The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Proposal Outlines
Guest Contributor | August 21, 2019
Very few activities in life can be done without a plan of some kind – just using an alarm clock indicates your “plan” to get out of bed at a certain time. In the proposal realm, a critical part of the planning process is the proposal outline.
Few professionals realize the importance of the outline to winning the contract. Far beyond the issue of compliance, an outline helps establish the story to be told, where the emphasis is placed, and your approach to a solution. When generating the outline, there are a few questions we all must ask ourselves:
Is it better to use an annotated outline, a story board, or a simple Table of Contents approach? How detailed does the outline need to be?
There are at least three variables that impact the answers to these two questions – (1) the length of time until the proposal is due, (2) the complexity of the proposed solution, and (3) the maturity of the writing team, both in the subject matter and in building proposal responses.
Plenty of Time
When I have the luxury of time, I tend to favor a storyboard approach. My storyboards will include a ton of information to assist the authors including all pertinent information from Sections C, L, and M. This is structured such that the author can easily understand the requirement (L), how it will be evaluated (M), and what the customer expects to happen on the contract (C – or the PWS). I’ll also include a page allocation, a suggested structure for each major section, the win themes, and discriminators, as well as a page allocation, and a spot for any suggested graphic. I use this when I have a draft RFP where the final RFP is expected to track closely and at least a couple of weeks before its release. Alternatively, you can also use this approach when the BD folks are certain (!) they have shaped the RFP and understand what the final RFP will look like (with or without a draft).
This approach most certainly will work with a writing team that understands the solution (or the approach to it) and understands proposal responses. It also provides a lot of support to teams that are less mature and need guidance. My storyboards are broken down into the major sections of the response rather than being a single document.
With a little less time, I tend to use an annotated outline; particularly when the RFP is due in 30-45 days and we might have been a little slow out of the gate in getting started. My annotated outline will primarily focus on Sections L and M, and will pull in the SOW/PWS, if required. The annotated outline is generally a single document.
Finally, when I’m really crunched for time, my “outline” will basically be what I think the Table of Contents should look like for the finished response. This puts more pressure on the writing team and should only be done with a team that fully understands the subject matter and has good experience in writing responses.
MS Word or Excel
I sometimes get asked whether the storyboard/outline should be in MS Word or Excel? My preference for storyboards is a Word document for each major section for which I have a standard template. My annotated outlines will always be in a single Word document, and an outline with no related L/M references will be an Excel spreadsheet that will become my section tracker for review readiness. I have seen outlines in PowerPoint, as well.
Regardless of the approach taken, realize that you should always expect some evolution (not revolution) of your outline and, early in the process, have an outline review so that there’s a consensus on the approach.
It has been my experience that a good outline makes the work flow, while a bad outline is a road block to progress, and a noncompliant (ugly) one is a real killer. Consider the time available and the team maturity when you decide on your approach and you generally won’t go wrong.