Punctuation Day 2019

Punctuation Day 2019

It’s punctuation day on 24 September, and although the day is an import from the US, I wanted to add my own thoughts within the context of bid writing.

Why is punctuation important?

Writing clearly is the bid writer’s raison d’être and punctuation supports the transmission of the message by creating scorable, succinct copy that answers the question. Knowing the basics helps the first draft to get on the paper quicker, as well as speeding up the review and editing process. However, language is changing and slavishly enforcing the rules is becoming less appropriate or even irrelevant.

How I’ve seen English evolve

I have seen business English evolve significantly over the past 16 years I have been writing to win work, morphing from widely-recognised formalised structures, to a more fluid approach with shorter sentences and fewer punctuation marks. This is driven by reduced attention spans, people being busier and needing to speed read more (with a proliferation of punctuation marks slowing down reading speed) and the increasing influence of text speak.

For example, one convention that has disappeared in this time (at least within the sectors I write in) is the ‘bulleted list’, using semi-colons at the end of each sentence, with the penultimate sentence being marked with ; and, and rounded off with a full stop. This has been simplified to bullets with no end punctuation, other than a full-stop completing the last point. 

Everyone has their own opinions and it’s about developing your own writing style you are comfortable with. I worked with an editor who felt I used too many commas to divide up clauses, so I took their feedback on board and reduced them. Bid writing has made my own writing style very blunt with few extra words or punctuation marks – this has been necessary to meet often very demanding page limits.

How I’ve developed my knowledge 

Strangely though, English grammar isn’t something I really learnt at school, although I did learn the complexities of the French and German languages by rote. My knowledge has developed during my working life – absorbing the rules laid out in writing style guides and working with some superb editors during my freelance bid life. It’s worth noting that no two writing style guides are ever the same, confirming my point about rule enforcement being less relevant. As a writer, I just flex my writing to meet each style guide’s requirements.

What are your thoughts?

How do you see good punctuation? A necessary evil or something to master? I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

How to work with a freelance bid writer

How to work with a freelance bid writer

Working with a freelance bid writer can be really useful – supplementing existing teams or providing specialised help that you don’t have in-house. Get the most of of your investment by working with them in a constructive way. This post outlines some key things to think about.

Please engage us early 

The first piece of advice is to engage us early in the process, whether this is for pre-bid preparation work, or as soon as you know tender documents are due to be published. We definitely can’t do our best work days before the deadline, if the ITT has been on your desk for a month. 

Putting a contract in place

I’d recommend putting a contract in place to clarify expectations, deliverables, how long the piece of work is going to cost and what the invoicing arrangements are. Most freelance bid writers will have their own and will supply this as part of the bid start-up process. 

We don’t have magic wands

Bid writers don’t have magic wands and while they are talented and experienced, they can’t cover the gaps created by a lack of relationships with the procuring client, experience in the right sector, or the right skills and experience in your proposed team. This is why the bid/no bid process is so useful in checking how strong opportunities really are before going any further. As I’ve said before, ‘taking a punt’ is a very expensive way of marketing your business.

Do you have any existing content to work with?

It’s useful to let a bid writer assess your existing content – do you have CVs and case studies already written and tailored to this sector and are they good quality? Are your business processes already written up and ready to be used as base bid content? This is all key collateral and may need to be written or developed during the bid process and will extend the time you will need to engage a bid writer for.

Be clear about what you need them to do 

Bid writers write bid content, so you should be clear if you also need them to coordinate the process or complete any formatting or basic design on tenders. The best clients clearly communicate the requirements and how a bid writer’s skills are needed as part of a bid process. 

Be clear about your expectations, because these extra tasks take more time. An alternative approach is to ask your bid writer to use their network to outsource this work to other freelancers. I work like this a lot with clients with great results.

Have realistic expectations about how long things take

Writing winning bid content isn’t a task that’s completed overnight, especially if there are a number of questions to be responded to, or you have no base content to start with. All responses should be drafted and reviewed at least twice before they are submitted. Putting your own time and effort into the process will result in a quality bid and quality content that you can put in your bid library for the future, further maximising the value of engaging a professional bid writer. 

