Plan before your write – it saves time and money.
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.
If your client has issued an RFP, then that’s the place to start. If not, then ask the salesperson what the client wants to see in the proposal. 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.
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 all subject matter experts. Adapt your approach to suit the deadline and the bid, but ideally, let one person create the outline.
You can either use storyboard and layout techniques or 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 storyline 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. Explain the 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. Do not forget to show what the payback is 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 and appendices, with a clear index to make it easy to find details.
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 storyline 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 writing. So, make sure you create a compelling outline for your next proposal.
Begin with the client in mind.