Proposal Readability: Is Your Proposal Easy to Skim?

Business people are busy—far too busy to sit and read every page of every proposal they receive. That’s a fact, but it shouldn’t be suprising.

Suppose you are on a committee that is reviewing proposals from seven different vendors. Each proposal you receive is an average of 75 pages long plus another 25 pages of attachments for a grand total of 100 pages. Now ask yourself this question “Do I have time in my day to read, evaluate, and score a 100 page proposal?” If you’re like me, you cringe even thinking about it.

Now ask yourself one more question: “Do I have time in my day to read, evaluate, and score seven 100 page proposals? 700 total pages?” My initial cringe just turned into a nervous tick.

Business people don’t read proposals cover to cover

Clearly, most business people do not have the time required to seriously read, evaluate, and score seven 100 page proposals. Sure, they do enough work to fulfill their obligation as an evaluator—more or less—but they don’t give each of these proposals the serious consideration that, as proposals writers, we think our proposals deserve.

The fact is, almost no one will read any proposal cover to cover. They may skim it, but they won’t read it.

Most readers may skim your proposal, but they won’t read it

Most proposal reviewers skim through a proposal looking for things that are important to them. They may read the executive introduction if it’s short and to the point. They’ll look at the pricing section, whatever section they have the most familiarity with (IT people will look at IT sections, etc.), and they’ll look for evidence of the top few things they know are important to the overall project. But the rest of it? They skim it faster than a well-waxed surf board sliding down a colossal ocean wave.

You can complain or lament that evaluators don’t carefully and faithfully read every page of the proposal you worked so hard to prepare. You can even pout and grumble. But ultimately, you must accept this streamlined and abbreviated review process as reality. Why? Because it is only by accepting the reality of the way things work that we can accommodate that reality. And benefit from it.

Don’t write for the reader, write for the skimmer

So what’s a poor proposal writer to do? If readers don’t take the time to read our proposals, how are we going to get their attention? How are we going to sell them anything?

Simple. If we know they’re going to skim our proposal instead of read it, let’s write it in a way that makes it easier for them to skim it.

Readability: making a proposal easy to skim

The best way to make a proposal or any document easy to skim (or scan or browse) is to use lots of headings and subheadings. Lots of them. If you show me a single page of uninterrupted text, I’ll succumb to PRC, the proposal reviewers coma. But if you organize and segment that page into lots of headings and subheadings, I can scan through it in a few seconds and get an idea what you’re trying to communicate. I might even read those sections that appear more interesting.

This is an important point.

If you take care to craft the wording of your headings and subheadings so they are meaningful and telling, the reader should be able to comprehend the sales message you’re trying to communicate even if she doesn’t read all of the content in between. Think about this for a moment. If you have 30 pages to read, but only 15 minutes until your next meeting, and you want to get out on time tonight so you can make it to your daughter’s band performance, you don’t have time to read every word. But if the proposal in front of you is carefully structured with meaningful headings and subheadings, you can make it through those 30 pages with time to spare. And get something beneficial from the time you invested.

As proposal writers, we still have to write answers and sometimes detailed answers to RFP questions, both to be compliant and to provide the details for those reviewers who read the answers we write. But we must also recognize that being an effective proposal writer necessarily means writing in a way that works for the 95% of reviewers who only skim our proposals.

David Seibert is a professional salesperson and consultant for businesses that respond to formal procurements in non-federal markets. Dave publishes a comprehensive curriculum of online, self-paced proposal training classes, delivers onsite and online proposal training programs for dedicated proposal teams, and provides proposal and business development consulting services for businesses that want to improve their win rates. 

Dave is founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses, A/E/C firms, schools, and to state and local governments. Dave authored the popular proposal book, Proposal Best Practices, is active with the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), and is a member of the APMP Speakers Bureau. You can contact Dave at [email protected].

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