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Once you understand how themes can make your proposal stand out, you’ll kick yourself several times for not doing so earlier.

The ability to use themes in business proposals is one way to highlight the unique strengths of your bid.


However there is some confusion as regards what it means to create a theme, how it differs from USPs, and whether all bids can be written theme-style. Let’s take a look at what a bid theme offers, and how you can develop it as part of your proposal development process.

What is a proposal theme?

A proposal theme contains a benefit and an example of how it will be implemented.

For example?

If the agency awarding the contract wants to improve efficiency, you could develop a theme that describes the benefits of having, for example, an automated payroll system, and then give examples of how you would implement this, for example, using words and phrases that includes terms such as modular, re-use, extend, and best practises.

In other words, you identify the underlying issue, in this case efficiency, and then look at ways you can ‘demonstrate’ how you would achieve this. Putting the meat on the bones, so to speak.

Why themes are important

Imagine for a second you were describing a proposal to a colleague.

‘So, what’s it really about?’

You’d describe it.

Then maybe he’d ask.

‘Well, how do you feel about it? What do you think they can really offer? What stands out? ‘

You’d probably have to think about this if the bid were written in the standard cold, objective style that most bids are written in.

But if the proposal had been developed with themes in mind – in other words constructed to support the underlying values– you’d find it much easier to explain the gist of the bid, what made it different, and most importantly, what was memorable.

The important part is that it’s memorable.

I review proposals for agencies (and also ‘doctor’ draft proposals) and can see a significant different in those bids which include some element of theme development as opposed to those which seem to be simply going through the motions.

How to identify themes

Themes give your document a little  ‘personality’.

They become the pillars upon which you develop your values and try to connect to the reader on an emotional level. Anyone can say that their solution offers the best value. However, it’s how you persuade the reader that, of all the competitors, your company is the one that cares most about developing a solution and that one that has invested the most in the proposed offering.

Again, think of when you send your child to school. It’s not just the education you’re concerned about. It’s the soft issues that also influence your decision.

  • What are the school’s values?
  • How will they develop your child as a person?
  • What initiatives do they support?
  • What are they most proud of?

All of these influence your decision. It’s the same when awarding a government contract. Sometimes, it’s not only the price that decides who is awarded the contract.

It’s how you – if you win the contract – will express the agency’s needs in ways that it can be proud of and stand over.

So, if we follow this thread, we can begin to see themes as the ‘emotional tone of the narrative’ in the proposal. Themes develop values, give examples of how these will be developed, and give the reader confidence that you, more than any other bidder, has their needs at heart.

Proposal Theme Checklist

Now that we’re going to develop themes, we can start as follows with this checklist:

  • Identify benefits – this involves reading the request for proposal carefully and isolating the emotional factors which are important to the awarding agency. For example, have they referred to working in partnership, cultural issues, or sustainability? Try to read between the lines. Ask yourself: why have they issued this RFP now? What were the underlying reasons that compelled them to seek external assistance? If you can identify these, and see where you can resolve these issues, start to develop themes that address these concerns.
  • Expand related benefits – go one step further and identify the major features and support these with examples of how you have, and will, develop a solution that provides these features. Try to write the proposal so the reader can begin to see in their mind’s eye how you would work with them if you were to be given the contract.
  • Create a benefits matrix – create a three column table and enter the benefits, feature, and proof in each column. The proof must be genuine, for example, related to a previous project you worked on, certification you’ve achieved, or an award you’ve been given based on past performance.
  • Theme Statement – develop theme statements (e.g. examples that demonstrate your expertise and reasons why you offer the most compelling solution) which are connected to the customer’s benefits. In other words, make each theme statement address one benefit to the customer.
  • Focus box – develop 3-5 bullet points for each theme statement. Keep these short. Use active words and avoid jargon.
  • Refinement – Once you’ve finished this, take a step back to give yourself some distance. I find that if I leave the themes along for a day or so, when I return to it, I have a better understanding of what I was trying to say. It’s as though the themes are digested in the background when my mind is on other things.


