Three useful tips to survive writing a proposal

Communications and Marketing Associate

Writing a proposal can elicit a myriad of emotions in me.

I often feel cool, calm and collected at the beginning because there’s so much time to dedicate to writing, editing and reviewing before the proposal deadline. But, then, as if I blacked out for three weeks, the deadline is suddenly 24-hours away. My heart begins to beat faster, and my eyes dart back and forth from the computer screen to the request for proposal (RFP) document, wondering if I missed any mandatory requirements.

Yet, it shouldn’t have to be this way.

One element of my job at Nadi involves searching and procuring RFPs for the firm and managing the production of the proposal. While the first proposal I wrote almost killed me—mentally, physically and emotionally, which I will go into more detail later on—it also provided me with the necessary skills and lessons to improve upon how I would manage, produce and submit a proposal in the future.

I can tell you there’s nothing worse than missing the RFP’s deadline. So, I compiled a list of useful tips to consider that will help you successfully complete a proposal on time (or even better, ahead of time).

Keep to the production schedule
“The triumph of anything is a matter of organization”—Kurt Vonnegut

This is by far the most important lesson I learned while submitting my first proposal: make sure you create a solid production schedule that takes into account any potential complications.

When you create a detailed production schedule at the beginning of the proposal process, you give yourself the ability to acquire some foresight into how everything will come together.

I recommend starting your production schedule by working backwards from the RFP’s deadline, giving yourself (at minimum) a 24 hour grace period in case you have to put out any last minute fires, which can happen a lot.

A few examples we have encountered include technical difficulties related to corrupted files and slowed or stalled uploads and last minute proposal revisions because of an issued addendum—to name a few. Even with trial and error, you can never fully anticipate what kind of fire you will need to put out. Therefore, it’s important to account for all of them in your production schedule. Think of this 24 hour buffer period as your extinguisher.

A second component of creating a solid production schedule is to organize the RFP into smaller and more manageable sections each with their own due date leading up to the final deadline. This will help you easily delegate tasks to the proposal team, keeping track of who is responsible for each section and ensuring no parts of the RFP are missed.

Communicate with your team
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

It’s easy to get caught up in the proposal writing process. Your eyes are glued to the screen, you may have your earbuds in to shut out ambient noise, but you must remember that the proposal isn’t a solitary effort—it’s a team effort, and your team needs you to communicate each moving piece.

No matter how big the firm is, people will be busy, and you will have to compete with other priority deadlines. Therefore, you—as the person in charge of the proposal—must communicate regularly with your team on the status of the proposal to effectively avoid any hiccups in the process.

While the assembly of your production schedule is the proposal’s universal life force, it’s not the only element to successfully complete one. It’s the implementation of your production schedule that often requires the most time and effort. As I wrote earlier, the proposal is not the only priority in an office, it might be one of the highest, but more often than not, your team is working on other projects that require their time, too.

I recommend using a web-based project management tool to delegate tasks from your production schedule (we use Basecamp). A web-based project management tool can provide your team with a tangible tool where they can tick off tasks once they're completed while allowing you to keep track of what still needs to be done. It also gives your team an idea of how much time they will need to dedicate to the proposal, helping everyone avoid disaster in case there are conflicts and giving you the ability and time to reassign tasks when necessary.

It might be psychology, but creating lists have a habit of dissipating chaos, and ensuring accountability for everyone involved stronger.

Check for amendments
“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn” – May Angelou

This tip might seem obvious to you, but let me tell you a story:

I produced my first proposal for the City of Calgary, and it was a steep RFP learning curve for me concerning keeping to the production schedule, communicating with my team and, you guessed it, checking for amendments.

In the last hour (I’m not kidding) before the RFP was due, my team and I had that sinking feeling we weren’t going to submit on time. Our InDesign file crashed, we hadn’t edited a number of sections for grammar and spelling, and we couldn’t log into Merx to upload the proposal.

Amendments were the last thing on my mind—and if I’m being completely honest, I had no idea to check for one anyway. And I should have because the City of Calgary extended the RFP deadline.

Now, a deadline extension should not be the only reason to check for amendments. RFPs can be large documents with conflicting or competing information. I read a RFP 10 times before I start the production schedule so I will better understand the project scope, deliverables and mandatory requirements.

Of course, you can and shouldn’t be afraid to ask the RFP contact questions. I email the RFP contact officer so much that we become friends by the end. I’m kidding. That would be unethical.

However, in all seriousness, the RFP contact is there to help guide you and your firm through the process because they want the project to be successful and to hire the most qualified firm that will make that happen.

I hope these tips guide you in your proposal writing process, giving you the confidence to hand in a winning submission (without the tears!). If you have any tips that you’d like to share, comment and let us know.

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