We’ve asked Jeff Everage and his team at Trident Proposals to tell Capture2 what makes a winning proposal. It turns out the answer was complicated, so we’ve decided to break it down into a six-part blog series on Writing Winning Proposals. Kicking this off is an overall summary of what Everage calls “The Three Proposal Commandments.” Every post hereafter will expound these commandments.

Commandement #1: Be Compliant, Not Complacent.

Compliant means that your proposal follows all the instructions in the customer’s Request for Proposal (RFP). Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Like many things in life, simple does not mean easy.  The consequences of a noncompliant proposal range from getting a poor grade, to the customer throwing out the entire proposal. In a game where you get only one shot, compliance is a must.  Here is a better definition of compliant: the proposal contains a complete answer to every single question, leaving no part out.

“After a decade of coaching teams, I’ve seen even the most seasoned proposal experts exasperated by compliance. Nothing frustrates a team more than to be told they didn’t answer the question.” Jeff Everage, President and Founder of Trident Proposals

What’s the solution? Have your team check for compliance throughout every phase of the proposal. Here are three common roadblocks to compliance.

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1. Tired Eyes

If your team does compliance checks throughout the process, it’s pretty hard to miss an entire question or requirement in a response (but still not impossible). What’s more common are those tiny issues that sneak past the team’s “tired eyes.” That’s why you want to have someone not involved with the development of the proposal, who is trained and skilled in oversight, take a fine-tooth comb to read through the entire response in great detail before you submit.

“At Trident, our east coast-based clients request our ‘Overnight Compliance and Tech Edit’ service from our experts on the west coast and Japan the night before an internal review of the written proposal. In this way, their teams don’t lose a day of writing, the reviewers get a much better artifact to review, and their proposal managers know ahead of time what compliance issues need to be dealt with before the review.” Jeff Everage

2. Clogged Ears

When the PM or anyone on your team misinterprets a question or even the entire scenario, it wreaks havoc on your proposal. Part of your response won’t make any sense in the context of the rest of the requirements.

Have a rigorous core team discussion during the development phase where dissenting opinions are welcomed and considered. In short, listen to each other. This will prevent your team from misinterpreting requirements down the line.

3. Muddled Minds

Often the incumbent team uses insider knowledge to get the upper hand when creating a winning presentation. (We’ve told you that knowing the customer and the work gives you a big advantage in being able to demonstrate capability.) But sometimes that knowledge can also lead to non-compliance if the incumbent decides to present or write from their “insider’s perspective” rather than simply answering the government’s questions.  In this unique scenario, using insider information would be to the detriment of your success. Stick to exactly what’s in the RFP.

“When you hear your team say: We would do this instead you know that you’re in danger of breaking the first commandment.” Jeff Everage

Commandment #2:  Don’t Vex the Busy Grader

Here’s a scenario: Imagine you’re a high school teacher and you’ve handed out a test with five essay questions. As you begin to grade them, you find that a student answered the questions in a different order, without numbering them! Even more frustrating, her answers are filled with rambling sentences and new language that makes it impossible to tell which question she’s answered.  The other students start handing in their tests and grading work starts piling up, but you’re still trying to make sense of the first paper. Frustrated and drained, you give the student a C.

The same situation, what Jeff Everage calls “The Busy Grader Principle,” happens to Government evaluators with stacks of proposals in front of them. If anyone submits a proposal which goes out of order of the requirements and includes a lot of the jargon not in the RFP they’ll likely throw it out altogether.

You want to make the Busy Grader’s job easier, not vex them with disorganized thoughts.

  1. Number your response based on the Government’s numbering system and be sure they are consistently placed in the same part of the document.
  2. Use the keywords and phrases that the Government uses. They will match one-for-one to their grading sheets and make it much easier for them.
  3. If presenting, tell them explicitly what question you’re answering. When you’re moving to the next requirement, give them a moment to make that move on their evaluation worksheet.

Commandment #3:  Run from Un’s

You need to give the evaluator more information to get your team an outstanding grade. The common way a team violates the third commandment is when their response is Un-differentiated and Un-substantiated.

For example, if the Government asks how you’ll manage a project, the undifferentiated response would be to include a simple process chart of the generic PMP process. It meets the requirements but does not differentiate you from the competition. You need to say what makes your team better than the competition. The caveat: You have to substantiate or give evidence as to why with detailed examples, results or relevant past performance.

“Some techniques are to talk about your differentiators explicitly, present your win arguments or win themes, give great examples with results, and share your stories of past relevant successes.” Jeff Everage, President and Founder of Trident Proposals

Here are two questions to ask your team in order to avoid undifferentiated responses and unsubstantiated claims.

  1. “Can any of our competitors make the same or similar claim?” If the answer is yes, you need to differentiate.
  2. “Do we provide specific relevant evidence to back up our assertions?” If the answer is no, you need to substantiate.

Now that we laid down the foundation of how to write a winning proposal, look for our next post on the series about how to give a stellar oral presentation to win a Government contract!