Be engaged in the process

As I mentioned before, freelance bid writers don’t have magic wands, but they can create great bid content if your team engages properly with them. Bid success is dependent on clearly communicating technical expertise, so it’s a real collaboration. Please set aside the time to either provide the technical information or be interviewed, as well as completing any reviews you have committed to. 

I won’t name names, but the worst bid experience I have ever had was with a client who point-blank refused to engage – me and a team of other freelancers were subjected to a hellish six weeks and resulted in sub-optimal outcome. This is a really pointless way of working with external writers. 

Have realistic expectations about costs 

You may think that someone in the office can write a bid cheaper, but you are paying for years of bid writing experience, often within a specific industry. This experience provides real insight and clients get the benefit of this every time they engage a professional bid writer. As a client, you are usually engaging another limited company to complete the work, with a range of overheads that clients get the benefit of including IT software and equipment, insurance, travel expenses, training, website, finance and marketing – very similar to the overheads client organisations have! 

Please pay on time

Please pay your freelance bid writers, or any other freelancers, on time. It is frustrating to chase for money for work that has already been delivered and you have had the benefit of because your bid has been submitted. Paying freelancers late will mean that this stress is passed down the supply chain to other small suppliers and this isn’t fair.

Adding value

Working with a freelance bid writer will add a lot of value to your bid process, slotting into teams, working independently with minimal input and creating high-quality content that can be used again and again. You will also pick up tips about how to approach responses, develop CVs or repurpose case studies. 

I’d love to hear your feedback on this post. Do you engage freelance bid writers as a client? How do you work with them? Are there any other points that other freelance bid writers would add to this list?

 

Managing conflicts as a freelance bid writer

Managing conflicts as a freelance bid writer

I was reading the background information for a professional services framework that will be published over the next few months, and I was surprised to read that bidders were advised to make sure their bid writer didn’t have any conflicts of interest. This was the first time I had ever seen bidders’ advice stating this, and wondered what had driven it. 

What is a bid writing conflict of interest?

As a bid writer, a conflict of interest may arise if two separate clients have approached you to work on the same bid. Although I’m sure this may happen to other writers, it has never happened to me in the five years I have been independent. I have however, written for clients bidding for different lots and services on a framework, and the last time this happened, I was successful across three different lots, so had three happy sets of clients and no conflicts of interest.

Any independent writer who values their reputation will proactively minimise conflicts of interest so they don’t present their clients with issues. My business is built on my integrity, so there is no benefit to me of working with different clients on the same bid – apart from anything, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

How I manage conflicts 

To minimise the potential for conflicts, I work with a range of businesses across the construction industry, each one with its own sectoral specialism and therefore pursuing totally different projects. If I were approached by two potential clients for the same bid, it would be a case of first come, first served, or whoever provides me with a purchase order number first. I also make clear in my contracts that I am not engaged by any other party to bid this opportunity or lot on a framework. 

How to avoid them 

My advice to other freelance bid writers is to work with a wide range of clients and avoid direct competitors – ie businesses that offer the same services in the same sectors. If you are approached to work on the same bid by two clients, be open and explain your situation. It may be you have loyalty to one particular party and so would prefer to work with them – but make sure you are covered if they decide to no-bid the opportunity, leaving you with no work at all.

Personal ethics

I take ethics very seriously, and I never share written content (my contract specifies that I don’t own the copyright once the final invoice is paid), never gossip about conversations and never say who I am working with or the specifics of what I am working on – unless bidders are a matter of public knowledge which can be the case on large infrastructure bids.

How do other independent bid writers and bid managers manage their conflicts of interest? Do you find that it’s much of an issue?

Building an information library for construction tenders

Building an information library for construction tenders

Having an endless supply of accurate information is one of the main challenges of bid writing or delivering any kind of submission. The task of gathering, collating and cataloguing this data is never complete, but done properly allows you to focus on developing quality bespoke content for each pitch, rather than searching for material you know you have written before, but can never find when you need it…

I speak from bitter experience – going back through submitted bids to strip out and archive good content for the future is never a priority, however, I have wasted many an hour under stress sorting through previous content to find something I know i have written before.

