Why Mistakes In Proposals Don’t Matter…and What Does

missing-forest-for-the-trees When I first interviewed for my job, the Director of Marketing at the time told me one of her biggest frustrations was mistakes in proposals. She wanted mistake-free proposals. And I was on board with that idea.

Over the next 5 years, we spent countless hours combing for, finding, and correcting mistakes in our proposals.

Boy, was I dumb.

Why? Because I was spending all this time on something that didn’t matter. Let me explain.

Around this time, I started getting my hands on competitor’s proposal. And guess what the ones that beat us had in common. They were littered with mistakes. Our competitors were beating us with proposals that were filled with embarrassing errors. And here, I’m slaving away trying to find every single error and then debating with my team whether to use a comma or semicolon in the sentence.

What a stupid use of time!

Listen, I’m not saying you should submit proposals written with crayons by a bunch of toddlers. I’m saying your proposal doesn’t have to compare to the editorial standards of the New York Times. And just like every book I’ve read (or written) and every proposal I’ve seen, every issue of the New York Times has mistakes.

The Problem

Architects and engineers think spelling, grammar, and usage are important. They’ve been taught that details matter and clients won’t hire you if you are missing a comma. In addition, many marketers (including me) had English minors or majors in college. We were trained in the critical nature of correct English.

What we fail to realize is we’ll give our clients 200-page documents and we’re lucky if they spend even ten minutes reading them.

You can’t read 200 pages in 10 minutes. And you certainly can’t read it AND scour it for errors.

Nobody Cares

As you know, I’ve been doing brutally honest proposal critiques over the last few months. During my critiques, I rarely commented on errors. But with one, I just had to say something in my critique.

This proposal was for a $31M contract. Not only was it littered with mistakes, the mistakes were in very unfortunate places (like the first page of the cover letter and pull out boxes in resumes).

And guess what…out of all the proposals I critiqued, this proposal was, by far, THE BEST. In fact, the team had won.

Now, how is that possible?

How is it possible for a proposal littered with mistakes to not only be the best proposal I critiqued, but also win a $31M contract?

Because the message was so compelling that the proposal evaluators would have been insane not to shortlist them! More on this later.

Whether you are a contractor, architect, or engineer…the extent to which you have mastered English is completely irrelevant.

Bottom Line: Nobody cares how you use commas. What they care about is your offering in architecture, engineering, or construction.

Autocorrect in Your Brain

In addition, our brain is a prediction machine. As we read, our brain predicts what comes next. That’s why we miss blatant errors while reading.

Last week, I had a reader send me an email about my use of “it’s” in my last post. It was a good catch from someone who has great pride in her editing ability. However, what she (and I) failed to catch was this:

“…built-in email client to receive and manager your email.”

Built-in email client to manager your email? What am I, a hillbilly?

Yes, I read the post a couple times before publishing it. But my brain was predicting it would say “manage.” So, I literally saw the word manage. And the same thing happened to the woman who emailed me about my use of “it’s.”

Our brain has autocorrect. It’s only when that autocorrect fails that you see an error. That’s why I say to always have a fresh set of eyes look at your work before it goes out. You’ll never catch all your own errors because your ability to predict your own writing is so good.

What Does Matter

By this point you’re saying, “Ok, Matt. If my client is looking for a reason to throw out my proposal and it has a mistake, I just lost.” You are right. And that’s the problem.

If your proposal is going to lose because of your use of English…proofreading isn’t your problem. The problem is YOUR PROPOSAL SUCKS!

If you:

  • Truly understood the client’s challenges
  • Provided a compelling offering they would be crazy to pass up
  • Had a history of doing great work for the client

…then no amount of mistakes in your proposal would lose you the job. It’s that simple.

Mistakes only matter when your proposal SUCKS!

And that’s why the firm won that $31M contract. Their proposal was compelling. So, the numerous mistakes would not deter anybody from shortlisting them. In fact, it would have been foolish not to shortlist them.

