposal.

Begin with the client in mind.

Posted 79 weeks ago

End on a good note with a conclusion and appendices

As the year heads at a trot towards its close, my mind turns to proposal endings. Just as every good fairy story starts with ‘Once upon a time…’ so it ends with ‘… and they all lived happily after.’ Unless you’re Roald Dahl, in which case there may be a twist.


Avoid an anti-climax

Many proposals end in mid-air. After rambling on for about 100 pages, presenting information in no particular order. They generally start with an Exec Summary, have a Company Profile and a Solution somewhere, as well as a Price, maybe even a Project Methodology and Timing. Finally they include a whole heap of Appendices and then…after you have waded through all that bumph…your reward is a whole lot of nothing.

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Add a conclusion

Just like a good joke ends with a punch line, so your proposal needs an ending. In your conclusion, don’t state anything new. Remind your reader of some of the highlights of your solution and the main reasons to pick you, then outline the next steps. In this way, they come away satisfied rather than frustrated after reading your proposal. It also gives you a chance to act on Tom Sant’s tip to ‘Ask for the Business’ as any good sales document must.


Where to put it

I generally add a conclusion to every section of my document and sometimes have another for the proposal itself. My preference is to put it before the Appendices. This means that if the evaluators split up my proposal into different sections, then each one is self-contained. But I only call it a conclusion if it really is at the very end of the proposal. I always do a double-take when an Executive Summary has a ‘Conclusion’ heading. It makes me wonder whether the writer wants me to read the rest of the proposal or just stop now.


How to cross reference

When it comes to the Appendices, my pet hate is for proposals that are riddled with ‘Refer to Appendix A’ type answers to questions, or ‘See answer to question 12 above’. This really makes the evaluator’s job difficult. Rather tell them what they will find in Appendix A or repeat the answer to question 12 to save them from paging backwards and forwards to find information in your response.

For example, if they ask for your tax clearance certificate then you might include a thumbnail image and say something like:

‘Knowing that our taxes are up to date gives you the peace of mind that our company deals honestly. We pay our taxes to build a better future for all South Africans. In Appendix A you will find our tax clearance certificate which expires on 15 September 2016.’

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A rose by any other name

An Appendix is sometimes an Addendum or a Schedule or an Attachment. And sometimes you will see more than one of these in the request for proposal. So what should you call it? You will use the same name that the customer uses, of course. Because the customer is always right. Number your Appendices sequentially or cross reference them to the request. And please include only the information that your customer requests, don’t just throw at them everything you have in your proposal library and force them to work out what’s important. They won’t thank you for this approach.

And in conclusion? Just joking. But you get the point I hope. May your proposals live happily ever after.

Posted 87 weeks ago

Don't TELL it, rather SELL your solution

Writing to persuade is very different from writing to inform, just as telling is not the same as selling. People with sales experience seem to write better proposals. Unfortunately, many proposals fail to persuade because the authors focus on what rather than why. They focus on telling rather than selling.


Audience, Purpose & Structure

In his book “The Language of Success”, Tom Sant talks about adapting your business writing to suit the audience and choosing the right structure to achieve your purpose. For example, he argues that if you want to inform the readers of a newspaper then you start with the broadest most important facts and include more specific details later. He calls this the funnel structure.


Winning by a NOSE

If we want to persuade our target audience then Tom Sant suggests that we must match the psychology of decision-making. When making decisions, people ask themselves: am I getting what I want, can you do it, are you giving me value for money and why should I pick you? So in our proposals we need to provide the right information in the right order to win the deal. Start with Needs, then Outcomes before outlining your Solution and providing Evidence that you’re the right choice. Tom Sant calls this the persuasive structure or NOSE.


Aligned to Sales

The persuasive structure for proposals aligns well with popular sales methodologies. This alignment is important because the purpose of a proposal is to advance the sales process. And a good proposal is one that wins. We encourage sales folks to ask customers about the problems they are experiencing and what they hope to achieve by overcoming these problems. Only then does the good salesman show customers how our solution aligns with their goals before overcoming obstacles in their path to moving forward with us rather than the competition.