This post focuses on the types of information bid people need to be gathering and some suggestions for saving it, so you can find your content later on. Follow my guide to building your bid library so you won’t be tearing your hair out half an hour before the deadline.

Generic information

If you get your responses to Standard Supplier Questionnaires together, you will be more than halfway there. I like this consistent approach to requesting information from bidders – the dream scenario would be that it would contained in a centralised database that procuring organisations could access, but that’s a conversation for another day.

If you develop your standard information into the following business functions, you will have the right data at your fingertips when you need it – creating a much easier life for yourself. This information includes (but isn’t exhaustive):

Organisational information

This is basic structural information on your business, including the certificate of incorporation, company number, VAT number, registered address, number of offices, description of services provided. Review and update this content annually.

Finance and accounts

I recommend putting a basic Word table together that captures turnover, profit and turnover by sector or service where you can as well. This may also need to be supported by annual accounts, so save these as well, keeping a record of five years. Review and update this section annually.

Quality management

I check with my new clients whether they hold ISO 9001, and recommend they obtain it if they haven’t already. Your quality management section needs to contain quality certificates (if you have them), standard text on approach and process, implementation and non-conformance, and complaints procedures. Review and update the material annually and speak to your quality manager following any audits to see whether there are any actions to be implemented.

Health and safety

Some businesses will have safety certifications and some won’t – this is ok, but every business should have a suite of information that covers its health and safety procedures and systems, including a policy statement and health and safety statistics. It’s also worth getting your head around the CDM regulations as a bid person working in the built environment. The roles and responsibilities are different for each discipline, and this has an implication for the information required. Review and update annually and keep up to date with any changes in regulations. 

Environment

Every business should have an environmental management policy, and documented processes and procedures about how you manage your environmental impact, both from a business operations perspective and how you design/engineer/build buildings. I also recommend that bid people gather information that demonstrates the effectiveness of any initiatives – bids love statistics.

Also, if your organisation is involved in designing and delivering BREEAM-accredited buildings, you can never have too many case studies on how the grade was achieved and what the quantifiable outcomes have been. Review this information annually and produce case studies on an ongoing basis.

Social value

This is a topic that is becoming one of the most important quality sections in a bid. Gather information and case studies that demonstrate how you are working with the wider community, the opportunities for employment or training you are providing, or how you have maximised local spend on construction projects. Review this information regularly, updating case studies and statistics. 

People

This information can be wide-ranging, including Investors in People, policies on a range of issues from recruitment to development, staff numbers cut by grade and staff turnover. Best to make good friends with your HR team and ask them to provide a range of information on a regular basis. Review and update annually.

Discipline-specific information

This covers specifics such as design approach or how you planning construction projects – it will be generally guided by quality management processes and be available within the business. Ensure you are communicating these processes and procedures accurately. Review and update annually and be aware of updates or changes.

Bespoke ‘golden nuggets’

This is the content that has been specifically written for other bids and submissions. It is often technical in nature and takes a while to produce. Examples can include ‘added value’, ‘BREEAM’ or technical approach, but this list isn’t exhaustive.

When the submission has been completed, go through the bid and strip out this content and archive it in a separate Word document. The most simple approach is to create one document with an index of the questions, along with the responses. This will enable you to quickly search through in future and will also provide you with a boilerplate or ‘starter for ten’ for those last-minute submissions.

Again, this information can be reviewed annually or more frequently and updated with fresh content or examples. Always key to these questions is the quality of evidence provided to support your claims. Make sure you speak to your technical colleagues to know what is happening on projects.

Cataloguing content after submissions

Develop the discipline to strip out and catalogue the good stuff after each submission – an hour after bid will save many hours searching for content in the future. Develop a process that works for you and the organisation you work for. As you develop your library, you will become more adept the sorts of data and information required in the bids you tend to work on, and you will build efficiency into the process.

How to save your information

It’s one thing gathering all the information together, it’s something else saving it somewhere. There are many solutions out there – from specific programmes, to something more simple like folders on your shared server. Select what works for you – I would recommend something simple with access for the people who need it.

Building relationships

All of these information requirements have one thing in common – as a bid person, you are reliant on other experts providing the data to you. Find out who is responsible for providing this data within the business, and make friends with them! There may be information sources, such as business systems that you can tap into. Maximise these.

