Your proposal is not a story

Many proposal practitioners think that a proposal is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. They assume that the Government evaluator will read the proposal like a novel, from the Executive Summary through the Appendices. Many proposal professionals think that they should avoid repeating important information because that may create redundancy. In addition, to save page real estate, proposal writers often extensively cross reference other proposal sections instead of writing fully to the requirements.

Evaluators Search the Proposal

When we write a proposal like a story, we overlook how Government evaluators actually review and score our proposals. Government evaluators use a scoresheet based on the evaluation factors to check the proposal for compliance and to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Deficiencies and Risks to justify a final score or rating. To achieve a better than “Acceptable” rating, a proposal must be rich in discriminating Strengths that outbalance any Weaknesses or Risks (and contain no Deficiencies). The evaluator uses the proposal like an encyclopedia to look up items on the scoresheet tied to evaluation factors and subfactors.

In examining the proposal for items linked to the evaluation scoresheets, Government evaluators will often search for key words or phrases found in the evaluation factors, subfactors and corresponding proposal requirements. The typical evaluator is not looking to read every page. In fact, many evaluators admit that they skim or scan and search to find content. If they do not find that content, they may conclude it does not exist, and mark a compliance issue or Deficiency.

The Proposal is Not a Novel

Imagine if you wrote a 10-chapter novel, working hard to create a beginning, a compelling middle, and an exciting ending. And then imagine that a reader only reads chapters 6 and 7. The reader never reads the ending, so they do not know what happens. Would those two chapters stand on their own? Most likely not.

In the proposal world, we often mistakenly assume that the evaluator will treat the proposal like a novel. Yet, an individual evaluator or an evaluation team may be assigned a single evaluation factor. In that case, the evaluators are highly likely to open the proposal to the assigned factor and read only those pages. This creates multiple entry points into the proposal. Each entry point must lead the evaluator to content they need in order to find Strengths linked to evaluation criteria.

Evaluators may never read the Executive Summary because it is very rarely included in the evaluation factors and is therefore not scorable. Evaluators may only read one proposal section or volume without access to other parts of the proposal. Therefore, proposal professionals must write and review the proposal from the perspective of a Government evaluation scoresheet. What information is needed to score each factor and subfactor?

The information needed tied to each factor and subfactor must include all relevant Strengths. A Strength is a feature with a proven benefit of merit: it exceeds requirements or significantly reduces risk in a manner the evaluator values. If the Executive Summary articulates the Strengths, but other proposal sections do not, then the proposal risks having zero scorable Strengths. And yes, we should repeat our Strengths multiple times in multiple ways across all scorable factors and subfactors. This repetition is not redundancy; rather, it is articulation of the various nuances (management, technical, staffing, corporate capabilities) of our Strengths.

A Proposal Does Contain Stories

While a proposal is not a novel, and each section must stand on its own, the proposal narrative should include stories. Stories create sticky memories; they grab and hold the evaluators’ attention. Use stories to provide evidence of Strengths. Lessons learned, results achieved, relatable anecdotes, problems solved, success stories: all of these, especially if they present quantified results, make a proposal much more compelling.

Stories should not be an opportunity for unsubstantiated bragging. Instead, show how your team worked in partnership with the customers to solve a problem. Present real results, not vague outcomes. Explain how these results benefit this project or program by improving the approach. Demonstrate the relevancy and the evidence of Strengths with stories included in the technical and management approach. Provide further evidence by linking the narrative to the past performance and proposed personnel resumes. Good stories stand out and further discriminate your Strengths.

A Fresh Perspective

Write and review your proposals through a different lens. Identify how many entry-points the proposal contains based on the evaluation criteria. Does each section mapped to each evaluation factor and significant subfactor stand alone? Does it create compelling and preferably discriminating Strengths? Does the narrative include powerful, relevant stories that provide evidence of the value proposition? Taking this fresh perspective will align your proposal more closely to how Government evaluators score it and result in higher scores, better ratings, and more wins.

By Lisa Pafe, Vice President at Lohfeld Consulting Group, CPP APMP Fellow and PMI PMP

Lohfeld Consulting Group has proven results specializing in helping companies create winning captures and proposals.
As the premier capture and proposal services consulting firm focused exclusively on government markets, we provide expert assistance to government contractors in Go-to-Market Strategy, Capture Planning and Strategy, Proposal Management and Writing, Capture and Proposal Process and Infrastructure, and Training. In the last 3 years, we’ve supported over 550 proposals winning more than $135B for our clients—including the Top 10 government contractors. Lohfeld Consulting Group is your “go-to” capture and proposal source! Start winning by contacting us at and join us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.

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