Proposals Orals

Proposals Orals, valuable lessons-learned from Tom’s serving as orals coach for 250 proposal presentations

Winning The Short List Interview
Handling The Proposal As A Presentation


by Tom Leech.
Originally appeared in San Diego Business Journal

The veteran of the local business scene was commenting about one of the major public works project competitions the city has had in recent years. “I sat in on the final oral presentations by several teams. I was amazed at how poorly prepared one of the teams was. They just killed off any chances they might have had during that presentation.”

Making the “short list” is a major goal firms strive for as they go after new business. (This assumes they’ve already passed such other goals as getting through the door and onto the bidder’s list.) Once the customer has received all the proposals, they choose the ones they like best, typically 3-4, and that is the short list. Then they often request those finalists to meet with the customer review board for a face-to-face “interview” or proposal “orals.”

This often arduous experience is common for architects, ad agencies, service providers, governmental contractors, and even those charged with selling the city to companies or agencies considering moving operations here.

Preparing this presentation is not to be taken lightly, yet sometimes that’s what happens.

Standard problems:

  • Not enough time.
  • Key people are already overworked, worn out or absent.
  • People the customer wants to hear from tops in their fields, but may be poor presenters or inexperienced at this type of presentation.
  • Not enough time.

On a major governmental procurement, a key decision maker said: “All the firms had capabilities, but how the team works in the oral presentations is a key determining factor. From a marketing director: “The difference between winners and also-rans is razor thin on large program competitions.” Thus, this one hour or half-day interview has the potential of nailing the win or making the cuts easier.

Here are some tips to achieve a presentation to help you nail the win:

  • Plan rigorously as for any job. Put a knowledgeable, dedicated person in charge.
  • Make sure you understand all customer inputs. What are the rules, such as start/stop times, process, locale? Have they given you a list of questions, speakers, topics? First rule is to be completely responsive. How will the winner be decided? A useful item, often forgotten.
  • Get resources onboard and mobilized. If you’re using color slides, don’t wait until half-way through to discover you’re faced with a five-day turnaround.
  • Set an agenda that integrates customer needs and your  best points. Assign time targets and enforce them (a low blow). Include ample time for questions, which may have more clout than prepared      material. What if the rules change on the spot? They often do.
  • Impress on presenters this is not a professional paper, but your final selling opportunity. Are they talking the right stuff, especially that addressing the customer’s world? Do they make it clear “Here’s why us!”
  • Suggest they put themselves in the role of reviewers who have to sit through several of these presentations. After awhile it’s hard to discriminate one team from another (or even stay awake). So presenters must put forth extra efforts at clarity, focus and punch, in materials and in delivery.
  • Take care of the mechanics. The little stuff, like poor lighting or burnt-out bulbs, can create a strong impression. Will it be a cohesive team of professionals in action or Larry, Moe and Curly?
  • Rehearse. Yes they’ll grumble, but it is essential. Put some astute reviewers in the practice audience. Get the bugs out here, both for individuals and team, so they don’t appear during the real event.
  • Make sure the real presenters show up. Too often top people let lackluster performance kill off their credibility. Major culprits: reading material, wooden delivery, excessive reliance on visual aids, and not connecting with listeners. Would the customer enjoy working with this crew for the next year or two if they win the contract?

Apply these tips diligently and your presentation may indeed help give you the winning edge, not push you over it.

When the proposal is a presentation: 10 common traps

by Thomas Leech
Originally appeared in the San Diego Business Journal

Organizations competing for Federal (and other customer) contracts have seen a major shift in the procurement rules. Historically the bulk of effort in responding to Request for Proposals (RFPs) has been in producing written proposals. Extraordinary energy has gone into telling the right story in the specified 100 pages, or sometimes 10 volumes, with each word carefully crafted and scrutinized to convey the most powerful selling message.

Today that same extra care has to be put forth developing the winning presentation, often referred to as the proposal orals or short list interview. The objective is to streamline the procurement process while giving evaluators a better size-up means by hearing from those who will actually do the work vs those who can write superior proposals.

For contractors, producing winning “orals” calls for a very different process from the past written proposal. For many, this is new territory, and some common

traps await. From having coached about 200 proposal orals teams to these new rules over the past two decades, here are some of those traps (which many battle-scarred proposal vets will recognize):

1. Waiting too long to get started, and underestimating the amount of work involved. If your team must present on Friday, don’t wait until Tuesday to get started. This is probably the most common preparation mistake and even large firms with ample resources are guilty of this one. The result is predictable – a team worn to a frazzle by 20-hour days (and nights), or a poorly-prepared team.

2. Assuming this is just like other customer presentations and not preparing the team for the different rules of engagement. Many highly knowledgeable people have a hard time becoming excellent proposal writers. Now throw in that this is not written, but personally presented — to very specific and often stringent guidelines. With the pressures of tight deadlines, intense internal scrutiny and, yes, the anxiety of facing a tough, unknown audience. With perhaps $10 or $100 million riding on each person’s performance. Don’t send your team into major battle with puny weapons.

3. Not setting a workable schedule and making sure the team sticks to it. One speaker benefitted from careful schedule adherence. Unlike most of her colleagues, she met each milestone in developing her segment. Came major rehearsal day, she did so well the internal review “red” team was hard pressed to find fault. She went home at 4 p .m., while her teammates had to keep churning away past midnight.

4. Failing to set clear win themes right from the start, and weaving them into all segments. In coaching teams I always ask what’s the win strategy at top level and for each section. “Huh?” is often the answer. Or “We’re still working on that and once we understand it better, those will come out.” Make sure you’ve figured those out way ahead, or consider passing on this one.

5. Getting everyone to recognize that selling to the right issues is paramount. This is an extremely common problem, as many highly-knowledgeable people are weak at selling. A retired Colonel, previously in charge of the proposal evaluators, said: “One of the standard laments from our people was that the presenters often failed to address the issues on our score sheets.”

6. Jumping right into graphics before laying out a clear organization. Back in English class that was called outlining. With today’s wide computer use, most team members are eager to quickly churn out their graphics. The result is often disjointed, with no message clarity, flow or sell. Yes, those painstakingly-crafted graphics look nice — too bad most will have to be scrubbed and re-done, not an efficient way to operate.

7. Underestimating the graphics load. With today’s computers, most companies have strong graphics capability. Yet almost every one runs into a jam-up when the heavy loads hit. Proposal orals are by nature highly changeable and even good graphics talent can only do so much in a 24 hour day.

8. Assuming it’s business-as-usual for getting materials produced. Here the horror stories abound. Of color printers running out of supplies on Saturday afternoon, and no re-supplies until Monday. Of untested vendors whose continuing poor quality forces the team to seek better services late in the game. Of computer systems incompatible with projectors or customer systems.

9. Putting rehearsals on a “maybe” vs “must” category. A common difficulty is getting people to rehearse, either individually or as an integrated team. Not practicing is almost a surefire formula for impending disaster. Following a recent proposal, the program manager told me he’d been resisting rehearsals. “We’d done many presentations before so I didn’t think we needed it. Was I ever wrong!

Without those dry runs you kept insisting on, we wouldn’t have come through nearly as well as we did.”

10. Not preparing for the informal as well as formal parts of the encounter.

Q&A (question-and-answer) sessions almost always are included in orals. An executive related how his team was well-honed for the presentation. “But we did little to get ready for the Q&A. And that’s where we got killed, as our program manager kept bungling the questions.” On the other hand, another team salvaged a win from a rough presentation by shining during Q&A.

Current procurement practices suggest that future proposals are more likely to emphasize presentations. By being alert to these ten common traps, marketing teams can stay on course toward winning bids.