Writing High Scoring Answers

Always remember that an evaluator has to read, and make sense of, your answers. I have talked with a number of proposal evaluators, and they all said that the quality of the writing has a strong bearing on how they score it. An answer that is easy-to-read and evaluate, is going to score higher than a poorly written one. This module is about how to consistently produce high-scoring answers for every bid. Building on the work we have done in the last module, setting up your compliant answer structure, we are now going to look at how to write a high scoring answer. The sections covered below are:
  1. Fast Comprehension – how our brain processes information
  2. High-Scoring Answer Structure – how it matches the journalistic way of writing
  3. Drafting Tips – why you can’t write and edit at the same time; draft checklist
  4. Providing Evidence – the right type of evidence, and using graphics effectively
  5. Creating Captions – what to write in the caption
  6. Editing – Creating a High Scoring Answer – by turning your draft into a customer-focused response; making your answer easy-to-evaluate; proof reading; edit checklist; writing and graphics timings

1. Fast Comprehension

The first step is to take understand how our brain processes new information to make sense of it. When you type a search term in Google, and then click on are link to a website, within a few seconds you are trying to work out what is on this page, and is it the information you’re looking for – exactly what an evaluator will be doing with your written answer. The heat map of eye movements shown below, indicates how people try to make sense of what is on this webpage. An evaluator will be doing exactly the same thing with your written answer. Notice how the structure of a level I heading, with some introductory text, followed by bullets exactly matches the answer structure we have learned in creating answer outlines.
1.1 Above the Fold – Headings and bullets are read first
Interestingly, this is how journalists are trained to write news reports. Known as the “inverted pyramid” approach, it starts with the “lead”, followed by summary information, and then the details, as shown below.
1.2 The Inverted Pyramid – How people read text on a website

Writing for fast comprehension is a very specific way of writing.

Every news story is structured in this way. News stories are written to catch your eye.

Accordingly, the most important part of the article is the headline. This will tell you immediately whether this is an article you want to read.

    The news report components are:

    • The Lead: Most important information – Who, what, where, when, why, or how. Usually around 30 words (1-2 thin paragraphs). It may include a hook, provocative quote or question.
    • The Body: The crucial information – story, issue, evidence, argument, controversy, background, details, logic. It may include: quotes, photos, video and audio that support, dispute, or expand the topic.
    • The Tail: Extra info – more detailed or interesting related items. It may include extra content in blogs, columns, editorials, plus the assessment of the journalist.

    2. Writing High Scoring Answers

    The Answer Outline approach you have learned closely matches the “news report” structure, as shown below.
    2.1 High Scoring Answer Structure – How an evaluator will go about trying to understand what you have written
    From the heat map above, we can see how an evaluator will go about trying to understand what you have written. The evaluator will start with the opening paragraphs – so these need to provide a summary of the solution, together with any differentiators and key messages that we have identified from the Answer Outline SWOT process – as shown in the next 4 graphics.
    The Importance of Headings
    Next, the evaluator will be scanning your answer text to get a feel for what you have written. In those few moments, she will be making an initial decision on whether you have answered the question correctly or not. The headings, subheadings and bullets structure that you have created makes it easy for her to see how you have answered the question, without having to read your response. That is why it is very important to break up the text with descriptive headings to signpost your answer, providing the structure for your answer. The Answer Outline process ensures that this structure is correct and compliant, providing the placeholders for your answers. A quick recap of the process steps is shown below.
    2.2 High Scoring Answer Structure – Informative heading, brief overview and bullets of key points
    2.3 High Scoring Answer Structure – Turn each bullet into a sub-heading
    2.4 High Scoring Answer Structure – Providing answer detail
    2.5 High Scoring Answer Structure – Adding in “Why Us?” and the key SWOT messages
    The correct answer structure is the first step in creating easy-to-evaluate answers. Next, we are going to look at writing the answer itself.