Develop themes that respond to the emotions that run through the RFP. Themes give your bid personality as they speak to the reader not so much in rational, logical terms, but in how you feel about the contract, and why you feel you’re best placed to do this work.

One last thing: fake themes backfire. If you try to write themes based on values you don’t really believe in, this will come through in the writing. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s wrong – but it doesn’t feel right.

So, be careful. Find writers who know how to develop themes. Look for examples. Go slowly and you go far.

They say the definition of a smart mind is the ability to write a good abstract.

In the first tutorial, we looked at how to structure an abstract by developing the tone, phrasing, and also explaining how its purpose differs from the main document.


However, before we go any further, let’s look at the two most common types of abstracts.

There are two types of abstracts:

  1. Informational and
  2. Descriptive

Informational abstracts

This type of abstract has the following features:

  • Descriptive – describes the contents of reports, for example, financial documents, annual reports, and proposed technical solutions.
  • Contents – the actual contents of the abstract outlines its purpose, methods, scope, results, conclusions, and usually finishes off with a set of recommendations. You also see these in business proposals or other procurement related documents.
  • Highlights – towards the end it may identify critical points which relate to the series of recommendations.
  • Shorter Text – when writing this type of abstract, try to keep it between 300-500 words. Sometimes they can be even less depending on the type of report. As suggested, these are distilled versions of the document, meant to be read in one sitting for executives or decision-makers.
  • Specific Readerships – as alluded to above, keep in mind who will read the abstract (with an understanding that they will probably delegate each chapter to be reader by the appropriate personnel) and how this will help them make decisions based on your recommendations.

Descriptive abstracts

The second type of abstract has some of the attributes of the Information abstract but is different in the following ways:

  • It includes the purpose, methods, scope but
  • Does not include the results, conclusions, and recommendations
  • Is shorter, for example, less than 100 words

The main difference is that Descriptive abstracts provide a high level snapshot and encourage the reader to study the report and analyse the findings themselves.

For example, the second type may be more appropriate if you are developing a system – which is still in development – and where they are no ‘hard’ facts that you can report. In this case, you want to highlight the purpose of the project but encourage the reader to find why and how you came to these results.

This is part one of a ten-part series on proposal writing. Make sure you sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss any lessons.


Over the next ten weeks, I will look at different parts of proposal development, such as writing techniques, responding to requirements, formatting, team reviews, proofreading, making presentations, applying to government agencies, and different tactics to increase your win rate.

Proposal Writing – What is a Cover Letter?

Let’s start with cover letters.

The problem for most grant proposal writers is that we rarely write cover letters. It’s one of those documents you hear about but don’t see very often.

So, what is a cover letter?

  • Let’s say you decide to write a proposal. You download the Request For Proposal, look at the requirements, create a team to write up each section and finish it after a few reviews.
  • Then you print it, check the binding, and make sure all the documentation is in place.
  • Finally, you write a cover letter introducing your bid to the agency that’s awarding the bid.

In this letter, you need to ‘cover’ certain key points… but also write it in such a way that the evaluators are impressed with your letter and look forward to reading the bid.

I know it sounds obvious but proposal evaluators are human (just like you and me!) and enjoy their work more when the document in front of them has a little bit of personality.

…without going over the top, of course.

Cover Letter v Letter of Transmittal

Just to be clear, the Cover Letter or Letter of Transmittal is the same thing.

We all know that first impressions count. Well this one page document is the first thing the organization sees from you – so you want it to be right!

The Cover Letter is like a mini version of the Executive Summary. But there are a few differences.

Cover Letter v Executive Summary

Not everyone agrees but… I recommend you write the cover letter AFTER you’ve finished the proposal.


The Executive Summary summarizes the key points in your bid and The Cover Letter is a mini version of the Executive Summary

So, once you have the Executive Summary in front of you, it’s easy to refine the text and develop a nice cover letter that’s not a canned response.

Cover Letter Guidelines

  • One page
  • Write in the present tense
  • Use positive language
  • Address the reader
  • Use generous amounts of white space
  • Larger than normal fonts (so it’s easy to read without straining)
  • Print on white paper – avoid flowery or ‘zany’ paper colors.
  • Say Thank You!