What I’m Getting At

Let’s be honest. How much time do you personally spend editing the mistakes out of your proposals? Is it more time than you spend making sure you have an absolutely mind-blowing offering that they would be crazy to pass up? Is it more time than you spend making sure that the relevance of every project you listed slaps the reader in the face? Is it more time than you spend making sure that every resume is customized to show only the experience that is truly relevant to this project? Is it more time then you spend trying to put yourself in the shoes of your client?

Why would you spend a single minute scouring your proposal to find mistakes until you’ve made sure all those other things were done?

YOU ARE MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES.

Conclusion

Forward this post to every architect, engineer, or contractor you know. Let’s get this discussion out in the open.

Do you disagree? Can you prove me wrong? Leave a comment.

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Comments

  1. Pam Taylor says:

    Thank you for the comments – I hate submitting a proposal and going back and finding an error, but not as much as I hate submitting a proposal that doesn’t have the best possible winning information in it.

    • Matt Handal says:

      If you look hard enough you’ll aways find errors.

    • Although I agree content and strategy are important and can overcome minor errors I would be shocked to have someone win with a glaring cover letter error on the projects we represent. We do a lot of library work and guess what’s important to them….

      • Matt Handal says:

        Paul,

        I could tell you some stories about library boards evaluating proposals. In one example, the evaluator completely skipped every cover letter. Certainly, a mistake in the cover letter didn’t matter.

        I’m a big believer in cover letters/executive summaries, but most people do a terrible job with them. Evaluators have gotten to the point where they won’t read them unless you give them a reason.

        I’ve never seen a mistake-free proposal. I’m sure someone could find mistakes in yours if they looked hard enough.

        P.S. This $31M contract was for a school.

  2. On the one hand, I believe that an important aspect of engineering is the idea of precision. So I don’t like finding errors, especially stupid ones, in my final document. They make me feel like we’re being imprecise, like we didn’t pay attention to the details. On the other hand, I am neither obsessive-compulsive nor anal retentive, so I don’t beat myself up over missing something. And some of my “misses” have been funny when looking back after a little time has passed, like the proposal where I left the “l” out of “public.” Bottom line: you are absolutely correct that nobody cares whether or not you used a comma or a semicolon, or misspelled a word (as long as it wasn’t the client’s name!), if you have a compelling message, a wildly creative approach and/or differentiators that truly differentiate you from the competition. Thanks for this message, Matt.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Bernie,

      Ha. I’ve submitted proposals with the client name spelled wrong and won. I wouldn’t recommend anyone try.

      But I do agree with what you are saying.

      Thank you for the comment and mentioning this article on Linkedin.

  3. Some of this depends on the context. People will be less likely to notice, or care about errors in a 200 pages RFP response than in a 3 page proposal that’s read carefully by the owner of a small business. Regardless, if you can’t describe how you solve the customer’s problem, spelling won’t matter.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Reuben,

      Thank you for commenting.

      Nobody in this business submits 3-page proposals.

      • Never say “Nobody”

        My firm was a subconsultant on an RFP with a submission limit of two pages… you read that right: two pages.

        Orals did follow – however, orals follow many larger proposals as well.

        Consultant was picked based on the two pages and oral presentations.

      • There is a program with the Missouri DOT that grants money to local agencies to make small transportation-related improvements. When they ask for qualifications from engineers, they very often limit us to a 2-page letter. It is from this 2-page letter that the hiring decision is made, sometimes even without an interview or additional information requested. I know it sounds crazy, but its true!

        You should see the creative ways we’ve managed to squeeze relevant data on 2 pages. It’s crazy!

        BTW – We don’t even go after these projects unless we are confident we’ve pre-qualified ourselves in the mind of the client 🙂

        • Matt Handal says:

          I’m gonna have to take back that statement, huh? You are the second person who commented on that.

          But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a firm to give you the information you ask for within two pages. At least you know they are going to read the whole thing. So, my hat goes off to Missouri DOT.

          If you can share an example of one of those 2-pagers, send it my way. I’d love to see it.

