Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Working on a proposal? Some ideas ....

Do you read Mike Clayton? You probably should.

Here is his idea of the 12 points of a perfect proposal, augmented and paraphrased with my spin on it.
You (better: your value-add)
If you've been solicited by "them" to present a proposal, then "they" already know a good deal about "you". Your (very short summary) narrative should reinforce what they already know about your value-add to their need.

But for an unsolicited proposal, "you" need an opening narrative to introduce and present your value as though you were addressing a stranger. In other words: "Why me?"

Think of this opening narrative as your "elevator speech" ... 30 seconds to set an "anchor" and make yourself "available". Typically, a headline to grab attention and then cover letter or some other means to establish your credibility - in effect, your bona fides.

You're working two biases: "Availability bias" There's value in the fact that you're here and now, so no need to look further. And "anchor bias", your "ah hah!" value hooks them on your offer.

And, in many instances, "you" may be a partnership of literally "you" and others that make up your "team" or partnership. Such makes the introduction and "why me" statement all the more complex, but perhaps all the more compelling.

"Them" are your customer. What they want to know is ... What's in it for them? It's your value-add from their point of view. Show how you have their best interests in mind with this proposal. You understand their needs and desires and know how to satisfy them better than any alternative solution can.

Focus (sans boilerplate)
Any sign of standard 'boilerplate' descriptions, arguments, or evidence will make it look less about 'Them' and more about 'anyone'. 

But focus may be a tricky thing: "They" may want a product, or a service, or product + services. They may want the product, a data package about the product for support purposes, training on operations and maintenance, a warranty, or service-after-sale. 

How does their sense value apportion among all these needs? In a competitive situation, "they" will usually signal their priorities through a list of evaluation criteria for selecting the winner. These criteria should give you guidance about where does the main focus needs to be. 

Value and Benefits
How will your proposal deliver and maximize value to them? The vast majority of business decisions revolve around the capacity to either make money or save money. 

Can you answer this question? Do they go for "best value" or "lowest cost"? If you're not the low-cost provider, then your job is to convince them that your price premium brings unpriced value.

But, if you are addressing government offices, non-profit NGOs, self-help and self-improvement, and other opportunities not oriented to financial gain, then look to the other elements of the "balanced scorecard"(*), the customer's mission and strategic objectives, and of course the evaluation criteria for where you can add value.

All that hard evidence gives them a reason to make the decision to accept your proposal. But it may not motivate them to do so. For that, you need to tap into their emotions and biases.

Find emotional hooks into pride, fear, duty, desire, ambition, loyalty, passion... 
Exploit the biases of "availability" and "anchoring" to your idea.

Clayton's opinion: Emotions drive decisions: reasons justify them.

So, you also need to show how your proposal will solve their problem, deliver their joy, or enhance their reputation. Make the link between what they want and what you are proposing as clear, simple, and short as you can. .

Next they need to know what will happen if (when) they say yes. What will you do, what will they do, and how long would it all take? For confidence that your is the right choice, they need to see a plan that clearly works.

This section lets them understand how your proposal fits into your life and theirs - your business and their own. This shows that you and they are compatible and is the equivalent of the more traditional (cheesy) 'how we are different to the competition'. Of course this differentiates you. It shows how this proposal is right for them and for you.

Don't go all techy unless they've asked for a technical proposal. Remember who you are speaking to. If your audience is a business person or a group of businesspeople, focus on the business. If your audience is software engineers, focus on the business of software engineering: not the hardware. What is their business? That's how to frame your proposal.

I get it. You have a lot of ideas to get down. But, before you start, develop a structure that makes it compelling for them to follow. If they asked six questions in a sequence, then a great structure is to answer those six questions... in the same sequence. Make it easy for them to say 'yes'.

One thing: If they have provided a proposal outline to follow, page limits, drawing or illustration or image specifications, and overall format, then don't experiment. Make it easy for them to think highly of you for making it easy for them because they can directly use your proposal materials. There is almost nothing worse than making them reformat or search for content when they told you explicitly what to do

Finally remember Mark Anthony's advice: 'The evil that men do lives on. The good is oft' interred with their bones'. People remember your mistakes and easily forget all the good stuff. Make sure you check the quality of your proposal, not once, not twice... Better still, get the pickiest, most pedantic person(s) you know to be your "Red Team". You invested all that time. Now add a little more investment, to avoid throwing it all away!

What does a "Red Team" do?
  • Working from your perspective, they are editors, fact checkers, and readers for both content and flow
  • Working from your customer's perspective, they are challengers to your solution, and they are challengers to whether you've checked all the boxes and met all the requirements of a specified format.

(*) Balanced Scorecard for a business: Financial, Customer Needs, Operations and Operations Efficiency, and Organizational learning and development

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