The Only Tool Proposal Writers Need

Aug 13, 2013

I've worked proposals for two decades now, and I have a confession to make: I don’t create outlines for my proposals as a separate step.

Eventually, yes, I will reverse-engineer an “outline,” but that’s a by-product of my other, far more important effort: to get the writers the tool they need to do their jobs.

That’s singular — just one tool.

As the proposal manager, I’m the choke point in the process. The proposal writers can’t write until I tell them what RFP (request for proposal) sections to address, what the solution is, what the themes and discriminators are, what the features and benefits are, and so on. And since often they don’t join the team until the RFP is released, they have a lot of catching up to do.

So how can I get out of their way and get them started as fast as possible – but also efficiently, ensuring they’ll provide a complete and compliant response?

Experience taught me, the hard way, that giving them a slew of files to slog through is NOT the answer. 

Think about everything generated in the pre-RFP stage: customer issues and hot buttons, win themes, discriminators, ghosts, solution diagrams, org charts, templates, reuse material. Then add tens (or hundreds) of RFP pages and assorted attachments and amendments.

Now imagine receiving all that on Monday and being told to generate a 20 page draft in a week. “Here’s your outline — get started!”

Asking proposal writers to integrate this information avalanche into a prescribed outline is a recipe for disaster. Each person will do it differently, some successfully and some with results ranging from incomplete to non-compliant.

So I head off that nightmare by handing them a single comprehensive tool that goes far beyond an outline.


This Microsoft Word document uses the approved compliant template for formatting. It has RFP-prescribed headings, with additional headings or subheadings determined by our win strategy and approach. RFP references at the ends of the headings provide an internal compliance check.

Under each heading, as appropriate, appears:

  • Page limits
  • Writer/SME assignments
  • RFP language
  • Place holders for win themes, ghosts, and discriminators
  • Sample tables and figure boxes, with formatted caption prompts
  • Instructions to include features/benefits, past performance/experience cross references, key customer issues, and other strategic information.

Separate MS Word Styles makes things stand out, using consistent font size, color, and shading. Styles also make it easy to delete these things at production.

My exhaustive RFP shred process ends up looking more like a funnel than a cyclical flow. The empty template hosts the summary outline, which grows into a detailed outline, morphs into an annotated outline, absorbs compliance requirements, captures solution elements, and incorporates win strategies to result in a single file. When the team approves this master file, the proposal writers are ready to write.

So about that outline? Yeah, let me finish this first. Then I can slice and dice it to give you whatever outline you need, and a whole lot more. What tools do you use to help your proposal team of writers?

Carol Turpin

Written by Carol Turpin

Carol Turpin is a guest contributor to the Key Solutions blog. She is a Proposal Development Specialist with 25 years of experience as a proposal strategist, proposal manager, publications manager, contract negotiator, technical writer, and editor.

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