The 3 Cardinal Rules of Proposal Outlines

You have your RFP in hand (finally!) and are eager to get started. You start writing immediately. A week of 12-hour workdays later you give your baby rough draft to your reviewers and they thrash it – it’s hard to grade, it doesn’t answer all the requirements in the RFP, and it’s non-compliant. So much wasted time and money. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If you step back and plan your proposal, you can get your entire team on the same page before they waste a ton of time writing. Government RFPs have many detailed, and sometimes confusing, requirements. The goal is to develop an outline that will give the writers critical guidance on the structure and content of the final product. Giving your writers an outline for their rough draft helps you get back input that is MUCH closer to what you are looking for.

First we’ll go over the rules we use because they work every time, then go to the step-by-step guide on how to create the outline.

Rule 1: Start with a blank slate and just the RFP requirements.

Never cut and paste from other proposals, marketing material, examples off the internet, or anything already written when you write your outline.

At the outline phase, starting from old material is the kiss of death and practically guarantees a rewrite in your future. It traps you into a mindset that you’ve already answered the question.  Finally, and most importantly, you haven’t thought about what the Government is actually asking for in the context of the entire proposal. You’ve lost the big picture focus of an outline by thinking you already have the answer.

Rule 2:  Use bullets only.

Don’t start writing paragraphs first, no matter how well you know the subject.

We know you could write this thing in your sleep. We also know that we have seen countless really smart writers create masterpieces that answer none of the questions the Government asked because they started with prose and did not think about structure first. It also makes the outline hard to assess since it bogs it down with prose. Avoid the total rewrite.

Stick with simple bullets that convey the content without giving it. This will allow your graders to more easily see what the processes, tools, and examples you’ll be using without feeling the urge to edit your writing style.

Rule 3: Always get a agreement on your outline before you start writing.

Getting the rest of the team to review and agree with your outline is reduces future confusion and rewrites. At a minimum, the review should check that the outline addresses every point in the requirements and evaluation sections of the RFP (compliance), the completeness of the response, how easy it will be to grade, and if it appears to have enough examples and impact to be a compelling.

On bigger teams, your SMEs and writers need to agree with the format and approach before they start writing. Smaller shops with only one or two writers need someone to check their work. Getting a different point of view on what the Government is asking can positively impact how you think you should respond.

Keeping these three rules in mind, here are the three steps for developing your outline.

Jeff Everage