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Writing Proposals:
An Interview with Paul Weber

by Barbara Vega

Paul Weber is a technical/proposal writer who has worked for a living for 41 of his 51 years, from hard labor to public service to hi-tech. He has written proposals for the military, and for both the public and private sector. He is retired from teaching, military, and law enforcement careers, currently teaches karate, and has written professionally throughout his working life.

Can you give an overview of the process of creating a proposal?

Proposals involve a myriad of strategy, planning, organization, research, and, of course, writing processes. The value of creating these standard, or boilerplate, files will multiply across subsequent proposals. With minor modifications related to the particular proposal, well-researched and professionally written standard files provide the proposal process with an immediate degree of completion, enabling management and proposal organizers more time for critical proposal analysis, creative solutions, and custom product modifications.

How is a request for a proposal generated?

When an organization requires a product and/or service from a contractor or outside vendor, it describes that need, and response requirements, in a Request for Proposal (RFP). Interested vendors who, presumably, can accommodate the RFP requirements, respond with their proposal. Within the RFP is a section typically called Terms and Conditions (T&C), which, as evidenced by the obvious title, details the exact parameters of the request and expected response. This section was, at one time, known as the "boilerplate" section. Payment schedules and other basic details were part of the section. Today, "boilerplate" can indicate almost any information or language, including images files, charts, diagrams, fonts, and styles, that can be, and often is, replicated across multiple proposals. Similarly, boilerplate is utilized in almost every industry, with the legal community among the prominent-replicated language is used in most court responses, pleadings, etc.

Describe in more detail the concept of "boilerplate" in creating proposals. How can this help technical/proposal writers streamline the proposal-writing process?

Creating effective, and flexible, standard file text and graphics represents a collaborative process, one that involves both creativity and consensus. Expect both enthusiasm and, potentially, confrontation and argument as boilerplate is developed-but this debate is typical in today's productive environment, so enjoy the competition, and recognize its utility in the team's overall success. Like most human processes, negotiation and patience go a long way. The writer represents the pivotal role in creating cooperation and success amid the debate-don't be afraid to apply equally liberal doses of humor and candor to the process.

Having available fully half, or more, of a working proposal in boilerplate files represents a realistic and organizationally desirable objective. A main benefit is providing proposal staff considerably more time for critical reading, product assessment, and creative solutions for the project. As well, with an efficient and automated updating process, the boilerplate files remain ready at all times. Given the often short turnaround times provided by some RFPs (particularly potential foreign customers), the swift proposal responses enabled by boilerplate files would identify the responding organization as a nimble and capable respondent. This can make a huge potential difference at contract award time.

However, boilerplate cannot make all the difference. Remember that it is the ultimate responsibility of management to succinctly describe the company's ultimate benefit to the RFP issuer, in persuasive and friendly terms. The tone and benefit of that message should be evident in the boilerplate files, however. Always write and talk in knowledgeable, and positive, terms.

What are the benefits of Standard Text Files?

Boilerplate files represent a unique "economy of scale," in that the benefits of sheer volume are unmistakable. Not only is there time for the aforementioned analysis and creative processes, but the emotional benefits of knowing that at least half the proposal is, essentially, in place makes the entire project less frenetic and more calmly organized. This might be the greatest benefit of boilerplate files-ask any person caught up in a frequently behind-schedule proposal project, which often results in lost opportunity as well as soiled business and employee relationships. Time for thinking is a lot like time for children-it is irreplaceable.

Describe topics that would be described in, or used to describe, standard text files.

Physical products, such as equipment, machinery, computer hardware and software-almost anything physical-can all be encapsulated in data sheets, and updated and formatted for use in proposals and other documents. Sources of these descriptions might include existing company literature, technical data (knowledge base), existing reference and training manuals, and other internal sources. You can also obtain ideas from generic sources on the Internet. Services are similarly researched, but may also require interviews with personnel actually performing the service.

In terms of update importance, product specifications are an absolute necessity, both for proposals and for any sales or marketing calls in normal circumstances. As these specs are essential in securing business, this information might be that which is updated first, and regularly.

