What Makes a Proposal Great Instead of Good (Part 1)

We could start out by asking the question – does great vs. good matter, or do you just need passable/ compliant and best price to win? Yes, I have seen a lot of ugly, poorly organized, and poorly written proposals win federal contracts. There is no question, sometimes the government is just determined to get the contract into the hands of a specific firm, and as long as the proposal is compliant, the scoring can be anything they want it to be. BUT, if you are depending on being in this enviable situation often enough to grow your business – you are going to have a lot of sleepless nights!

Despite what you hear as part of the federal government contracting community’s ritualistic historical dialogue, the vast majority of contracts are not wired (although frequently there are only 3 or 4 serious contenders); and while price is always a major factor the lowest bidder in best value procurements wins far less often than we imagine. Should you be into ritualistic historical dialogues you might also think LPTA is everywhere, yet statistics show it was almost non-existent before the 2008 recession, then became popular in attempts to save money – only to see its usage peak in 2012 to 4.4% of procurements (it reached much higher levels if you drop civilian agencies and look only at DoD.) Its usage has dropped every year since 2012.  Hopefully, LPTA’s demise is continuing, since the Defense Authorization Act of 2017 limits its use to straightforward commodity procurements only. An analysis by GAO of DoD contracts in the first half of FY2017 that were worth more than $10M seems to confirm we are returning to an era where value matters.


 What does all this mean? It’s simple – how great your technical proposal is, really matters! So now, the key question, what changes good into great? This much is certain, it is not just one thing. It is the ability to integrate a number of content and design elements into a captivating experience for the reader – one that keeps their attention on you because you have presented yourself in a distinctly different and appealing way. To achieve this requires that someone with a very special set of skills is made responsible for the overall product. Those skills include a deep understanding of how people actually interact with and absorb information from a presentation style document (we refer to this as cognitive design), excellent storytelling skills, understanding the unique writing style (we call it effect-style writing) that enhances the impact of your words, how to communicate visually, and what it means to organize information in a two-dimensional page-oriented environment so its impact is maximized.

We have frequently drawn parallels between the construction of a building and the construction of a proposal, and it could be a good analogy to use again here to help make our point. Both are very finite entities, with very specific specifications. And, both benefit from being equally functional and beautiful. Based on this analogy, it makes sense to call our special person a proposal architect, and the product of their work a proposal architecture. Like every architect, their job is to create great, not good. So, how does this happen?

When a developer is going to construct a new building, he/she must first find some property for the project. The property purchased is a critical decision, because it has a major impact on what can be built. So, what does this have to do with Government proposals? Well, when you choose to pursue a specific contract, you are making a critical decision that has an enormous influence on both the content and appearance of your proposal, just like the building.

Now, what does the developer do next? He/she gets an architect to start designing the building. And, what is the goal – to create something that attracts attention because it is beautiful and highly functional in accordance with its purpose (office, hotel, housing).

So, what should you do as you approach the release of an RFP? You probably worked for months to find out something about the customer, the requirements, the incumbent, your competitors, and your team. What you have been doing is surveying the land, putting in the infrastructure, and sizing up who you will compete with when the building is ready for lease/sale. But, you still need to build the building, or construct the proposal, so you hire an architect, right? The goal – bring together the cognitive elements of design, storytelling and composition to create a communications document compelling in its ability to attract attention and influence the readers thoughts and impressions.

In our August 15, 2017 blog (First Impressions Matter) we talked about the importance of proposal covers. Your cover should be the first physical part of your proposal that you create. But it is not the first cognitive element you create. If you think of your cover as the executive summary to your executive summary then you need to have a story to tell first.

Great stories create great proposals, and are the cognitive foundation that allows a beautiful proposal to be built. Yes, having some discriminators is part of a great story, but a list of what makes your company interesting is not a story. Nor is it a story to simply have a great solution, or a great management plan. A great story has a plot line, which will be a synthesis of your win strategy and the customer requirements. It has characters with personalities, which requires more than just a resume on a couple of key people, it requires you write your employees and the customer into your entire proposal. It needs scenery (your process, methods, tools and solution sets), emotion (customer hot-buttons that are talked about in terms of mitigation actions), and a wow factor – this may be a good spot for one of those discriminators or customer quotes. Yes, these things can exist in your proposal, but they need to be woven together with a common thread, not just sprinkled around to fit an arbitrary outline dictated by the RFP.

When it is properly architected the reader will ‘feel’ what you are saying, connect with what you are saying, like what you are saying and what they see – which brings forth all those good tendencies to want to buy!

There are complex models that lead to a solid understanding of how to connect with a reader, and the stages of understanding/ connectivity you want to move them through in order to accomplish your goal. In a later post we will explore these models. But for now, here is a simple example. The two graphics below both show you the same data, but which one do you think helps the reader connect better with the story being told about police effectiveness?



From the color choices you make, to the design of your graphics, the words that you use, your sentence structures, to the organizational stepping stones you use to guide the reader, to the way you layout the page elements – all of it needs to contribute to the story. When it does, the reader will be attracted, impressed and ultimately convinced you should be the winner.

At 90Degrees, we have been studying the application of architectural concepts and cognitive design theories to proposals for 25 years, and we think we have a few innovative ideas. We continue to study and stretch for better solutions, but our clients have been benefiting from our proposal design process to the tune of, well, a lot of money. We call it Cognitive Architecture, and without being fancy about it – it works. Of course, you may be thinking, “now I need to add another person to my proposal team, increasing my cost, right?” Yes, you are right. And, it is also going to increase your win rate! So, if you have not been growing as fast as you would like, or you just want to assure your continued growth; you might want to think about ROI, rather than cost. Want to know and see more about what a proposal architecture is – let’s talk.