How to Write the Cover Letter

Remember that your cover letter is likely to be read by the entire Request For Proposal team. For this reason, make it inclusive and encourage others to read the bid document.

So, how do we get started?

Here is a great way to write a cover letter:

  • Paragraph 1 – Introduce your firm (briefly). Include the RFP details, e.g. name, solicitation number, and other information.
  • Paragraph 2 – Explain why you understand the issues they’re trying to solve. Avoid clichés and jargon. Write in a confident, natural style. Highlight the three main ‘pain points’ and summarize how you’ll tackle these.
  • Paragraph 3 – Highlight why your team can solve this problem. Give brief examples of other projects, clients, or solutions you implemented. Keep it short but relevant.
  • Conclusion – Thank the reader for their time and then encourage them to start reading the document. Include some subtle call to action.


Writing the cover letter is more difficult that it looks. For this reason, try to find examples that you can use as a reference point or ask colleagues to send over samples.

Also, give yourself enough time to write, proof read, and print it. There’s ink in the printer, right? Allow for things to go wrong if this is your first bid because they will.

PS: If you’re sending a hard copy of the cover letter, put it in a nice envelope. Not the standard office type but one that feels expensive. It’s a small detail but leaves a nice impression.

What’s the biggest worry government agencies have before giving awarding a contract?

It’s not the money. It’s whether the person they gave it to will deliver.

Are they reliable?

How you write, phrase, and position references and endorsements in your proposal will influence how evaluators respond to your bid. Don’t make the rookie mistake of copying and pasting in quotes from sponsors without giving thought to their phrasing, weight, and message.


But let’s back up first.

Celebrity endorsements? Why do we pay so much attention to them? One is that as celebrities are successes in their respective fields, and though this field may not apply to what they’re promoting, we don’t want to ignore them just in case they share something that could help us. That’s why it’s hard to filter them out. Part of you wants to listen just in case…

This brings us to using references and endorsements in proposals and grant applications.

Most grant providers and government agencies will request references in the same way you provide references when going for a job. Sometimes, not always, these are contacted to confirm that you provided the work you said you did.

However, there are other ways you can use references and endorsements for proposals, bids, and grants that have more impact. Here’s a suggested approach.

Project Satisfaction

When a project finishes, contact several people on the client side and ask them what went well, poorly, and could be improved. Use this to help improve future projects. After this is completed, ask the client if you can use some of the comments in reference materials, for example, proposals.

Note: your aim here is to improve the projects (i.e. it’s not a trick to get a quote) but then use them to get natural sounding endorsements you wouldn’t get otherwise.

Library of quotes

Once you have this, compile a library of quotes, endorsements, and remarks that you can insert into different types of documents. The key here is to have a selection of endorsements you can use. Many proposal bidders are limited to a small handful of endorsements. You want to avoid this so you have more flexibility and also so that your proposals don’t stagnate.


Let’s talk about the actual wording of the endorsements. Using a Q&A checklist is a very helpful way to elicit recommendations as people when responding will write in natural everyday language.

If you ask people for a quote they’ll freeze.

  • Where do I start?
  • I’ve never written any endorsement before?
  • Ask someone else!

Instead, ask neutral questions.

  • What’s the one thing that worked best?
  • Where do you think we could improve?
  • Do you have any advice on how we can improve?

If you ask questions like this – and sending them by email is fine as people often like to think before answering – you’ll soon build a nice library of quotes.

Get permission to use these. Some companies prefer not be quoted. In this case, simply say, for example, Project Manager for Multinational Healthcare Company.

Wordcount and Length of Reference

  • Keep the quotes to two or three lines.
  • Avoid blocks of text.
  • Make it scannable.

If written poorly, correct the grammar, and refine the text. Then send back to the person in question saying, ‘I made a few edits. You ok with this?’

Tone, Balance and Variety

Don’t restrict yourself to business quotes only. Get endorsements that cover:

  • Technology
  • Project management
  • Costs
  • Culture
  • Implementation

You can pepper these throughout the bid.

