The Other Side (part one)

Those of us who work on proposals in the Government contracting arena know (or think we do) what happens on our side of the equation. In theory, we understand the business development-capture-proposal lifecycle and all the activities that happen along that spectrum. It’s a complicated process, but at least we’re familiar with it—or so we tell ourselves.

How often, though, do we think about what happens on the other side of the fence? How well do we understand what happens during the Government’s source selection process? And do we take any of that into account in developing our strategies or proposals?

The Government’s approach to source selection is at least as complex as industry’s approach to proposals. The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)—which provide the framework, structure, and “rules” for the source selection process—are extremely long, extremely detailed, and extremely complicated. Moreover, each agency has its own twist on things (for example, the Department of Defense has its own regulations, the DFAR), and each contracting office and each program office has its own way of doing things and its own personalities—adding yet more layers of complexity.

Facing this challenge, what does industry need to know? How far into the weeds of source selection do we need to go, and how should we respond?

There are many elements of how “the other side” works that can affect how you approach your proposals. For now, though, I propose to keep it simple and focus on just three key points. I discuss the first point below; I’ll address the other two points in subsequent posts.

Point One: Evaluators do not read proposals; they scan them and score them.

Understanding this point is essential in planning how to structure your proposals. It affects the decisions you make about the proposal outline, content, even graphics.

In most cases, the people evaluating your proposals don’t do it for a living. Just like many members of the proposal team (such as the subject matter experts or writers), they have other duties that are their primary focus. As a result, they are not highly invested in the process, and they often just want to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. They may even be resentful, regarding this duty as a burden.

Bear in mind, as well, that the evaluators are assessing multiple proposals, not just yours. This process can be tedious and time-consuming. It may involve looking at dozens of proposals, with similar contents, over the course of hours, days, or even weeks. Not a recipe for enthusiastic engagement!

The source selection lead typically will provide the evaluators with a checklist of things to look for, and a scoresheet for them to complete. These tools are intended not just to standardize (as much as possible) the evaluation process but to make it quicker and easier for the evaluators.

All of these factors—among others—have the unfortunate effect that evaluators are likely to be incentivized to do no more than the minimum. In other words, they may be looking for the “easy button.”

Therefore, you should make your proposal easy to scan and easy to score. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure that your proposal outline follows the structure laid out in the RFP (generally, in Section L) precisely. Section numbers in the proposal should map to section numbers in the RFP or Statement of Work (SOW). Proposal section headers should use precisely the same wording as that in the RFP/SOW. I also suggest including the relevant RFP/SOW paragraph number in each section header in your proposal; that way, when you generate your Table of Contents, the links will be there. In that sense, the Table of Contents can serve as a simple compliance matrix for evaluators to validate that the proposal addresses all of the RFP-required elements.
  • Use formatting to make scanning easier. Highlight important information by using bold font, putting it in a box, or otherwise setting it apart from the running narrative. Incorporate plenty of white space; page after page of dense text will often encourage evaluators to just skip those pages. Use graphic elements (callout boxes, bullet lists, etc.) to break up the narrative and emphasize key points. It may even be appropriate or useful to place similar elements (such as callout boxes) on the same place on every page where they appear; evaluators will quickly (and subconsciously) be “trained” to look for these elements.
  • Avoid “over-designing” your proposals, however. Generally speaking, evaluators aren’t looking for avant-garde fonts or complicated page layouts. Keep it simple!
  • Generally, keep sentences short and direct, and use simple, straightforward language. (Research shows that writing at an 8th-grade level is most accessible and effective for a the widest variety of readers.) Keep paragraphs short, too—long paragraphs tend to be off-putting, and evaluators may skip them entirely.
  • Because most RFPs delineate that evaluation scores will be based on “strengths,” choose a highly visible/obvious way to call out what you consider the strengths of your offer. This could be as simple as using wording such as, “A strength of our approach is…”; it could entail using typographical formatting (e.g., bolding and/or underlining); it could even involve creating a small graphical “icon” to tag everything in your proposal that you want the evaluators to consider as a strength. The point is, make it easy for evaluators to find—and score—your strengths.
  • Avoid excessive narrative fluff; focus instead on strengths and discriminators (what you do differently and, ideally, better than your competitors). Emphasize specific benefits (that is, outcomes or results) for the customer—what they will get out of choosing you.
  • Use bright, bold, powerful graphics to illustrate key points. Make sure graphics follow the “3-second rule”: If the basic idea isn’t evident within 3 seconds (the typical attention span for an evaluator), the graphic isn’t doing its job and will lack impact. Be sure to include “action captions” that elucidate why the graphic matters—the benefit(s) the graphic is illustrating, the key strength or discriminator of your approach, the evidence being depicted that supports your claims.

The lesson: By enabling evaluators to easily scan and score your proposal, you also (subliminally) empower them to score your proposal highly.

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