        • Hi Gabe, can you also send me a copy of that two-page proposal? I want to see how you presented it. My email: [email protected]

          • Matt Handal says:

            Aiza,

            Thank you for the comment. It’s up to Gabe. Please understand that it may not be in his best interest to give out copies of his proposals.

        • Gabe, I would love to see the 2 page submission. My email is [email protected]

      • I submit 3-page proposals almost every Friday. They are Letters of Response for the DOT. They are the first proposal sent in for most contracts, and the DOT makes their shortlist based on these 3-page proposals. I am pickier about grammar, punctuation, etc. in these letters than I am in a 100-page city or county proposal due to time and the amount of information the client has to review. Good article though. The points are true. Having the right message is definitely more important than punctuation most of the time.

        • Matt Handal says:

          Those DOT page limits seem to be getting smaller and smaller. I’m surprised you have room for punctuation. 😮 thanks for commenting!

  4. Well said, Matt. It disappoints me anytime I discover some sort of grammar glitch or typo in our proposals, and I have to admit I take glee in finding similar errors in a peer firm’s work. But, I am always able to get past it if my post-proposal critiques leaves me satisfied that it was on point and did everything possible to communicate our understanding of and ability to meet our clients hopes and dreams.

  5. Andy P of SEOTipsInfo says:

    Although my proposals are definitely more about selling rather than the grammar it would be interesting to read your thoughts on what makes a decent proposal.

    Plus I understand you couldn’t give specifics, but can you tell me what sort of industry/service has $31 million contracts available please?

    • Matt Handal says:

      Andy,

      If you truly want my thoughts on what makes a good proposal, you can get my book at http://tinyurl.com/proposalbook.

      The majority of people who read this blog work in the construction industry. $31M is a large, but not huge, contract in that world.

  6. Kim Robertson says:

    I forwarded this to my marketing coordinator and she and I both had a nice chuckle. Yes, it is important, but you can’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, it is the meat of the proposal that matters. Matt – as always, great article! Your wit is wonderful!

  7. Love this post. Beautifully put. I can’t count the number of firms I’ve won against who don’t have time to learn to design a winning strategy, storyboard the proposal so that their strategy is clear, persistent and unavoidable, BUT they schedule in time for proof reading before sending the document out. One had an out loud read through of a document at the end of production, rather than figure out in advance the way to compel the client to regret passing them by. Another firm’s VP contributed their valuable time to proof read and catch mistakes, but didn’t see the point of answering a bunch of questions from the proposal team at the kickoff. Amazing. Keep up the good work.

  8. Sandra Drain says:

    Thanks, Matt. This is a relevant topic to me and I appreciate your logic and candor. I don’t think I will ever get over the pain of spotting mistakes post submission, but I can change my focus to ensuring the “high profile” portions of the submission are the most scrutinized.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Sandra,

      Thank you for the comment. Proposal evaluators certainly look at some sections more closely than others.

  9. Shaun McLain says:

    I completely agree. The nugget hidden in this is having someone review who is reading it for the first time at least once. Unfortunately what we run into with my firm’s red team review or whatever we call them, is that most read for commas, not content.

  10. This is great info! I absolutely hate finding a mistake I’ve made after the fact, but what I hate even more is when my executives are spending SO much time looking for commas and such when I’d rather they be looking at the proposal as a whole and if we are understanding the client’s challenges. This doesn’t happen until the end and then it is a rush out the door, which equals a bad proposal. Thank you I am going to share this info with them.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Thank you for the comment!