Location for endorsements in proposals

Now that you a have a selection of endorsements for different parts of the bid documents, insert these through-out the document where they will have the most impact. You can add these in the margin, as notes, or using a specific font so they stand out.

The point is to match each endorsement or recommendation with the appropriate section in the bid.

If you do this in an understated way in each chapter, it has a cumulative effect. The reader can’t help but be impressed.


Because the recommendations are not canned quotes but designed to support that specific section in the proposal. If done correctly, it’s very impressive.

Photo: patrick_q

This article describes how to write an abstract for business, proposals, grant, conference and academic papers.


Why write an abstract?

It depends. If your business proposal will be read by executives or those in the decision making process, then you want to distill the salient points of your proposed solution into a short, one or two page, document.

They’re unlikely to read any more than this, except for the cost section.

Likewise, if you plan to write an academic or research document, then you need to create a document that will be searchable – and indexable – by search engines with introductory material that appears in the search results.

This means you could be writing for two different audiences: search engines, such as Google, and humans. While both of these require different approaches, there is some overlap. Let’s look at where to start.

Abstract Checklist

One approach is to structure your abstract under the following headings:

  1. Motivation
  2. Problem statement
  3. Approach
  4. Results
  5. Conclusion
  6. Motivation

Remember, the person reading your proposal has a stack on her table. Or, as is the case these days, will have them as PDF attachments in her email. Why am I saying this?

While you may have spent weeks working on a bid, a research piece, or an academic study, the person reviewing your document has many, many others to assess. You’re one of many. With this in mind, you need to capture this person’s attention from the opening sentence.

Why is this contract award so important to you?

Is it only about money?

What else?

You need to demonstrate in the opening paragraph your enthusiasm for this project in ways that capture’s the reader’s attention. It doesn’t have to be anything outlandish but it does have to be compelling. When you write, imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Does the opening paragraph spark their curiosity, make them want to read more, make them skip to other sections to learn in greater detail what’s involved. Remember they don’t have to read your proposal – they can stop any time. So, it better be interesting, right?

Q: why do you care about the problem and the results?

One way to approach this is to highlight one specific point in the bid, one of the most difficult areas you plan to tackle, and then discuss the impact your proposed solution will have if it’s successful.

This gives the reader an insight into your values but more important it shifts the focus from the abstract to something more tangible.

Problem Statement

In the next section, ask yourself:

What problem am I trying to solve?

Again, be specific and think of the solution in human terms. For example, if you’re developing a CRM system, don’t talk about the specifications; instead focus on specific cost savings – something they can understand in real terms – and how this will help people on the floor.


Because the people you’re proposing to may be the same people who will use it.

What is the scope?

Avoid mentioning what’s outside of the scope. Focus on what you plan to deliver. Then be as specific as possible.


If your abstract relates to research, for example, academic research on a new technology, then discuss the results and give examples of different types of findings. Again, put them in context and highlight the findings likely to be of most interest to the readers.

If possible, compare your solution’s performance or ability against the competition in measureable terms. What does this mean? For example, demonstrate how it can process X number of transactions in a minute, for example, an improvement over the existing system by three hundred percent. You have to back this statement up, of course.

Your goal is to be specific and share something that the reader can take away and compare, and also share with other colleagues. Be specific, use numbers and percentages. Refer to later sections in the document.


The conclusion brings the abstract full circle. If you’ve written the other sections correctly, there should be no need to expand on any points here. Instead, see this as a bridge into the main document. If necessary, stress one of the main points but don’t over-do it. They should have a grasp of your offering by now. Use the conclusion to dovetail the main points and lead them into the first chapter.

Abstract Writing Tips

  1. An abstract must be self-contained. Write it as a standalone document. Imagine that if it was separated from the main document, would it still make sense? If so, you’re on the right track.
  2. Don’t make the reader to have to work to understand it. Don’t force them to search the rest of the document for the meaning of some obscure technical term you used.
  3. Keep it under two hundred and fifty words. If possible, keep it to one page. Two is fine, one better. Here’s an idea. Write four hundred words, reduce it to three hundred, then two hundred. See if you lose anything in the process?
  4. Ferret our filler words and phrases. Use direct language. Write in the present (and future) tense. Avoid using phrases that undermine your efforts, for example, weak words, such as could, maybe, likely, possible.
  5. Avoid jargon, TLAs (three letter acronyms), industry speak, and clichés. Do you like reading jargon? They’re the same.

