Monday, March 28, 2016

The Best and Worst Proposals I Saw When I Reviewed For a Living

My main responsibility when I worked at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) was to evaluate the merit of International Space Station utilization proposals. I did this day in and day out with a variety of proposal types ranging from big money to no money, pure research science to technology demonstration, academic to commercial. Some proposals I evaluated myself, some as a team, and some with a panel of subject matter experts.

It didn’t take long to figure out what separated a good proposal from a bad proposal. Here are some tips for the proposal writers out there:

1. Follow the Instructions

We’re taught this in preschool, yet some professionals still don’t get it. The worst proposals (aside from the crackpots which were at least entertaining) were the ones that did not follow the guidelines. Unless that proposal had connections, it was immediately placed in the “needs to be reworked” pile if not outright rejected. One proposer refused to submit anything except titles and one-paragraph descriptions and there was nothing we could do with those. We really tried to give constructive feedback to those who submitted incomplete proposals on how they could improve or what they needed to add. What we said was already in the instructions.

The best proposals were the ones that literally copied and pasted the evaluation questions in their proposal (available in the instructions) and answered each one of them in detail. When an evaluation sheet asks the reviewer, “How does this proposal justify the use of the ISS?” and the proposal writer has two paragraphs under the heading, “Justifications for the use of the ISS,” evaluation is simple. If the instructions say to include these budget figures, include them. Everyone’s life is simpler when the instructions are written clearly and followed well.

2. Proofread

Reading through your writing to look for errors and to improve wording is another basic skill that we’re taught in primary school. Yet for whatever reason, maybe due to busy schedules or cockiness, professionals don’t always follow this step. One of the worst proposals I ever read was clearly a combination of a few previous proposals that had been copied and pasted into a new proposal. The fonts didn’t match, the document didn’t flow, and the whole idea didn’t make sense as it was written. If the proposal writer had taken the time to read through her document, she would have seen the glaring errors, at least two per page by my count.

A proposal is a professional document to try to convince others that the proposer is competent enough to complete the proposed task and that the task is worth doing. Submitting a poorly proofed proposal does not look good for the competency and professionalism of the proposer, no matter how worthy the task is.

A well written, well proofed, concise proposal is a rare prize. Such a shiny proposal is easy to read, easy on the eyes of the reviewer, and perhaps even a pleasure for the reviewer to read. A happy reviewer doesn’t guarantee a favorable outcome, but it helps.

3. Consider your audience.

Proposals submitted through a scientific review process, as described in the instructions, are evaluated by scientists. There were more than a few proposals written by businesses for business professionals submitted through our scientific process. Scientists call this business material fluff and it wastes our time. It also fills pages and wastes space that could be filled with scientific information that would strengthen a proposal. Taking out the marketing material, the proposal is left with very little content to evaluate. A lean proposal with little meat is not likely to be approved.

I’ve also evaluated business plan proposals for a previous job as a space industry analysis. Business plans evaluated by industry experts should be written differently than scientific proposals. It is okay to assume that the reviewer knows who the big aerospace players are without explanation. It is not okay to misspell the names of those big aerospace players. Business plans without basics like how the company intends to make a profit will leave reviewers rolling their eyes. In-depth technical information about the product doesn’t belong unless the instructions ask for it. I have scientific knowledge as well as industry knowledge, but I’m unusual. Don’t assume everyone knows the specific area of science you do.

In short, leave the marketing and MBA information out of scientific proposals. Include business information and exclude deep technical information (unless asked) in business plan proposals. Remember who your audience is.

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