    • It is a challenging situation when the people doing sign off are focusing on punctuation. I’m a proposal writer coming from the financial world – very quant oriented, but you also need to be able to tell stories to resonate with the problems the reader may be experiencing. Takes a bit of intuition and reading between the lines … and a lot of background research. I just started with a legal firm and was involved in a 3P / infrastructure legal services bid. I could not get the business developer to engage with me on a meaningful level, possibly he didn’t know much about the project. He and the lawyer told me to use as boilerplate the previous submission, which I did. But I was deeply disturbed because that project was not successful and seemed very bland and “we are great” oriented. It also did not win, and no one had bothered to debrief with he prospect on it. So I rewound the content, reconstructed it so it resonated with what the RFI told us about the project, and made sure it was answering the specific question asked (the previous submission did not!). I blew away 50% of the non-essential biographical data and left only what was pertinent to the project (and created call out boxes showing this). Do you know what happened during my first review with the business developer? He focused on some punctuation and formatting errors (stuff I had already said I would look at right at the end once we had figured out our content). What a waste. Some people deserve to lose because they miss the point. This team didn’t seem to want this bad enough to invest in creating a bespoke response, which would have taken much more time up front. It makes a difference.

  11. I can make a big list of things that matter more than mistakes, some of which are in this article, but that doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t matter at all.

    Credibility matters. If you see a mistake in somebody else’s proposal, don’t you cringe? If you see one in your own proposal, don’t you cringe even more?

    Submitting a proposal with mistakes in it is taking a chance that you could probably avoid by simply outsourcing the final proofreading. Find a professional who uses the Tracking feature in your word processing software, accept or reject each of his or her individual suggestions, and relax.

    • Matt Handal says:

      I see mistakes in other firms’ proposals all the time and I don’t cringe.

      If we had days to outsource a final review, I’m sure we would. That’s just not reality.

  12. Matt, I disagree. Proposal mistakes are relatively easily to identify, very easy to correct, and can make the different in a competitive marketplace where is it increasingly difficult to differentiate your company from the competition. When I see typos (or think-os) in a resume for example, I immediately begin to lose confidence and trust in the author. I believe it is the same for proposal evaluators. I understand that price, and well-established customer relationships may trump a few typographical errors, but if the proposal reaches some sort of mistake-ridden threshold, even the price may begin to lose credibility. . Here are a few simple suggestions the group might consider to reduce the number of mistakes in their proposals.

    Planning and Staffing. Proposals that have a detailed and well-executed plan, and the sufficiently knowledgeable and experience staff to support it, will be completed early with more time for independent reviews and the clearer thinking it takes to identify mistakes.

    Develop a Style Guide. Start now to develop a style guide for your group that includes general writing standards for your group. Enhance the style guide over time and customize if for each bid including simple things like the name and acronym of your customer, the project, your company or team, etc.

    Spell Check and Readability. Most word processing software programs like MS Word have built-in spell checking and readability functions. Set readability metric targets for all your proposals that includes sentence length, passive language, grade level, and readability. Use these functions to correct basic spelling, grammar, syntax, and other readability metrics.

    Hire an Editor. Spell checking and readability software is not perfect. However, your proposals should strive to be. For a few hundred dollars, you can relieve your already overburdened staff with proof reading responsibilities and leave it up to professional consultants who do this for a living. If budgets allow, consider taking this approach a step further and hire a writing consultant to do the writing in the first place.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Chris,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Spoken like a true consultant.

      I think your third suggestion is pretty good. Everybody uses spellcheck. But MS Word is FAR from perfect. It misses a lot.

      I don’t think everybody uses the readability functions. I think they should. But readability and mistakes are two different things.

  13. Ed Peterson says:

    I started as internal auditor for an electric utility. Our reports went to our executives so we put a lot of emphasis on eliminating mistakes. However, after 20 years in business development I do agree with the author that it is much more important to have a compelling value proposition than to have a mistake free proposal. There are some exceptions though. We once issued a proposal where we left the “f” out of “shift” in the heading of a table. We then copied this table multiple times in the proposal and modified the content. As instructed we electronically submitted the proposal. When we followed up with the customer they said it was not received. We later discovered the company firewall rejected the proposal because if contained profanity. Therefore, I would say that you need to at least ensure there is no profanity in your proposal.