This refers to the approach you took to solve the problem, or if you are proposing a solution, the technologies or systems you wish to recommend. The other point is how you propose to go about this. Will you be developing the solution by yourself, with a third party, in partnership with the agency? Have you done similar work before?

Look at this from the perspective of the agency awarding the contract. What do you need to offer to reduce their anxiety and give them the confidence that you’re solution is head and shoulders better than the competition?


Here’s a suggested approach if you need to write a proposal with a short deadline. For example, if you have been asked to take over a bid or grant application at the last minute or if your company decides to bid on a procurement tender (RFP) towards the closing date, then the following guidelines will help you get organized.

Understand the sponsor’s guidelines.

What this means is that you read their guidelines, and as you read, try to understand why they have prioritized specific issues. If you can read between the lines, so to speak, you will grasp what is most important to the sponsor – the so-called emotional triggers – and align your bid to resolve these issues.

In addition, as you prepare your proposal, note the following information:

  • Submission deadline – this is the date they need to receive it by, not for you to send it out. Make sure you can get it posted and delivered by this date. If necessary, send it by registered mail, UPS, FEDEX etc.
  • Number of copies – do they want it on CD or do they want two, three, four print-outs? Again, factor this into your production stage as you need to check 1) that the printouts are bound correctly, 2) they are packed correctly and won’t be damaged during the delivery, 3) you have enough ink, paper, and binding materials.
  • Delivery address – this may not be the same as the agency’s head office. Check that your address labels are printed corrected – do not smudge – and have the correct zip codes.
  • Phrasing – avoid using your own ‘in-house’ phrases, especially in the headings. Instead, use the phrases specified in the RFP and build your response around these. This works for several reasons.

One is that is shows the reviewers that you’ve read the bid and absorbed the terms they used. Second is that it avoids any ambiguity that could arise if you use alternative headings. Keep things simple for you and the reviewers by using these common phrases.

In addition, if you notice that the RFP writers have used a specific phrase, one that is repeated possibly several times in the bid, use this and variations of this in your response. They have obviously chosen this phrase as it means something specific to them, even if it’s possibly jargon. However, if you’re unsure what it means, get clarification so you don’t use the term incorrectly or out of context.

By the way, contacting the project sponsor is a nice way to highlight your interest in the bid and to highlight to the issuer that you’re determined to understand their underlying requirements.

Write the proposal as small sections

Instead of trying to write the proposal in a single sitting, or as one unified document, break it up into smaller sections. This helps you feel you’re making progress as you can tick off each section and also allows you to delegate sections to other team members, if possible.

Create subsection and subheadings that match what’s in the request for proposal or invitation to tender document. Mirror the RFP section headings as close as possible.

Another writing tip is to create the Table of Contents first. Then put in single one line summaries for each section – simply as a placeholder – and then start on each section.

Note: make backups every now and then. Even if the document hasn’t changed all that much, either send yourself an email with the working draft or save it to a shared network location.

Something I find helpful is to start a new chapter, ie section, on a new page. Somehow this orients me in the document and also works well when printed out, for example, if the Costs section is printed out, it starts on a new page, not in the middle of a page.

Budgets and Costs

Double check your figures, daily rates, and budgets several times. Look at them from different angles. Why?

If the grant provider feels you are trying to play with the numbers, for example, to hoodwink them in some way, they are not likely to shortlist you regardless of the quality of your bid.

Also, as the costs section is often the FIRST section to the read, even before the Executive Summary, get this chapter reviewed by someone outside the project, i.e. who is neutral and won’t tell you what you want to hear. Encourage them to find mistakes.

Refine the abstract

The abstract is both a distillation of what’s in the bid and also a way to compare what’s in your bid against the RFP.

