You Had Me at Hello: Communicating Information in Government Proposals

By David Dick, STC Fellow and CPTC Certificant

After thirty-five years employed as a technical writer, I accepted an opportunity to work as a proposal writer. It seemed a logical choice for me because a proposal writer and a technical writer are somewhat alike. They start with the same subject matter to cover, but that is where the similarity ends. A technical writer will produce a clear and accurate description of a product or service. A proposal writer will produce a rationale based on the subject matter, from the customer’s perspective, why a company’s product or service is the best choice of all the rest.

What is a Request for Proposal?

According to, each year, the U.S. federal government awards hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts to businesses to meet the needs of federal agencies and the military, which makes the U.S. federal government the largest employer and consumer of technology and services in the United States. In the Washington D.C. metro area, hundreds of companies compete for those government contracts, which is why the federal government is selective on who it awards contracts.

The U.S. federal government issues a request for proposal whenever a government agency needs a product or service such as replacing legacy hardware, managing a data center, migrating applications to a cloud, or providing help desk services. The request for proposal includes instructions on how to prepare the proposal for compliance, requirements for the product or service, criteria for evaluation, and submission date. The request for proposal has four parts: (1) an introduction to the enterprise and the business problem, (2) technical and business questions, (3) vendor and pricing information, (4) the schedule and process for selection. The goal of the offeror (i.e., the company replying to the request for proposal) is to deliver a proposal (a response) that answers technical and business questions, represents low-risk, and presents a cost-effective solution.

What is a Proposal?

A proposal is a sales document written in response to a request for proposal. A proposal positions what an offeror has as a solution to a business problem and helps to justify a price —even if it is slightly higher than a competitor — by showing that the offeror can provide superior value. A proposal allows the federal government to accomplish the following:

  • Compare vendors, offers, or prices in order to make an informed decision
  • Clarify complex information
  • Make the buying process more objective
  • Slow down the sales process
  • Solicit creative ideas, become educated, or get free consulting
    The proposal is structured according to the requirements of the request for proposal to make it easier for evaluators to find answers to the questions (listed in the request for proposal).

Characteristics of an Effective Persuasive Proposal

Answer the questions in the request for proposal.

Some companies pursue every request for proposal the federal government releases in order to win work, which creates pressure to respond to requests for proposals as quickly as possible. Their logical impulse when responding to questions in a request for proposal is to regurgitate facts that “sort of” answer the questions (i.e., bluffing), to re-use a proposal that is somewhat similar to requirements in the request for proposal, or to use boilerplate content. If the proposal team does not have the time to deliver a customer-specific and compliant proposal, it should not pursue the bid because it is a waste of time and money, and the company is not likely to win the contract. Unfortunately, proposal evaluators recognize a cut-and-paste effort when they see it.

Choose a persuasive approach to answering questions

Tom Sant, author of “Persuasive Business proposals: Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts,” suggests a four-step approach to effective persuasive proposal:

  • The customer needs
  • The desired outcome
  • The solution
  • The evidence

Step One: the customer’s needs. The initial step of writing a persuasive response is to restate your understanding of the customer’s needs, issues, or problems. Summarize their business situation by focusing on the gaps to close, the competency to acquire, and the problem to solve. By focusing on the customer’s issues (called “pain points”), you communicate an understanding of the customer’s situation. As consumers, we are easily frustrated when a sales person pretends to understand what we want and chooses to focus on selling us something we do not need in order to make a sale. In government procurement, such a sales approach does not instill confidence of the buyer.

Step Two: the desired outcome. The desired outcome is to motivate the customer to consider the offeror’s product because it meets the requirements, has features that yield strong benefits, and is priced below the competition. As consumers, we always want a good product that meets our needs, offers “nice to have” features, and is within our budget. Government agencies have budgets and must procure a variety of products and services without spending more than the budget allows.

Step Three: the solution. The heart of every proposal is the solution. If the proposal has maintained the readers’ attention, the reader wants to know the solution. Proposal writers focus on the solution and avoid the technical details, jargon, and buzzwords. They provide just enough detail to communicate a well-made, reliable, product that is easy to implement, integrate, and use. Proposal writers use graphics to illustrate processes and procedures, and tables to compare benefits and features.