  14. I liked your story, and I agree. I also would like to add that being anal about mistakes also can mean creating hostility among co-workers. I had a co-worker once who made the team reprint a proposal about 10 times. I pulled him aside and told him he had to stop looking for errors as it was past midnight, people wanted to go home and all he was accomplishing was upsetting everyone to the point where they would cringe to work with him in the future. I worked in the newspaper business for several years. It was a great teacher of there being an absolute deadline and learning to let go of perfection.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Sharon,

      Thank you for commenting. Great story!

    • IMHO every team needs a former newspaper editor. I was one for The Sacramento Union, where Samuel Clements worked. . . NOT at the same time.

      An appreciation for deadlines and when to call “pens up” is critical.

  15. Whoa. I want to print this out in HUGE type and hang it at my desk! You hit the nail on the head.

  16. Mistakes can be fanastic. Good placement of an error interrupts the readers train of thought and that might be exactly what you want to do to emphasise a point. Spellcheck won’t catch SEX for SIX for example but the human brain of the reader certainly will.

  17. Arbab Daud says:

    Human is to err.. and that is the crux of the matter. Most of my friends as proposal writers don’t like longer RFPs but I personally like to have a lot of details from clients. It help me to think what I am needed to have in the proposal or in other words to develop a “client-centric” proposal. I agree that the clients always look for the concept than the language. They need a solution rather than a perfect expression. I must tell you a story that the biggest project that I get for my firm was through a proposal that had a wrong heading (I copy-pasted the front page from another proposal and forgot to edit it completely) and interestingly, we got the contract and signed it as well. For the processing of final payment of the project, I re-read the contract and I found out that the “Headings” of the contract was wrong, taken from the proposal, and the dates mentioned in the contract were of two years back (the client also used “copy-paste” for making the contract)… 🙂

  18. Mike Tierney says:

    Hey Matt, thanks for the great article, this means in future I am likely to sleep before midnight the day before submission. And your article was practically fault free. 😉

  19. When it comes to mistakes, it can mean life or death for a company. Let me share my real life experience. For eleven years I was putting out change order proposals for — in Rancho Cordova, CA. My supervisor made a huge mistake pricing their latest go around on their — follow-on proposal. We all know from experience that the total number of working hours in a calendar year is 2080 (40 hrs per week x 52 weeks). Instead of basing their proposal on 2080, — used 1800. To make matters worse, he then reduced that number for vacation, sick leave and holiday pay. That number was then used to convert FTEs into direct labor hours. Needless to say, when — was awarded the work, (the good news), they underpriced the job by nearly 400 heads (the bad news. And in an attempt to stop the bleeding at Health Net, some 400 employees were terminated. Neither the Controller, —, the CFO, —, or the head of Contracts, — had any clue what they had done. At least until I brought it to their attention. So if you don’t thing mistakes in Government Proposals is a big thing, ask those of us who were targeted for layoff if it changed their lives? Oh, by the way, —– remain gainfully employed and in control at —. I sometimes wonder if the stock holders think any of this had an impact on the price of — Stock and were they harmed in any way?

    • Matt Handal says:

      Craig,

      The article is about English mistakes. I’m sorry to hear about your coworkers who got laid off.

      Whenever you are basing pricing on a year’s worth of hours, you have to ask the question of how many hours the client perceives to be in a year. You shouldn’t assume 2080 or anything less. You need to ask the question. Or at the very least, state the assumption in your pricing.

      As proposal managers, I think we have some responsibility to catch stuff like that before it goes out.

      I also edited your comment because we don’t point fingers or name names here at HelpEverybodyEveryday.com.

  20. Matt,

    That’s a great point. The way to win is to: 1) Really understand your prospective client’s problem(a) and their true motivations. 2) Know how best to solve them, keeping in mind their values, perspectives, and budget. 3) Making a compelling case for your solutions 4) Communicating it clearly to the decision makers with the authority to approve it and get it funded.

    If theirs a cople of mstaces in their, o well

  21. Love the input. Thanks.

    Two of my best evaluation stories include the school selection committee that weighed all the proposals to determine the heaviest 5 proposals that they would actually read.