I’d suggest that you write the abstract only after you have completed the first draft and then allow time to refine it. Why? As you develop other drafts, you may want to highlight specific items in your response, especially as you are likely to develop a better understanding of the requirements once you’ve had a chance to digest the material.

Again, give yourself time to write, revise, and refine your abstract. Don’t leave it until the end. Instead, see it as a small independent document that’s developed in tandem with the proposal.


So, what do Megamind and business writers have in common?

Here’s a clue from one of my favourite parts in the movie.

Titan: This town isn’t big enough for two supervillains!
Megamind: Oh, you’re a villain all right, just not a SUPER one!
Titan: Oh yeah? What’s the difference?
Megamind: Presentation!

Presentation. That’s the difference. Watch it here.

What Megamind knew about formatting business proposals

As someone who reviews responses to Request For Proposals, I often start my day with several monster bids on the desk. We print them out as it’s easier to make comments.

As I start to read the bid document, a few things happen. I’m checking the response against the requirements, looking for areas that need clarification, while scanning over the pages.

So, what’s strange with that? Nothing expect that after a few hours my eyes get tired, small fonts begin to irritate me, and poor quality paper starts to smudge on my fingers. I continue to read. But I’m human. Inky fingers, sore eyes and other minor details begin to add up.

I can’t help asking: why didn’t they write a proposal that was easy to read, nice to hold, and helped me find the most important text?

My suggestion is that the next time you sit down and write any document that will be assessed by someone else – proposals, case studies, grants, or design documents – remember the person on the other side.

Here’s how you can improve the presentation, especially with the formatting:

  1. Paper quality – don’t use the stuff in the printer. Get slightly heavier paper. It adds gravity to your document. Also, when I pick it up, if feels good, which reflects well on you. Remember, others will use less expensive paper which runs and smudges. You really want to avoid this.
  2. Right Hand Margins Unjustified – the ragged edge on the right margin makes it easier on the eye. Large blocks of text, ie with justified margins, make it difficult for the reader to follow the text. There are no breaks. It’s just a block. Only justify right margins when using columns or if it’s specified in the Request For Proposal.
  3. Single space – use single spacing unless the agency states otherwise. Double spacing looks affected.
  4. Headings – use the headings specified in the Request For Proposal (that’s mandatory) but add your own subheadings to improve readability. Try to limit your proposal to three levels of headings only.
  5. White Space – be generous with white space. It helps the document breath. Don’t overdo it. It also helps the reader orient themselves and see transitions in the narrative.
  6. Color – careful here! Use color and graphics to improve the proposal’s readability, but avoid using too much as this can distract the reader from the text. Color also complicates things when printing.
  7. Formatting – use bold, italics and underlining sparingly. Don’t overwhelm the reader. Use them to highlight critical terms, points, or figures only.
  8. Fonts – use ‘fonts with feet’, such as Times New Roman, as these are easier on the eye. They may not be hip or trendy but the evaluators will be grateful. Their eyes may not be as young as yours.
  9. Binding – don’t bind proposals if the agency requests that proposals are submitted unbound. If they are going to be bound, make sure the proposal can be laid flat when opened. For this reason, avoid gluing proposals the way hardback novels are glued. They tend to snap and crack. Also make sure left hand margins are wide enough to accommodate binding.
  10. Quotes – avoid using footnotes, endnotes or references, if possible. They distract from the main narrative and clutter the page.


The way you format your proposal AFFECTS the score your proposal receives.

For this reason, look at winning bids and see how they formatted their bids. Develop best practices. Create standards and guidelines and ensure the team use a common proposal template.

Kate Winslet-Read-Review-Business-Proposals
From one angle, writing the proposal is the easy part.

The difficulty is when you have to check what you’ve written, cross-reference it against the Request For Proposal, and ensure all parts fit together seamlessly.

If you’re writing the document by yourself, you need to find way to check your own work as it’s easy to become ‘snowblind’ when writing.

A neutral set of eyes helps identify areas you may have overlooked or sections in the narrative that are unclear and need refining.

In other words, don’t proofread your own work if possible. If you have to, create checklists and follow these to the letter.

Likewise, if you’re writing the proposal as part of a team, then you need to organize peer reviews.

