The ultimate proposal editing checklist: 7 steps to a more persuasive document
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Proposals are important. And with a growing focus on procurement transparency and objectivity, a high quality proposal can mean the difference between a big win and an almost-was. So it’s no surprise that organizations are evolving, employing proposal specialists and adopting more mature capture and proposal practices.
Unfortunately, many organizations are still missing a key step in the proposal process: editing. What’s the use of spending days and hours developing and writing a customized proposal if it’s ultimately noncompliant, confusing, mistake-ridden, or just plain not persuasive? None. That’s why we developed a seven-step peer editing checklist to use for each of your organization’s proposals. Below we’ve outlined each step, and have included the full checklist for your download. On to step one!
A Quick Note Before We Begin
While our checklist is designed for a peer edit, self-editing may be your only option — and that’s fine. But keep in mind that a peer edit provides some big advantages over self-editing. In addition to being a learning experience for both of you, peer editing gives a second set of eyes to catch the things you’ll inevitably miss. Annoying, but true.
Step One: Compliance and Responsiveness
Get out the RFP and read through its requirements, comparing them to what is covered in the proposal draft. Is each requirement met? Is each question answered completely, in the order and structure requested? Turn on “Track Changes” and correct any simple compliance errors. Query all larger issues.
If a compliance matrix has been included in the proposal, this step is an easy one. Don’t have a compliance matrix? It’s a good practice to include one, typically a table listing each RFP requirement/question, the proposal section where each is addressed, and if/how you’re compliant with the requirement. It not only saves you time, but it also saves the evaluator time and shows them that the document is thorough and worth looking at in detail.
Step Two: Executive Summary
The next two steps focus on overall document messaging. First flip to the executive summary and read the theme statement, section headings, graphics/action captions, and callouts. Then read the body text. The executive summary is often the only section read by all evaluators, so you want to make sure it conveys a concise and powerful value proposition, understanding of the prospect’s needs, and key benefits of your proposed solution.
Write down the central value proposition on your checklist, as well as what you perceive as the top three to five differentiators being highlighted by the writer (we’ll come back to these later). Query any recommendations for graphics, callouts, or material that can be cut.
Step Three: Key Value Components
Skim the remaining parts of the proposal, looking only at theme statements, section headings, graphics/action captions, and callouts. These are the key areas that catch evaluators’ attention, so they should be present throughout the document. Does each reinforce one of the three to five differentiators outlined in the executive summary? Does each support the executive summary’s central value proposition? Query any recommendations or issues.
Step Four: Flow and Organization
Now it’s time to look at body text, but only for broader organization, navigation, and prospect focus. Look through each portion of the proposal, ensuring that an evaluator can easily find and understand the information they’re looking for. Is each proposal section numbered, with subheadings and paragraphs provided in a logical sequence? Is the most important information at the beginning of each section? Finally, is all of the information necessary? Query any recommendations for deleting or reordering content.
Step Five: Readability and Word Choice
Now that compliance, messaging, and organization have been addressed, focus on readability at the sentence level. Once again go back and read through the full document, this time inserting “tracked” revisions for clarity, precision, emphasis, and style. Aim for simplicity. Break apart run-on sentences and long dependent clauses, and cut any unnecessary jargon. Also look for consistency in terms, acronyms and tense, and make sure verbs are strong and active. Finally, ensure that the text is compliant with your organization’s in-house style guide (if you don’t have one, we’re partial to the Associated Press Stylebook).
This step will be your most time consuming, but stick with it. An easy-to-read proposal does wonders for an evaluator’s attention span—and generosity.
Step Six: Formatting and Proofing
Final cleanup time. Run an automated grammar and spelling check, then flip through the document, looking for any formatting errors. Check for awkward line and page breaks, and review headers and footers (including page numbers!) for consistency. Finally, update your table of contents. Are all key sections and subsections showing? Good. Save the document and forward it to the proposal writer.
Step Seven: Feedback and Improvement
In addition to increasing the persuasiveness of each proposal, peer edits can be valuable tools for improving writing skills. So once you’ve forwarded the edited draft to the proposal writer, write down what you see as their overall areas of strength and opportunities for improvement, as reflected by the proposal draft. Then have a short discussion with the writer to review your feedback.
While you’re at it, discuss any draft queries requiring explanation and what you perceived as the central value proposition and top three to five differentiators being highlighted by the writer. If your perceptions were not consistent with the writer’s intentions, discuss ideas for revisions. All done.
Caveat: We know this list seems long, but give it a try. After a few times, your speed will increase dramatically. We promise. And be sure to build the time for a comprehensive peer edit into your initial proposal schedule. Many proposal managers find it useful to establish an artificial proposal due date (a few days prior to the actual) just to make sure that editing time is preserved.
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