    And then there’s the municipal selection committee that “didn’t need to read the proposals because the city had already picked who they wanted.” They believed they legally had to get proposals, but were then free to throw them all out.

  22. Hello Matt, I just discovered your website this morning, and have been browsing your articles since. So many of them resonate with my experience! This one is especially tough to swallow as I love language(and expect everyone else to as well!). My question is, how do you get your hands on competitor proposals? Isn’t this proprietary information? I would certainly not hand out our firm’s proposals if asked. But I would love to get my hands on some!

  23. I just discovered your site this morning–great stuff! I do have to disagree with this one though. Our firm recently submitted to a client who pulled out our proposal response during the interview and pointed out every grammar error (commas in the wrong place, sentence structure, etc.). We did put in the wrong client name (our bad), and that probably set it off. But they clearly cared, hah.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Read the post again. I’m very clear on this point. If you submit a proposal that doesn’t set you apart in a big way, then yes, any minuscule thing will be used against you. Mistakes do matter when your proposal sucks.

      If you got the name of the client wrong, that shows you just gave them a proposal written for someone else. That’s just offensive.

      As I say in my book, and just about everything I’ve ever written, you need to catch 99% of the errors. You can’t submit a proposal that is a total mess.

      But the flip side is, if the client hounds you about comma use, do you really want them as a client.

  24. I agree with your premise that marketers need to look at the big picture more than the small details. I will continue to triple check my proposals, but I had a prospect let me know they aren’t hiring us because of multiple typos on the proposal because it is a reflection of the quality of work we produce.

    We’ll see if we get a second chance since we did get it right on the big picture.

    • Matt Handal says:

      Well, if you are selling writing services and there are typos in your proposal…I’m not going to hire you either.

      But if your proposal is to build my house, I’m not going to hold you to the same standard.

      Again, you have to find 99% of the errors. But don’t focus on finding the other 1% if your proposal doesn’t really set you apart.

      I’m sounding like a broken record. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Clients that tell you about misspelling errors are just looking for reasons to not hire you. You have already lost if it comes down to minor spelling or punctuation. People typically decide things for emotional reasons, it is said, and then they justify their decision with things like spelling.

        • Matt Handal says:

          Mark,

          In this industry, I agree with you to a great extent. If it comes down to minor spelling or punctuation issues, there is a much bigger problem.

          You have to be careful about the “people decide based on emotions.” That’s not exactly true. And unless you know a ton about how the brain works, it is hard to understand/explain.

          People, and there are a lot of them, who claim we make our decisions entirely based on emotions are kind of misleading you. They may have heard that somewhere and took it too literal (or not literal enough). 🙂

  25. Thanks for the reminder to look at the big picture rather than concentrating on all the little details that don’t win you the job.

  26. Kathy Pozzi says:

    Of course quality matters. Typos and poor grammar matter. And all of these happen. But if a proposal is riddled with them, I think the question that begs to be asked is: ‘If this is the level of effort that a company will put into a proposal that could add $31M to its backlog, should I be concerned about the effort they’ll put into the QA/QC for my design work?’ A remarkable project plan and a well-written proposal do not have to be mutually exclusive. Chris Simmons was right!

    • Matt Handal says:

      Kathy,

      I’m not promoting submitting proposals that are riddled with miztakes (see what I did there?). With that said, in reality, when college-educated people write there are usually very few “true” errors. The errors usually come in when people edit the document.

      When you do the math, decision makers just aren’t spending the time needed to comb for missing commas in your proposals.

      If you can have a compelling proposal that has zero mistakes…that’s the dream, right!?! Go for it.

      But a compelling proposal with a few mistakes is worlds better than a proposal that has zero mistakes but is not compelling.

      Spend your time where it matters.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Why Mistakes in Proposals Don’t Matter . . .and What Does   Love this post from Matt Handel today. […]

  2. […] proposal responses and quality.  Consider, for example, Handal’s well written blog posting: “Why Mistakes In Proposals Don’t Matter…and What Does” and Freestyle Editorial’s Seven Things Proposal Evaluators Loathe (Other […]

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