Does it work?

In our training we offer delegates several example of executive summaries to review. In my experience, about 80% of delegates prefer a persuasive structure written according to best practice principles. And that’s usually before we teach them anything. So I would definitely argue in favour of using the NOSE structure in your proposals. A customer survey conducted by Qvidian (formerly The Sant Corporation), way back when, concluded that people who use this structure win 30% more than those who try to inform.


Readers Rule

I know that very few people enjoy writing proposals, or reading them for that matter. For me the joy in writing proposals springs from the fact that each one is different. What I am selling is different, the decision-makers vary, and the competition changes. I like to get under the skin of the people reading the proposal so that I can focus on what matters to them and give them some good reasons to pick what I’m selling rather than choosing an alternative. This art lies at the heart of a good proposal and makes it a joy to read.

Posted 93 weeks ago

Proposal Checklist - what makes a proposal good?

With entries for the annual nFold APMP proposal award due at the end of August, my mind turns to the definition of a good proposal. Tom Sant defines a good proposal as one that wins. But wait, there’s more…

I enjoy judging the  award each year and discussing the relative merits of each proposal with my fellow judges. We have revised the decision criteria to include the overall impression, executive summary, layout & graphics, and language & structure. Within each category, we’re looking for something special.

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Overall Impression

We put ourselves in the shoes of your customer when we read your proposal. If your proposal makes us want to say YES, then it’s a good proposal. As a sales document, a good proposal is one that wins the deal or advances the sales process to the next stage. It is NOT just a quote, nor is it simply a bill of materials, nor is it a product brochure, and it certainly is not all about us as the vendor. You make clients want to say YES to the extent that you convince them you can deliver what they want at a reasonable price. You must also demonstrate unique reasons to choose you that matter to the client.


Executive Summary

Your executive summary should make a strong business case. It must stand alone and make your value proposition clear. It should be long enough to cover the basics, but short enough to remain interesting. Include high level pricing and payback unless prohibited. Focus on three or four key win themes that matter to the client and highlight unique aspects of your bid. Use pictures that help you to tell your story. Keep it short and simple.


Layout & Graphics

As a client skim-reads your proposal, it should be pleasing on the eye. The key points should jump off the page. Use white space and pictures to enhance the layout. Get a graphic designer to create a template for you or to do the layout of your proposal if the bid budget allows. Explain your outline with reference to the client’s request so that your logic is clear. Give more space to topics that are important to the client rather than providing heaps of information and making the client work out what’s important.


Language & Tone

Use a persuasive structure and direct tone in your proposal. Make it feel like a sales conversation. Always run a spelling and grammar check and show readability statistics. You should use less than 10% passive voice, aim for sentences of 15-18 words on average, and write your executive summary at a grade level of 8-10 and your technical proposal at a grade level of 10-12. This probably means you’re not using too much fluff, guff, geek or weasel – which is a good thing for a proposal. Keep your language clear and simple.


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Ten Things to Check

Here are a few simple things I check when I want to transform a proposal from good to great:

1. Comply - Read the RFP or client request and make sure the proposal complies.

2. Greet - Include a cover letter (with contact details) if the proposal is more than 20 pages. Get the most senior person who has met the client to sign it.

3. Persuade - Add client focus and differentiation to the executive summary if missing and make the value proposition clear.

4. Focus - Write section summaries that help the client to focus on key points.

5. Fix - Check spelling and readability statistics. Shorten sentences, improve passive voice, and reduce grade level if needed. Eliminate errors that kill credibility.

6. Skim - Add dynamic headings if missing, to make the proposal easier to skim.

7. Layout - Add pictures and action captions or call-outs to break up the text, support the story and make the proposal easier to understand. Fix pictures that are too complex or do not fit the style of the proposal.

8. Next – Always ask for the business and make it clear you are ready for the next step of the sales / decision process. Add a conclusion before the appendices.