Step Four: the evidence. Every request for proposal has a requirement for past performance reports from two or three other government agencies as proof of competency and experience. Unsubstantiated claims detract from the substance of a proposal so proposal writers use proof points to support claims. The following are examples of proof points:

  • If the offeror sold the product to other government agencies — proposal writers list them.
  • If those government agencies were satisfied or overjoyed with the product — proposal writers include testimonials.
  • If the offeror’s product won awards — proposal writers list them.
  • If the offeror’s product was reviewed in trade magazines — proposal writers list them.
  • Providing evidence in a proposal contributes to a compelling reason to choose the offeror’s product over the competition.

Who Evaluates Proposals

The government agency that issues the request for proposal relies on a source selection team to evaluate proposals. The source selection team consists of individuals who were either involved in writing the request for proposal, subject matter experts, or those who will manage the contract when it’s awarded. The source selection team consists of four groups:

    1. The source selection authority, which makes the final decision based on best value.
    2. The source selection authority council, which provides functional area expertise to the source selection authority.
    3. The source selection evaluation board, which scores the proposal against the evaluation criteria outlined in the request for proposal. It is highly likely that members of the source selection evaluation board are the authors of the request for proposal, are technically savvy, and know what they are looking for.
    4. The procuring contract officer, who is the primary business advisor and principal source of guidance for the entire source selection.

According to proposal writing expert Tom Sant, the average proposal decision takes six minutes or 360 seconds. Six minutes to make a decision about a proposal is not a lot of time, but it is enough time for the source selection evaluation board to judge the merits of a proposal for further consideration. If the source selection evaluation board likes the proposal, it is set aside for further evaluation.

Proposals are Graded for Compliance

Due to time constraints to award contracts, the source selection evaluation board does not read proposals cover-to-cover. They skim proposals searching for key words and responses to requirements. They then grade proposals for compliance to the request for proposal, advantages and strengths, and lowest risk. The proposal with the best score and best price wins the contract. The following highlights what the source selection evaluation board looks for in a proposal:

  • A strength-based, innovative solution. There is a direct correlation between:
  • High technical ratings where the source selection evaluation board acknowledge that an offeror provides innovation, and
  • Viable solutions that exceed requirements

The greater the number of strengths identified in the proposal, the easier it is for the source selection evaluation board to justify best value.

  • Extensive experience and strong program understanding. Technical solutions with high customer ratings receive strength comments pertaining to customer-focused solutions, evidence of capability to execute the contract, and strong examples and success stories that resonated with the source selection evaluation board.
  • Demonstrated ability. When the source selection evaluation board identifies a management or staffing solution as a strength, the corresponding comments will note a succinct approach with proof points to demonstrate success and examples that resonated with the source selection evaluation board.
  • Qualified key personnel. When the source selection evaluation board favorably rates a staffing model, the corresponding comments identify key personnel that exceed qualifications, highlight demonstrated ability using the proposed solution(s) to achieve program success, and provide specific examples and metrics that resonate with the source selection evaluation board.

The following is a sample of the rating criteria the source selection evaluation board uses to grade proposals.

Description Rating
The proposal meets all solicitation requirements, demonstrates a good understanding of the requirements, and has features that offer some advantage to the government. Advantages and strengths generally outweigh any disadvantages and weaknesses. Good probability of success with very low degree of unsuccessful performance. Superior
The proposal meets basic solicitation requirements and demonstrates an adequate understanding of the requirements but does not offer significant advantages to the government over basic request for proposal requirements.

Disadvantages and weaknesses are not significant unless significant advantages outweigh significant disadvantages. Where there are areas of concern, clarifications given by the offeror were acceptable. Reasonable probability of success with low degree of risk of unsuccessful performance.

The proposal does not clearly meet all requirements nor does it demonstrate an adequate approach and understanding of the requirements. The proposal has one or more weaknesses that may require correction. Some areas of concern may not have been fully addressed by offeror, leaving some ambiguities. Risk of unsuccessful performance is moderate. Marginal
The proposal does not meet requirements and contains one or more significant deficiencies. Risk of unsuccessful performance is high. Proposal is not awardable without being rewritten. Unacceptable

Final Thoughts

A poorly written, company-focused, non-compliant and unresponsive proposal is easy to write; however, it will not bring in business or contribute to an offeror’s reputation.

Writing a well-written, customer-focused, compliant, and responsive proposal is a skill. Every piece of information in the proposal must be meaningful and support the rationale for selection. A well-written proposal communicates what the evaluator wants and needs to know, and communicates the benefits your solution offers over the competition. It makes it easy for evaluators to compare to their request for proposal requirements. It has them at “hello.”

About the Author

David is a Proposal Writer at General Dynamics Information Technology. He is an STC Fellow, CPTC Certificant, member of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) and is studying for his APMP Foundation Certification.

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