The Perfect Proposal Size

In today’s BulletPoints newsletter… does size matter? Is there a perfect length for the executive summary and body of the proposal?

Which is better? A long executive summary that gets all your points across or a short one that the reader can get through quickly? Check out today’s BulletPoints to find out.

You get a group of people together who don’t want to be there. You stuff them in a room and you don’t let them out until they come to a decision. You throw all sorts of conflicting claims and evidence at them. Maybe there’s scientific or technical information that comes from experts — information that a lot of the folks stuck in that room don’t understand.

Am I talking about a jury? Am I talking about a selection committee?

As you can see, it’s both. Indeed, jury research tells us a great deal about how people make decisions about complex questions when they’re in groups. So, in the next few BulletPoints, we’re going to talk about how the key findings of jury research, as well as my own observations as a trial lawyer, help you win more.

Any guess what the most common question is that I get when training folks to improve their proposals?

How long should it be?

Can you hear the collective sighs of the world’s proposal managers?

As it turns out, jury research can tell us the answer. A lot of people really want the proper length of an executive summary to be one page. Unfortunately, this is usually a recipe for vagueness.

And jury research says no. A complete executive summary beats a short one.

The reason why is that this is your chance to make an emotional connection with the reader. The executive summary needs to hit certain emotions. A short one simply can’t do it.

Of course, you don’t want to include lots of extraneous stuff that isn’t essential for the persuasive statement. To be persuasive, your message has to be focused. Distraction and boredom are enemies of persuasion.

Now, a 1-page cover letter hitting the high points is a good idea. It still shouldn’t be vague, but it’s OK for it to be at a high level.

But this is because the goal of the cover letter is different than the goal of the executive summary… which is different than the goal of the  body of the proposal. Let each portion of your proposal do the job it’s designed for. 

And what about the body of the proposal? People always want to make the executive summary too short, but they also want to make the body of the proposal too long.

Research shows that what jurors really hate is when you waste their time.

Just like the folks on your selection committee, most people want to do a good job. But they also want to get it over with as soon as possible.

So, if it adds no value to the reader, cut it.  And you can always drop a footnote that says “if you’re interested in this, were happy to provide you with additional information” and let them follow up with the post-submission questions. If even that is too nerve-racking for you, you should at least stuff anything that isn’t part of a clear crisp message into the appendix.

Of course, it’s one thing to put all the right stuff in front of folks, but it’s another to get the message you want into their eye holes where it’ll take up permanent residence in their brains. And in the next BulletPoints, we’ll discuss exactly what determines whether that happens.

Finally, a little bit of APMP news. The great folks organizing the APMP Bid and Proposal Con for next year in New Orleans have given me the privilege of talking about two hugely important topics. First and foremost, an entire session on differentiation. Really, when it comes down to it, if you have no differentiation, you have no leverage.

And second on content libraries. A good content library forces you and your team to stay structured and focused, which are critical for persuasiveness.

Please share your comments or concerns about differentiation or content libraries to help me make those talks as good as possible: contacting us is easy peasy.

Until next time, I wish you much success.


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