9. Read – I read the proposal from start to end after making changes to make sure that there are no inconsistent details. Make it a pleasure to read.

10. Package – improve the title page with a dynamic heading to match your key win theme and get creative about packaging the proposal to stand out from the crowd.

Why not check these the next time you read or write a proposal and see what happens? I’d love to know if it works for you!

Posted 108 weeks ago

Proposal Adventures of Wendy Word

Having a bad hair day

Sandy says that when she hit send on her last proposal tip, she began to feel chronic symptoms related to holiday brain fever and error mania.

Have you ever typed an email, got distracted, hit send in a hurry, and skipped the quality checking step or paid it lip service only? Heard the expression more haste less speed?

Then maybe you too have had the same symptoms. Nausea. Emotional trauma related to a perfectionist making any error whatsoever. And turning bright red because you haven’t done anything quite so stupid since you were 3?

A tip to the tipper…cutting and pasting introduces errors. Only use it in a proposal or email campaign when your source content is ‘clean’ of date or customer specific details.

Sandy’s response is the same one she gives to her children. Sorry! Guilty as charged. Do what I say, don’t do what I do.

Posted 79 weeks ago

Getting it right the first time

On the 8th of October 2015,  an eager bunch of Group Bid Office recruits attended the two-day Right First Time Bid and Proposal Management training at the EOH Head offices, along with several people from other business units.

In the session Sandy Pullinger covered everything from creating a compelling Executive Summary, writing efficiently all the way to ensuring that delegates create a compliant and comprehensive winning proposal.

The normal expectation for training sessions, such as these, is that you listen for 16 hours over a 2 day period and hope that you have something useful to report back on. Most Bid Mangers in the EOH Bid Office already have extensive experience in running a tender process with years of experience behind them. Still, they said that the session taught them something new and helped them to discover practical ways to enhance what they already DO know.

Posted 89 weeks ago

Winner takes all

Last night I attended the APMP annual general meeting. It was the last meeting chaired by Sally Jacques. We’ll miss your sense of humour and inspirational leadership, Sally. I’m flying some flowers to you on my broomstick to say thanks for all you have done to take the association to the next level. Our new APMP chair person is Izane Cloete-Hamilton. We expect great things from the new boss lady. Onward and upward.

I was excited to find out that Barclays Africa won the last nFold proposal award. Well done Marlize and Elmien on your steady progress year by year and the truly excellent proposal that you submitted this year! Finalists in 2015 were Tracy-Ann Damons for quantifying the payback and Reza Forouhar for differentiation. For 5 years, nFold has sponsored the award.

Here is a happy snap I took of all the winners with their cheezy trophies. From left to right, Marlize Schwar (Barclays Africa) 2015, Belinda Engelbrecht (Aurecon) 2011, and Larissa Cornelius (EOH) 2012-2014. You go girls!

Posted 92 weeks ago

To certify, or not to certify

…moot is the question. Another 18 brilliant proposal people passed the APMP certification exam in August, bringing the total in SA to about 130. Yee haa!

APMP is the first best and only globally recognized certification for proposal pioneers like you and me.

Tell your friends to register for the next certification event planned for April 2016. Study group sessions kick off on 18 January, so be sure to register before then. You can book online: https://www.quicket.co.za/events/11967-apmp-foundation-certification-and-exam/#/schedules.

Be there or be square.

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Posted 97 weeks ago

Of Cowboys and Soldiers

I attended the 6th annual APMP SA Conference on 23 July. The topic was Prepare Produce Propose Present. Try saying that quickly three times in a row after a glass of wine and you’re sure to put your tongue in a twist!

Sandy spoke about what to do before the RFP arrives and presented a tale of two bids: one managed by cowboys where everything goes wrong, and another managed by soldiers where planning pays off. She made the point abundantly clear that you cannot rely on luck but should rather plan to win. Sandy looks good in a cowboy hat, but not as good as Clint Eastwood.

Posted 103 weeks ago