Over the years, I’ve read, written, reviewed, and judged proposals competing in response to Request for Proposals (RFPs) for both the public and private sector. Nowadays, I mostly write these proposals to develop new business, but I still review them for clients and associates who want my opinion on their work. No one wants to communicate poorly (it’s not good for the company’s bottom line), so here are 9 lessons from a composite bad RFP response.
“Feels bad, man”
I don’t know about other folks, but the first thing I do when presented with a 25 – 50-, or even 100-page document is to flip through, physically if its printed out (!) or by scrolling its electronic format. What’s my first impression of this document? Bad formatting? Too gray? Doesn’t appear organized? Looks like a tremendous pain to read? If so, I’m know I’m in for this kind of feeling. What you want to achieve is making me feel this kind of feeling. (How many other bloggers do you know who would start with a meme joke?)
Cut and paste
More times than I care to remember, I’ve read proposals that simply cut-and-pasted information from websites, internal documents, or even promotional and marketing pieces. This is OK to get started, since this information has to come from somewhere. But, if a paragraph sounds canned, or worse, makes multiple appearances verbatim through the document, you’ve got problems. Submitting an RFP response shares a lot in common with applying for a job. And any career specialist will tell you that using the same exact cover letter for different situations doesn’t pay off.
Be honest. Did you really need this much copy and these many pages to communicate your ideas to me? As I recommend with all my clients, go through even just one section and cut it by 25% and see how you feel. I have yet to hear a complaint.
Lay off the “ten dollar” words
I regularly write about word choice and linguistics and this is the single sharpest burr in my side when it comes to communications. Overuse of big words, especially when used incorrectly, kills the enjoyment of your proposal. And believe me, anything you can do to prevent your RFP response from sucking is worth it. I’ve watched reviewers not finish reading proposals out of sheer boredom and I’m quite sure it had to do with “leveraging new rubrics and mobilizes integrated networks of stakeholders toward sustainable solutions.” The federal government has an entire site dedicated to plain language standards, for instance, as do some other industries. I’m also planning on releasing quick guides along these lines in the near future.
Assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader
Somewhat along the same lines as the 10-dollar word problem, many proposals will get lost in jargon world or assume the first reader will have first-hand knowledge of every facet of the RFP response’s content. Don’t be afraid to break complexity down into more digestible portions.
Too much “we,” not enough “you”
Yes, an RFP response is a chance to brag a little able your company. But, it’s more about solving a problem. You can be great and loved, but still not be the right fit for the opportunity. Go back and count “we” language versus “you” language. Who won? I bet you know who should win, right? The more “we” an RFP response uses, the more salesy it sounds. No one likes to be “sold”. They’d much rather buy.
Technical information in unfriendly formats
“You’ve got facts and figures? Great! Where are they? Buried in a paragraph somewhere? Not comfortable with tables, graphics, or bullet points are we? Gee, that’s too bad. I bet those numbers really help tell the story and demonstrate numerical value. Guess we’ll never know, though.”
No examples or extrapolation
In conversation, people love hearing stories. In public speaking, people love hearing stories. In books, people read stories. In the classroom and in life, people learn from stories. When reading RFP responses, however, people absolutely want nothing but the driest writing and most theoretical context possible, and will lose their minds if the narrative makes an unprecedented side turn into illustration and example. Makes perfect sense.
“Un-realism” and overpromising
I asked a colleague for one or two items for this list and he passed me this Guy Kawasaki article on mistakes from the entrepreneur’s world. Not being grounded in reality is a great way to have your RFP response lining the waste basket. For example, timelines aren’t set in stone, and I cringe when folks present them as being completely rigid. Good luck, there. Aside from the final delivery date, they are a guide for the teams working on the project and should be viewed as such. By the same token, however, be honest and upfront about challenges down the road.