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SME vs. Proposal Writer --- Who Should Write Your Proposal?

Writing a proposal often requires more knowledge and skills than any one person has. This is especially true for highly technical proposals where the proposal requires a combination of subject matter expertise, customer awareness, copy writing, and presentation skills. Subject matter experts often do not have the ability to write the finished copy, and the proposal writers who can write the finished copy do not have the technical knowledge necessary to describe the offering. To solve this problem you can either train someone to do both or implement a collaborative approach to writing the proposal. Neither one is easy or even always possible.

It can help to look at the proposal content as two layers that need to be fully integrated in the final document. The following table shows what goes into each of the layers.

Offering Layer

Presentation Layer

  • Features and components of the offering
  • Response to RFP requirements and specifications
  • Delivery/implementation and schedule
  • Estimates
  • Resource requirements and allocation
  • Methodologies
  • Who, what, where, how, and when
  • Benefits, results, and goals fulfilled by the offering
  • Optimization against the RFP evaluation criteria
  • Insight and intelligence regarding the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment
  • Context and themes
  • Why
  • Visual communication
  • Writing from the customer's point of view


You could improve this table by adding a third column for "Customer Awareness" to separate knowledge of the customer/competitive environment from technical knowledge and presentation. 

A winning proposal will address all of these things. But very few writers have both the knowledge and skills to address all of these items on their own. So should you train your SMEs to be talented writers, or should you take a collaborative approach using a combination of SMEs and writers?

Sometimes a SME works at the customer's site and brings customer awareness.  Sometimes they don't.  What happens when you have to split things three ways — technical SME, business development/customer SME, and proposal writer?  Is it still feasible to find or train someone to do it all?

The problem with training someone to do it all is that not everyone can become a gifted writer. In fact, a lot of people who identify themselves as writers don't have the right skills to write winning proposal copy. It takes a lot more than just being able to produce clear grammatically correct prose. Everyone can probably learn the basics. But I've known many brilliant people that who, no matter how much guidance you give them, need everything they put on paper, re-written before it should be used in a proposal.

Assuming you have writers who are up to the job of writing winning proposal copy, how do you pair them up with SMEs so that in combination they can produce a winning proposal? It turns out that this is not easy either. Who takes the lead? Does the SME start the writing and then the proposal writer finishes it? Think about the sequence that you must go through in order to write a technical proposal response:

  • First you must design your solution or offering.
  • Then before you write about it, you should validate the design (validating a technical design by writing a narrative and reading it is definitely not a best practice in any field)
  • Once you have a validated design, then it needs to be defined (described in sufficient detail).
  • Once you have a defined offering, you are ready to address presentation.

The problem with this way of looking at things is that issues from the presentation layer often act as input considerations for the design of the offering. In other words, you should be designing the offering based on what it will take to win, which means you must be able to articulate the presentation before the design is complete. People often incorrectly assume that presentation comes last and therefore the subject matter expert goes first and hands off to a proposal writer to finish it. This tends to result in late-stage changes to the design of the offering when proposal reviews discover that it does not properly reflect what it will take to win.

Pairing up an SME with a proposal writer is not a sequential process, but more of a collaborative partnership. In a collaboration, personalities and expectations matter. In fact, they determine whether the partnership is successful, and that ultimately determines whether you win. How do you manage around that?

One good way to figure out how to get everything you need from both columns of the table above is to ask yourself which is the most important for winning that particular proposal. All proposals are not created equally. Which matters the most will depend on your circumstances. The nature of your offering, the RFP, your customer's preferences, and the capabilities of your staff will result in some of the items in the table mattering more than others. The ones that matter the most are the ones you need to make sure happen. Sometimes the best you can do is to give responsibility for preparing the finished proposal copy to the person who can deliver what you need the most, and make everyone else responsible for contributing to it.



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