Hack the Proposal: Nail These 3 Milestones to Save Money and Train Your People

proposal hack

I hate unwieldy processes. These days everything has a “hack” – travel, marketing, even everyday life. But, I think you can also hack the proposal process by nailing three specific milestones to make the end result exponentially better and produced at a lower cost (stress, time, money) than it would have been. Here’s how I did it.

When I got calls from a small business for proposal support, I almost always heard this: What’s the minimum you can do for the maximum impact? We don’t have a very big budget.

So I worked to hone down the big, complicated proposal process into the most impactful things I can do to help a small team greatly improve the proposal they produce.

I found that even proposal support follows the 80/20 rule80% of the value will be derived from 20% of the work. Certain activities consistently created the biggest returns.

For my bigger clients, they get these big impact items and all the little stuff in the middle that drives a process. But my small clients are willing to take on the little details if I can help them nail the big ROI activities…AKA “hack the proposal.”

[Definition of hack from the urban dictionary: a clever solution to a tricky problem; to hack is to mod or change something in an extraodinary way.]

When to hack your proposal:

  • Need to get the proposal right on a very small budget
  • Client-facing staff can’t afford to be away from the client as much as they usually are for a proposal
  • Multiple proposals going on at once
  • Working with a proposal consultant for the first time

A critical component to hacking your proposal, you can’t sacrifice compliance, gradability, and readability.

I experimented with which three activities paid the biggest returns on proposals. My clients had small budgets and generally had an idea of which services they wanted. So I delivered what they asked for and then discussed areas for improvement and which services made the biggest impacts.

The same activities came up as game changers every time:

  1. An outline to provide writers initial direction
  2. A course correction at Pink Team (big tech edit)
  3. A course correction at Red Team (big tech edit)

If you are working on a very tiny budget, or need to keep the lion share of the proposal work within your company, consider these three strategically timed activities to seriously supercharge your writing team and deliver a better proposal with a little less stress.

Note: if you do not have someone in your company that is REALLY good at these three things for PROPOSALS (your guy that’s great with grammar but has never done a proposal is often not the right person for a proposal tech edit), seriously consider bringing on a consultant for 40 hours of work.

Compliant Outline

Start off proposal writing with an outline based on the RFP and a solid writing cadence. This will make massive impacts on the overall writing effort.

Without a blue print, proposals go from a cobbled together, somewhat relevant rough draft to horrendous meanderings of thought that don’t address the RFP. Proposal consultants live and breathe by the RFP. In a couple of hours, they can distill the RFP into the structure and content type you need to have. A couple more hours and they can help you draw out of your writers the major points you need to make in each section.

By starting with this blueprint, when you set your writers off for a week to create a rough draft, you know you’ve at least told them what you were looking for. At this point you can use your consultant to periodically check in on your writers or check in on them yourself to save your budget.

Extra points if the outline generator also formats the document properly so you don’t have to do it with blood shot eyes at midnight the day before the proposal is due.

Pink Team/Rough Draft Technical Edit

Putting a very heavy-handed tech edit at the rough draft phase will help get all  input from different writers into a more consistent form and give the writers critical feedback. When your reviewers look at it, they won’t be distracted by how all over the map the document is and instead can focus on feedback that will improve your response.

A good PROPOSAL tech editor will:

  • Do a good cleanup of the document for grammar/readability (this is NOT a perfect copy edit – you don’t have the time, money, or need for them to get everything)
  • Delete all the superfluous fluffy stuff or ask for substantiation
  • Put comments where more information is critically needed
  • Double-check that you are compliantly addressing each section
  • Identify gaps in information
  • Tell you which sections are pretty good and which need a lot of work
  • Make the document readable
  • Begin “one voicing”

proposal style guide ad 360x600The biggest advantage to doing a really thorough tech edit at the rough draft phase is two-fold. 1) The reviewers can actually tell what is attempting to be said and where the holes are without feeling like they are wandering around in a cow pasture of thoughts. 2) When the writers are given back the feedback from reviewers, they are starting from a much better position rather than polishing (pardon my French) a turd.

[Click to Download] Free Government Contract Proposal Style Guide with Tech Editor Checklist

Red Team/Final Draft Technical Edit

The proposal delivered to reviewers at this milestone review should be pretty close to submission ready. Very often, companies see this as a second rough draft review or a time to make sweeping changes. Sweeping changes really should be made at Pink Team. Red Team should be a time to make sure the writers incorporated the recommendations you made correctly.

A thorough tech edit prior to the Red Team reviewers gives the proposal that final polish that makes your reviewers feel comfortable with the submission. Only on rare occasions will another tech edit be required if the other two were done well.

How Using a Proposal Consultant to Hack the Proposal Saves You Money and Trains Your People

Your proposal consultant may be internal or external to your company but they must be objective to the proposal. They should really KNOW proposals for these three activities. If they do, you will decrease the number of massive rewrites, painful weekend writing sessions, and time your writers are unable to do billable work. Proposal proficiency massively reduces the burden and cost of business development for your company.

Doing the proposal process correctly with your team shows them the right way to do it. It sets a bar for excellence and teaches them what your expectations are going forward. If you can’t set the bar high enough with the people in your company, bringing on a proposal expert once, maybe even twice, will give you processes (and reusable content) that will improve the way your company does proposals.

Based on your proposal experience, are these the three most important milestones or do you think something else should be added to my list?


Kathy Borkoski on sabtwitterKathy Borkoski on sablinkedinKathy Borkoski on sabemail
Kathy Borkoski
Founder at Government Contracting Made Simple
proposal ninja and tech editor. Kathy believes in growing government contracting businesses strategically through good capture and a simplified proposal process. She hates wasting lots of time and rewriting for no good reason.

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