What are peer reviews?

Peer reviews are reviews performed by team members that identify gaps, errors, and omissions in the proposal.

Let’s say you have five writers responding to a grant application or a Request For Proposal. Different writers will be allocated different parts of the response, for example, the technical solution, the project plan, and the costs.

When each writer finishes their section, it needs to be reviewed by another person, preferably someone who understands the material and can make informed recommendations.

Business Proposals: 4 Ways To Peer Review

Instead of reading the proposal from start to finish, create a set of guidelines to help the writers understand how to perform the review.

For example:

  1. Grammar – if you’re writing a bid with team members in different countries, their Microsoft Word documents will be set to local languages. What this means is that when you spell check their work, your spell checker could miss errors and typos. To avoid this, use a proposal template, share this with the team, and encourage them to use a specific language, such as US English.
  2. Style – as someone who reviews proposals for a living, I can tell if it’s been written by one person or a team within in a few minutes. How? The style, phrasing, grammar, tone, and voice of the document change from section to section. Is this a bad thing? Not necessary but it suggests that the ‘bid team’ is a set of individuals rather than one unified group. Adopting a common style, encouraging specific phrasing, and highlighting words/terms help avoid this.
  3. Technical Accuracy – does the proposed solution answer the requirements? Whoever performs this part of the peer review needs to understand the technology and requirements sufficiently to find potential errors, gaps, or flaws in the design. You also need to check that any technologies which the agency does NOT want or is against are not included in your bid. Sounds obvious but I’ve seen it happen.
  4. Project Management – is the project plan accurate? Do the number of days add up? Do the costs associated with the number of man days tally with the Costs section? The project plan needs to be credible, take into account ‘known unknowns’, and allow for contingencies. Project plans that are too aggressive suggest that the bidders are either trying to cut corners or don’t understand the scope of work. Another factor to consider is how the project plan will impact the agency itself. How much of their time will you need? What communication channels will be developed?
  5. Costs – the total cost is a critical figure in proposal evaluations. However, you need to outline how you came to these figures. Don’t try to fudge the numbers or disguise how/where you got specific numbers for. In addition, break out the numbers so the assessors can see, at a line item level, how the numbers stack up. For example, include daily rates for all your team members. This demonstrates greater transparency and also allows the agency to compare your rates against other bids.
  6. Version Control – when peer reviewing the documents, either with Microsoft Word or PDF, keep track of the different document versions. This ensures that the ‘gold’ copy is submitted and working drafts are archived. In addition, consider setting up a secure location on the network where other members of the bid team can submit their section.


Peer reviews are a type of insurance. This protects you from submitting bids that contain errors, flaws, or ambiguities that could easily be corrected.

Also, make sure to do a final review for completedness.

This means that ALL sections are included in the bid. You’d be surprised when compiling hundred page plus bids, how easy it is to lose a few pages here and there.

Photo: mennonitechurchusa-archives


One of the difficulties as a proposal manager is how to organize the documentation related to the bid.

Not only do you have to manage the Request For Proposal document, but you also need to write, submit, and review clarifications, check submission guidelines, and make sure that support documentation is correct, comprehensive and accurate.

How To Maintain Proposal Files and Related Documentation

So, how can you manage all this documentation? Let’s start at the top and work our way through:

