The woes of an overloaded bid assessor
“Some poor soul has to read all this!”
We’ve heard that – and more colourful versions – said by members of bid teams several times over the years, referring to the numerous pages of documents submitted to clients. If a writer perceives a reader as having to ‘wade’ through a bid, this often reflects the writer’s fear that the bid won’t make an impact. One of the skills in bidding is to navigate your reader through a natural course of the story being told, making bid assessment easier. The two broad elements of this are:
- How the written material is constructed, i.e. how it mirrors a client’s requirements and how easy it is to read
- How the written material is reinforced and supported by visual presentation
Navigating the course of the bid story using effective writing and images
The natural course of the story is created partly by the order of the submission’s main sections and subsections. While this high-level order must adhere to a client’s requirements, individual paragraphs provide your opportunity to guide the reader through important points in an order that reflects what matters most to your client. This prioritises issues upon which your client places greatest importance, determined from the bid documents, past experience, statements at bidders’ open days, etc. The way sentences are written is critical to ensuring greatest impact.
This article shares some thoughts about effective writing. Unless stated otherwise, all the examples have been created for this article, i.e. not from actual submissions. We always protect our clients’ confidentiality.
Make your bid stand out
If the reader perceives the submission to be a ‘hard slog’, the above two key points haven’t been applied effectively. With that in mind, what would make the reader fall into the unenviable position of the poor soul, bearing in mind the document / chapter s/he’s reading might be the last of many that day?
- Document hard to read: the reader labours between pages through poorly-arranged text
- Messages not clear: the reader wonders what’s actually being ‘said’
- Material too ‘vanilla’: the proposal fails to capture the reader’s attention
- Sentences too long: the messages aren’t conveyed succinctly
- Lack of evidence: the reader wonders, “Have you actually ever done all this?”
- Unimaginative image captions that miss opportunities to state benefits for the client
- Pages don’t look appealing: the document design doesn’t inspire the reader
- Too much text used where imagery would make a point much more clearly
Make things easy for your reader
What are the best ways of keeping your reader engaged? It’s not feasible, in the space of this short article, to consider every way, but here’s a selection of some important issues. We’ll address many more in future articles. The key message is to avoid your reader struggling through the submission, instead steering him/her towards a feeling of confidence and of enjoying reading your bid. There’s no need for the reader ever to become that poor soul.
Use easy-to-understand, efficient and concise writing
One of the most important things to remember when writing is that you need to keep sentences to the point which means you have to get to the point and not waffle your way through the points you’re making and you need to use punctuation effectively so that the individual elements of your sentences stand out to avoid them being buried in a sea of words that will leave your reader wondering what it was you were trying to state in the first place and will possibly give them a headache because they will run out of mental breath before reaching the end of the overly long and rambling sentence that should have been much shorter and easier to read than the wall of words provided made worse by repetition.
And breathe! That’s an example of a sentence that’s:
- Difficult to read because it’s far too long (132 words!) – yes, sentences this long do creep into bids if unchecked
- Not easy to understand because there’s no punctuation
It’s said that around 20 words is the ideal limit for a sentence, but we prefer to focus on creating understanding and clarity, rather than worrying about word count. By concentrating on conveying a message that makes sense and is easy to read, the word count will take care of itself. If a sentence is shorter and easier to read, it will make much more impact. Remember:
Brevity + Clarity + Value = IMPACT
The value element is about how you show the reader what benefits you bring and how the benefits will make a positive difference. For tips on writing concisely to convey benefits with more impact, see the article at this link.
It’s respectful of your client’s time to keep your writing concise and clear, and it increases your chance of success. There’s also usually a limit on the number of words, pages or characters allowed in a submission. Consider an example from the above-linked article:
A shorter and easier-to-read form could be:
State key points in a way that addresses clients’ priorities
From our experience of editing bids, we’ve seen a tendency to state the most important aspect of a sentence at the end, as if it’s intended to stand out as the punchline. This is unwise because the reader may decide to skip past the sentence if s/he doesn’t quickly interpret the intended message. It’s better to state the most important issue(s) first, followed by associated information.
Consider this example, written for a client called XYZ that needs highway design and construction teams to deliver projects nationwide within defined localities:
While this is all true, it doesn’t prioritise what matters most to XYZ, i.e. working with a local specialist that can meet its specific requirements for highway design and construction. The supplier’s ability to meet XYZ’s requirements is stated at the end of the sentence, and most of the sentence focuses on the supplier’s features, rather than XYZ’s needs. Also, there are no specific details, so it reads as a rather generic sentence.
There are various better ways of presenting the points, one of which is to break the message into separate sentences that each state their own parts of the key issues, such as:
This is a better way of writing the same message because:
- The first reference is to meeting XYZ’s specific requirements, stating examples of experience as evidence
- It references the client and mentions its requirements first, before providing back-up information about how XYZ’s needs will be met
Use active language, not passive
Many of us are familiar with writing technical reports, in which a passive style of writing is often appropriate, but this is less appropriate for bids.
Consider this example, which represents a case study presented by a bidder to the client:
What does that actually mean? The statement begs various questions:
- Who addressed the needs of local stakeholders?
- What does regularly mean?
- How were stakeholders’ requirements incorporated in plans?
- Who incorporated stakeholders’ requirements?
Unless these questions are answered, the reader will be left wondering if any of this was really done, and if the bidder actually has the experience of stakeholder management that it claims to have. A much better way of writing the same message would be:
This is a much more active style of writing, stating who took the action and how the action was used.
