How to write a winning proposalJuly 11, 2008: 10:34 AM ET
Remember, success is in the details when it comes to bids and RFPs.
Paul Shelton, Tavares, Fla.
I need help writing contract proposals and contracts. Any advice or recommendations for software?
By Kathleen Ryan O'Connor, Fortune Small Business contributor
Dear Paul: Everyone's guilty of tossing aside the directions at least once. (So what if the DVD remote also works the refrigerator icemaker? Bonus!) But if there's one rule that cannot be ignored in writing contract proposals, it is: read the directions. And when you think you have them down, read them again.
Any deviation from the specifics requested could put that proposal you labored over for weeks right into the circular file.
"It all has to be in their order, not yours," says Roger Cohen, a government contracts consultant in Nyack, N.Y. who has been producing and writing government contract proposals since 1984. "Deviation is a sure path to failure."
Cohen suggests printing out the directions, grabbing a three-hole punch, a binder, highlighter and pen, and going through the RFP line by line - as many times as necessary.
Paying close attention to the dry, technical stuff doesn't mean you can't sell yourself in a proposal. You absolutely can - and should.
It helps to see the request for a proposal (or in whatever form the request comes) as a problem that needs solving - and each specification as a question that needs answering. How are you the best person to solve each issue?
"Your proposal is your only salesperson," Cohen says. "It has to speak for you."
And don't worry about fancy - and expensive - software. The experts we spoke to say it isn't necessary.
Deborah L. Kluge, a Columbia, Md.-based consultant who also specializes in helping businesses write winning proposals, says the word-processing program on your computer is all the software you really need.
She does, however, recommend getting a book on the topic. She says there are many titles to choose from, and most are quite good.
The biggest hurdle for small-business owners, she says, is getting started.
So the best thing - after reading the directions - is to organize your response in outline form, using the headings requested in the proposal and sub-headings as needed, though she says more than three subsections can get overly complicated.
Unsure of the best way to write an outline? She recommends the Purdue University's Online Writing Lab to her clients.
If your goal is to secure government contracts, Kluge also recommends finding a federal Procurement Technical Assistance Center, or PTAC, which will offer free counseling.
A list of Florida centers can be found here.
There is also plenty of software out there to help you write contracts, but there is just as much free advice on the Web.
The popular site FindLaw has a comprehensive section on contract writing for small businesses.