  1. Templates – save time by using a common template for all proposal writers and contributors. State that content received in other format, eg email, will be rejected. Share this mandate with senior management so they endorse your commitment to developing a standards based approach to your bids. Note: remember to create templates for both Microsoft Word and Excel.
  2. Naming Conventions – use a specific naming convention for all project files. Don’t assume others know how to apply these conventions. If necessary, hold a short 30 min workshop. Give examples, take questions, troubleshoot any issues that may arise. This encourages buy-in and while there will be some dissenters, most of the team will get on board if they understand how it works.
  3. Network location – setup a dedicated folder on the network for the bid team. This keeps prying eyes away and allows your team to work on the documents in private. This also avoids writers hoarding documents on local drives and creating their own little power base.
  4. Project Folders – create a series of folders for different parts of the bid, for example, for reference material, boilerplate text, clarifications, presentations, and, if it makes sense, for each of the writers. Structure it so it makes sense to you. Also, create an Archive folder where you can paste files you no longer need but don’t want to delete, or at least not yet.
  5. Access Rights – speak to your System Admin and give read/write access to the writers and, depending on your review process, read/write access to reviewers as well. This may depend on the tools you’re using to write the documents. But don’t let the world see what you’re writing. Keep the project documents under control and restrict access to only those who need to work on the documents.
  6. Document Controls – I use software, such as SVN and CVS, to place documents under source control. What this means is that documents must be ‘checked out’ by an author before they can edit and make changes. I can also see what changes, deletes, errors have been made to the document and compare it to past versions. This works very well if you want to have a master copy that writers paste their materials into. You can use other software that allows many writers to work on the same document at the same time BUT they need to merge their content in the final draft which doesn’t always work.
  7. Version Control – if you don’t use tools like SVN, make sure that the Microsoft Word documents are under some type of document control. This gives you a limited but useful trail of changes to the document and shows others what changes have been made. Adobe Acrobat (not the Reader) also has editing and commenting tools. Online editing software, such as Agilewords, is also worth exploring.
  8. Archive Process – finally, when the project is finished, move the project documents to a specific archive location. While you may never need to read these again, for legal reasons you need to keep them – and, of course, the day may come when you want to check something. In either case, move files to this location, apply access rights, and make a backup.


Expect an avalanche of documents to appear when you start writing a Request For Proposal or applying for a grant. Not only do you have your documents to manage but also the agency’s documents, responses, and support information, for example, bank guarantees.

By creating a standards-based approach, using proposal templates, and encouraging your team to adhere to guidelines, you can manage these documents a little better. The number of documents will be the same but when you have a system in place, they will be easier to manage, freeing up time to work on other projects.

Make sense. Any questions, drop me a line or get me at twitter.com/ivanwalsh


A true story. Five bids arrived. We, the evaluators, tore open the packages and plonked the documents on the table. We’d decided who’d review which bids, and so set about. We meet again later than afternoon.

Note: this was a preliminary stage before the actual evaluation began. At this point, were looking for completedness. Was everything there?

Packaging Your Proposal: Dos and Don’ts

Here’s the thing. When we swapped proposals that afternoon, one began to fall apart. Not totally, but the spine had cracked and some pages were coming loose. We took care of this tender thing and handed it around gently…

By the end of the week, it was in bits. We had to use bulldog clips to hold it together. And when the bidder came in for the presentation, it was very hard not to raise the issue.

“You know, your proposal actually fell asunder?”

No one said it. The bid itself was so-so. It was obviously cobbled together in a hurry. It appeared to be printed from different printers or at least on different papers. Not a sin, but odd.

It suggested to us that the bidders were disorganized, clumsy, and unprepared. Their presentation echoed this.

Or maybe we’d already written them off and found holes in their bids they weren’t really there. It’s hard to say but the impression of the shoddy proposal, falling apart on our tables, clipped together, coloured our thinking.

So, when you’ve done all the hard work with your proposal, allow time to package it correctly, for example:

  1. Print on high quality paper. Remember the proposal will be handled by several reviewers. If it’s on less expensive, cheap paper, the ink will smudge, which leaves a poor impression.
  2. Bind it correctly. Get it done professionally, if possible.
  3. Avoid using glue to hold the document together. Glue cracks. Pages fall out.
  4. Ring binding is popular with reviewers as they can lay the document flat and make comments. Hard to do with other types of binding.
  5. Insert colored tabs in the major sections in the document, for example, add a blue tab for the Costs section. Small things like this should you’re considerate and take other people’s needs into consideration.
  6. High Impact Cover Sheet. Use a striking image that holds the reader’s attention. It doesn’t need to be kitsch or shocking but something that makes it stand out. You can buy high resolution images online for less than twenty dollars.
  7. Supervise the assembly. Don’t assume everything will be included in the document, especially if a team are working on it. Create a system to make sure everything is included. If one piece is missing, the entire bid is disqualified.