Don’t assume all your readers will understand every technical term in the subject matter
Having worked in sectors in which abbreviations and acronyms are used so much that people forget the full names – sectors including airports, nuclear and rail – we have seen the importance of defining terms to ensure all readers understand the writing. Unless your client tells you otherwise, it’s always wise to assume somebody in the assessment process will be unfamiliar with acronyms and technical terms. This can be the case when bid sections are cross-checked between departments, or when someone at a high level, unfamiliar with all the technical abbreviations, reads the bid.
Consider the following example, relating to work in the airport sector. While this example is not taken from a bid, it mirrors a pre-edited piece by a bidder in a different sector, in which a similar number of undefined abbreviations was used.
Did that make sense? If you’re from the airport business, it possibly did. If you’re from the airport construction business, it probably did. Just in case the bid is passed to someone less familiar with the abbreviations, it’s wise to define terms in full when they’re first used, and a glossary of terms might even be helpful.
Use graphics to good effect
A picture might paint a thousand words but some images can take significantly longer to prepare than writing a thousand words. Just as written material needs to be developed carefully for best communication, graphics also have to be prepared with the reader’s understanding and speed of interpretation in mind. The time taken for preparing graphics has to be balanced against other priorities in the bid process, but the main objective of any graphic is to aid the reader’s understanding, rather than merely being an alternative to words.
Without images, an idea might be lost in a page of words and, without words, an image might be lost to ambiguity; the two must go hand-in-hand. Research shows that graphics communicate up to 60,000 times faster than text alone. The power of graphics in a bid, for rapid information transfer, is obvious – if the graphic is well constructed and developed with the reader in mind. Graphics must be developed to assist bid assessors, making their tasks easier. This means you need to plan ahead for the appropriate images to support your bid. The storyboarding stage of the bid is important for this. Graphics take advantage of people’s ability to remember twice as much information in an image than in words alone. Also, when we read words supported by images, we remember six times as much as we would with words alone.
We’ve used the simple image in Figure 1 to help explain what we do at Mercury Communication & Strategy. Several people we’ve met at networking events have told us they remembered this circles graphic. Some people made referrals using the image, citing the graphic as an easy way to explain to others what they could expect. This makes the point that a very simple image can convey key information and be memorable. A graphic was ideal for conveying the information because the visual representation of our services as overlapping circles, providing multiplied benefits from the overlaps, is clearer than possible with words alone.
Figure 1: Multiple benefits are gained from Mercury’s overlapping services. Showing our services in the form of a Venn diagram has proved to be effective at helping people to remember what we do.
Make sure every image has an action caption; the caption for Figure 1 is an example. It starts with the image reference, followed by a short benefits-based title that leads into a statement to reinforce the message about benefits. In this case, the benefits refer to an outcome for Mercury, but the statement would normally apply to your client. Minimise the text in the image itself, and use the caption as your opportunity to write a few more words to reinforce what’s shown in the image.
We’ve heard it said there should be a graphic on every page, and that graphics should occupy around a quarter of the submission. Our experience is simply that graphics should be used where they enhance the reader’s understanding of an issue and convey information succinctly. A page without any images can be just as appealing to the eye if you arrange the text well and use other techniques, such as call-out boxes and different fonts for emphasis. When you do use graphics, leave plenty of empty space around them, and around the individual components of the image. This will avoid degrading the clarity of the graphic. Your careful use of colour, to show different aspects, will add definition. Notice the colour of the circle for ‘Presenting and writing to win’ in Figure 1, which stands out from the blue-green of the other two circles. This is deliberate since this article is about one of the two activities shown, i.e. writing to win.
Ensure consistency in the graphics style throughout your submission. Choose a style that reflects the bid brand you want to portray, ideally incorporating elements of your client’s brand and your own. Avoid images showing generics, i.e. not relating to a client’s priorities. Instead, show tangible items, e.g. client benefits, people, service lines, system combinations, engineering principles, outcomes, improvements, results, work locations, organisation charts, future plans, financial success, etc. You might need to spend quite a lot of time on your graphics, but it’s worth it if they help your reader to interpret your messages clearly and quickly. Remember, you’re writing for your reader’s benefit.
To take graphics to a new level of interactivity, complexity and detail, enabling the recipient to gain more of an experience of your services, consider using advanced techniques such as 3D printing, design models, computer-generated imagery and virtual reality, if these are appropriate to show what you’re offering. For examples and more detail about these techniques, visit the websites of leading document production and bid development specialists, such as Hobs Reprographics.
A 3D printed model works well to show an item (e.g. a building) in context, or to show all perspectives of a design. Computer-generated imagery helps people see a photorealistic vision, enhanced by animation that allows the viewer to move around the scene. This is an appropriate form of visual presentation for interactive submissions. Applications (apps) for mobile devices and augmented reality assists understanding of complex problems and their solutions – e.g. road closures, construction phases over time – which you may well need to highlight since these might be among your differentiators. In the construction industry, for example, project planning and design are increasingly being driven by the philosophy of building information modelling (BIM), providing detailed, multi-service and interactive development of new buildings and infrastructure, from which insightful graphics can be generated for inclusion in bids.
What’s your experience been?
We always like to hear from you about your experiences in bidding and your thoughts on the subject matter we post, so please contact us or comment here with your feedback.