 

If you need to structure or develop your business’s bid library, I’m always happy to chat through your options with you.

Bid writing – what do you actually do?

Bid writing – what do you actually do?

What do you actually do?” – it’s a question I am asked frequently, which is fair enough because to my knowledge, the role and title of bid writer has only really appeared over the past ten or so years.

As a construction bid writer, I work with subject matter experts and translate their technical excellence into readable copy that scores the highest marks in bid evaluations. Managing stakeholders, understanding technical information and  articulating why we are the best team for the project is how I spend most of my working life.  This post takes you through what I do and how I work with clients.

The background

In part, my role has come about because of public sector procurement and the legislation that governs it. Changing requirements have driven transparency around public sector tendering, with responses that demonstrate added value across a whole range of business operations. Private-sector tendering has similar requirements, but generally it isn’t as complex or rule-based.

The evolution of the bid

I have been in work-winning roles in some form or other since the early noughties and in this time bids and proposals have evolved from being a lesson in process management, with good presentation and information management (we call this content curation now), to a sophisticated activity producing high-quality written responses with tailored client messaging about how we will solve their problems and where we have done this before. Bids are scored using evaluation criteria provided in the tender documents and I write to meet these criteria.

How I work with clients

I work with a wide range of clients and although they are diverse in the projects they work on, they are all focused on designing, building or engineering a building or piece of infrastructure.

My initial conversation with them is to find out what the bid is, whether they have undertaken a bid/no bid process, and what the outcome of this was. If they haven’t considered the points I set out in this post, I take them through the process to define whether it’s a worthwhile opportunity. I offer pragmatic bid advice – I want all of my clients to have the best chance of winning any project they pursue and if I feel bids aren’t quite right, I am candid.

Planning out the bid

If we are proceeding, I develop a bid plan with my client, identifying key milestones, deliverables and questions. The responsibility for leading or managing the bid will generally sit in-house with my client. Sometimes I will pick this up but I am usually engaged to support the writing process and this is where I can add the most value to the bid. 

Structuring responses

The critical part of my role is structuring the bid responses to facilitate the answering process. Prior to the planning meeting, I will analyse the bid documents beforehand, assessing the evaluation criteria and the language and structure of the questions to glean as much insight into what the procuring organisation is looking for.

I will then organise a bid planning meeting, to take place either face to face, on the phone or by Skype. During this meeting I will gain further intelligence into the procuring organisation based on relationships and prior working experience and identify examples of previous experience that we can use to illustrate the claims we are making in the bid. These clues allow me to build a picture of the procuring organisation’s challenges and how we will be able to help them. We will develop win themes based on this information. 

I will also use this meeting to identify key pieces of evidence that provide the proof to what we are claiming. Evidence is written up during the next stage. 

Developing the answers

The art of the bid writer is taking the response structures and working with technical experts such as engineers, architects, constructors, and a range of other consultants, to develop and organise content in the most readable, scorable way possible. The actual writing part takes time to write, review and refine. 

My approach is to develop an initial framework or outline, with headings and bullet-points of the proposed content, while I wait for the technical detail. I consider writing responses like a piece of knitting or a painting – by continuing to keep filling in the blanks, eventually it will be complete. On big bids, this process can take a couple of weeks. On smaller bids, I recommend clients develop information libraries, so they have a bank of content to draw from. 

I have found in the construction industry that it’s much simpler to sit with people and interview them to gather the content. By having conversations, I can ask questions that will provide the answers I need much quicker than sending someone off with a blank sheet of paper. Using the information gleaned from the interview, I can put together a draft which can be further developed. 

The future 

I’m not sure what the future of bid writing will be – change is happening so fast that it’s hard to predict how things will evolve. I do believe there will be more automation – currently parts of the process are inefficient and technology would reduce the administrative burden of bidding for work. This would reduce some of the repetition of bids (very prevalent in-house), but I still foresee a requirement for quality content that is strategic in tone and bespoke to the project being bid.

How I can help you

If you need help structuring bid responses or creating a library of standard information, please give me a shout. Next month I will be telling you about how I win work as a freelance bid writer – another question I am asked a lot.