Beware reliance on company (marketing) literature, because much of this material, used for the special needs of advertising, is elemental and does not contain the detail necessary for proposal responses. Also pay attention to the tone and pace of the proposal-uniformity of writing and presentation style is a high desirable objective for proposals to be successful.

For services, the complete service picture should be presented-type and nature of service, technological advantages, professional biographies of personnel (a frequent RFP request), and, sometimes, an synopsis of historical successes. Updating of personnel biographies is an obvious update function for a writer charged with maintaining company boilerplate.

How might the creation of boilerplate files be streamlined and optimized?

If separate individuals are charged with the responsibilities of updating boilerplate files-such as technical files, marketing literature, personnel profiles, etc-these efforts should be planned so that there is replication from the base documents through the subsequent iterations of information across document platforms. In other words, as user manuals are often based on the larger, more detailed reference manuals, so boilerplate files should replicate files that are their natural source of information. Obviously, this is not a random or unplanned process-the entire dependency matrix should be a documented, proscribed procedure which has the authority and support of top management to ensure its successful application.

Besides products and services, what other descriptions are most often requested in an RFP?

Besides products and services, an RFP nearly always requests an organization description, one that may include most, or all, of the following:

  • Company officers and their experience.

  • Key personnel, and their years in the industry, particularly if it is a technical industry. This is especially true for any computer product and/or services company.

  • Degrees, awards, notable salary increases or promotions for all above.

  • Sales figures, in a variety of formats and presentations.

  • Number of people employed, and primary manufacturing and service locations.

  • Historical background of company.

  • Organization chart(s).

  • Worldwide operations, relationships, and business.

  • Languages spoken in company, to determine communication barriers or aids.

  • Service hours, normal working hours, special service requests.

  • Normal service response time.

  • Location of parts and repair locations.

  • Preventive maintenance procedures and programs.

Is Project Management and Training also of importance for the issuer of an RFP?

Absolutely, although the demand for project management is often dependent on the type of business involved at both ends of the proposal process. If a product is simple to operate and requires a short training process, for instance, the project management may be necessary. If a large job bid with a demand for project management, research into what project oversight has worked in that RFP owner's industry is often productive. Project management cannot be faked-you must carefully assess your company's ability to both provide and maintain a particular level of project management. Writers typically possess the necessary research skills to produce necessary information on which management can make a sound assessment. Resources can be secured to fill any project management void.

A training program that involves some or all elements of on-site or remote classes, online manuals, computer-based training, hard-copy reference materials, incorporated with a helpdesk, is expected in any RFP. These may be paid for on-demand, or may be part of the fee schedule in the responding proposal.

Are Reference Accounts requested?

Yes. The potential client wants to know if you have provided good products and services in the past. Actually, part of the evaluation process is to provide very accurate information on the reference company; the type of business or industry; contact name, address, and telephone number; contract number; length of contract or performance period; contract dollar amount; contract/project description; and any other additional information. This is sensitive information, so be sure that you have permission to use this information from the reference account, and be sure to maintain current information.

What about graphic files for use in boilerplate?

Graphics should play a vital role in any proposal; however, because they are even more difficult and time consuming than writing text, illustrations often are not used to advantage or used at all. Like boilerplate text, illustrations that are common to your company can be prepared beforehand, indexed, filed, and be available for use in any proposal. These illustrations can serve all field offices and provide the same benefits as boilerplate text.

Remember that illustrations, like text files, can become out-of-date and using old illustrations may "technologically" date your proposal in addition to providing inaccurate data. Save your company huge amounts of time and trouble, and help it make a great deal more money, by organizing their boilerplate files that are used in proposals.

Copyright © 2001 Barbara Vega
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Barbara Vega is Manager of Documentation at a software company in Costa Mesa, CA. She has served as the public relations manager for the Society of Technical Communication, San Gabriel Valley Chapter (http://www.stcsgv.org) and has over twelve years' experience as a technical writer and educator. She has written technical/business documentation for a variety of applications: software, electrical and mechanical engineering, banking, financial analysis, and personnel policies and procedures. She does freelance work as an editor for El Boricua online newsletter (http://www.elboricua.com) and has written several other articles for internet publications.

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