Proposal Organization

A well-organized proposal is easy for readers to understand and evaluate. You can achieve good organization through careful planning of proposal content.

Introduction

Proposal evaluators often scan rather than carefully read proposals to find the answers they need. For this reason, information should be easy to locate and understand.

Benefits of a well-organized proposal include:

  • Higher evaluation scores
  • Improved customer confidence in your ability to deliver
  • Proposals that are easier to write

Proposals that are well organized and easy to understand have the following attributes:

  • They provide a roadmap to how the proposal is organized
  • They make key points easy for evaluators to identify and understand
  • They are written from the customer’s point of view, evidenced in the organization scheme
  • They tell customers what is important to them
  • They use multiple highlighting techniques (headings, roadmaps, graphics, etc.) to enable evaluators to scan the document and locate the information they need

Best Practices

1. Plan content before you write.

Content plans are essential in team writing efforts. Use key team members to build the content plan. Make writing assignments and identify key points to cover in each section. Having a complete view of the entire proposal helps team members write their individual parts. Content plans help writers plan and structure their thinking before beginning to write. It also captures proposal strategies and shows writers where and how to include the strategies in written content. Once the content plan is ready, word or page counts can be given to writers to limit proposal size.

Carefully planning can ensure you have clearly communicated your win themes and are on track to producing a compliant, consistent proposal. It also enables senior management to review a proposal—and potentially identify problems—before writing gets too far underway.

Require writers to complete content plans for their sections. Challenge writers to identify what the message should be in their respective sections. Draft value propositions and include these in content plans.

Choose the appropriate content planning tool familiar to your organization that fits the bid’s characteristics and timeframe. A few common planning tools are:

  • Content plan
  • Outline
  • Annotated outline
  • Mind map
  • Presentation software
  • Mock-up
  • Bid directive

See Content Plans to guide your planning before you write.

2. Organize your bid or proposal according to the customer’s instructions.

Use the exact headings from the bid request, and include all sections that the customer requires. If internal stakeholders want to digress from the client’s format, be sure to inform them that doing so may lower their overall score. Prepare a top-level, topical outline that follows the prospect’s organizational priority. Mimic the numbering system, naming conventions, and order listed in the bid request.

If the customer does not provide instructions explicitly, follow the outline of the request and organize within that structure in the order that makes most sense, given your knowledge of the customer.

3. Make information easy for evaluators to find.

The introduction to the proposal and all subsequent sections should provide a roadmap for what follows. Plan summaries at all levels of the proposal to reinforce key information.

The executive summary, which is always written first, is particularly important. Use the executive summary to connect with the customer, demonstrate an understanding of their key issues, provide a solution for each issue, and summarize. Not only does the executive summary deliver a compelling message to the customer, it provides a clear guide to all contributors. The executive summary should remain brief and high-level so decisionmakers can review the highlights of your proposal.

Headings are a key way to direct evaluators to information. They clearly mark when you are moving from/to the next key point. Use headings to organize and announce content. Be sure headings at the same level are parallel in structure. Use both telegraphic headings and informative headings throughout the proposal. Telegraphic headings label content, but do not provide description (i.e., “Solution”). Informative headings, on the other hand, are usually a short, informative phrase (i.e., “How Our Solution Will Benefit Your Company”). Use telegraphic headings to label major sections, and add extra structure to the proposal using informative headings in all other instances to provide additional detail for the evaluator.

Limit numbered headings to three levels unless otherwise directed in the bid request.

4. Use a structure that layers information for the reader.

Some solicitations may require that you structure information in a particular way. Others may allow you to use the structure you think is best. For responses in which you have some flexibility, structure your points in a way that “layers” information for the reader.

Begin by introducing a topic (e.g., your solution) and explaining it at a high level. Gradually add to your explanation with supporting facts and claims (these could be the features and benefits of your solution). Ask yourself the “so what” question and see if your features offer a relevant benefit. Next, give proof for your claims with examples, case studies, and other details (e.g., descriptions of your past performance). Address any potential drawbacks or give further support for your own position (you could do this by ghosting the competition). Finally, write a conclusion that summarizes your main points and reinforces your position.

Make key messages “pop” by using bold text, callout boxes, graphics, and so forth. See Persuasive Writing for additional information on structure.

5. Group similar ideas and avoid redundancy.

Often, a bid request will scatter similar questions throughout multiple volumes of an RFP. This creates confusion for both proposal developers and reviewers. Multiple authors may unknowingly answer the same question two different ways, and customers may be left with an unclear understanding of your solution.

To limit confusion, examine an RFP before writing and use content plans to help writers identify and group similar ideas. If an RFP does not require a particular structure, group similar ideas together and eliminate redundancies. If the RFP has specific instructions for response structure, use the following guidelines:

  • If the same question is asked in two different volumes, repeat the answer (and tell reviewers that it is repeated). Cross-check to ensure the answer has a consistent message.
  • If the same question is asked more than once in the same volume, answer the question fully in the first instance. In later instances, summarize your answer and cross-reference to the full answer’s location.
  • When an RFP forces you to answer similar questions in disparate sections of a response, summarize your solution in the structure you prefer. Then, answer questions following the customer’s requirements.
  • Consider using a compliance matrix, which can help the client identify where in the document you’ve answered each question.

6. Put the most important points first.

Whether you are writing a proposal section, a paragraph, or a simple bulleted list, put your most important points first. For example, if you are introducing your company’s solution, don’t begin with technical details or your staffing plan. Instead, tell customers what you will do and how it will benefit them.

This technique helps busy proposal reviewers, who want to get to the heart of your solution as quickly as they can. The faster you can give them a compliant response, the faster they can score the question and move on.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Writing before planning

The most common error related to proposal organization is starting to write before developing a plan. Some teams may even think they can leave matters of organization until the first draft and review process.

Ideally, teams should plan proposals using a content planning tool to organize their most important points. They should then develop graphics to support these points. Only when a solution is fully planned, organized, and illustrated should the team begin to write. Content planning doesn’t have to be complicated—it simply means thinking before you write.

Summary

  • Content planning matters because proposal evaluators are short on time. The more easily they can get the information they need from your proposal, the better.
  • Proposals should be organized with customers in mind, following their requirements and making navigation simple.
  • One way to make reviewers’ jobs easier is to put the most important information first, followed by less critical information.
  • Content planning should always precede actual writing. In fact, the writing stage should come last.

Terms to Know

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