    3. Drafting Tips

    Writing an answer is a 2 step process – drafting and then editing. But many people make the mistake of writing their answer and editing it as they go along. What happens is the flow of the writing gets interrupted, and there is a scientific reason why.
    Why You Can’t Draft and Edit Your Work at the Same Time
    From Scientific American (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/): The latest findings from the real neuroscience of creativity suggest that creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain. Instead, the entire creative process consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task. These brain regions work as a team to get the job done, recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain. So, as shown below, when you are drafting text, the Imagination Network, shown in red is recruited. When editing, the Executive Attention Network, shown in green, is active.
    3.1 Draft First – Then Edit – Understanding that different parts of the brain network are recruited 
    What does this mean for you, as you begin to answer the proposal questions? Understand that different parts of the brain network are recruited, and align yourself with the way your brain works: Draft first then edit! At the draft stage, to really get the flow going, I recommend you:  
    • Work directly in the answer outline, using the headings and outline structure
    • Use the same words / definitions used by the client in the question
    • Why us? works best in the summary at the top
    • GET IT DOWN ON THE PAGE – switch off your internal critic and start writing
    • Write the way you have always written, it will flow easier
    • WRITE TO THE BULLETS – start with intro paragraphs and fleshing out the bullets in the answer outline
    • DESCRIBE – think about the results they will be getting, and then list the features that get those results
    • Think about what EVIDENCE you are going to provide (more details on that below)
    • Copy and paste ideas from the SWOT keynotes in the Answer Outline into the appropriate places
    • Focus on getting down the OUTCOMES, the RESULTS you deliver – with numbers if you have them
    • Make notes of which GRAPHICS you need, and what you want to say about them – this will help you to write the captions later
    • Copy and paste relevant boilerplate
    • Forget about the formatting
    • Forget about trying to do customer-focused writing if that is new for you
    • KEEP ALL YOUR DRAFT VERSIONS – save each new draft with a date and version number. Sometimes you will have many versions on the same day, and you may find, that after all making lots of changes, an earlier version was better
    Please see the downloadable Draft Edit Checklist. Print it out and refer to it as you write.
    3.2 Draft Checklist – Key steps 

    4. Providing Evidence

    Just because you write a well-structured response doesn’t mean you will be believed. Hopefully, you will never tell lies in a proposal. But, I have worked with clients on bids where clearly some of the other vendors do – and sooner or later the liars get found out.

    With every bid, the evaluators will ALWAYS want to see proof to back up your claims.

    Some scoring criteria provide very specific guidance about what they want to see. Often they simply say they are looking for evidence that: “…gives very high confidence of successfully delivering the requirements”.

    4.1 Evidence – Scoring
    So, what type of evidence is that? It can be:
    • Case studies
    • Process charts
    • Proof of policies and procedures
    • Systems architecture diagrams
    • Operational metrics
    • System performance reports
    • Test reports
    • Benchmarks
    • Independent studies / reports
    • Industry awards
    • Certifications
    Below are some examples of how to use graphics effectively to provide evidence.
    4.2 Providing Evidence – Process charts and detailed charts
    4.3 Providing Evidence – Internal processes and key service partners
    4.4 Providing Evidence – Case studies
    4.5 Providing Evidence – Evidence and Raid checklist

    5. Creating Captions

    Graphics are a very important element of your bid response, and what goes under the graphic is as important as the graphic itself. Remember that a table is also very much like a graphic. You can put a huge amount of in a table, going over many pages, so the look of the table is very important.
    See Creating Effective Tables
    Creating powerful, descriptive captions is a key part of our “don’t make me think” approach to creating exceptional, high scoring answers. Below are the three key components of a caption. The caption goes under the graphic, but above a table. This is because a table may go over a number of pages, and it is important to let the evaluator know what is in the table, and why.
    5.1 Key Components – Figure number, caption title and catopn text



    Because, as we saw in the training, without a caption, the evaluator has to try and work out what the graphic is all about.

    It is far more effective to explain the graphic, showing how the key results are delivered through the main features. You can be assured that evaluators will read all the captions.

    5.2 Three Components – Caption text describing the graphic

    6. Editing – Creating a High Scoring Answer

    You have written the draft, and now it needs editing. This is when, with relatively little effort, you can transform your text into a high scoring answer. There are two goals that you want to achieve:
    • Turn your draft into a customer-focused response
    • Make it easy-to-read and evaluate
    Turn Your Draft Into a Customer-Focused Response
    Change a vendor-focused, brochure-speak answer into a persuasive, results-oriented, answer. The first step is to perform a text analysis, as shown in the draft below. You are looking for:
    • Where you mention your name or product
    • Features but no results
    6.1 Customer-Focused Response – Never start a paragraph with your “Company Name”, “We” or “Your Product”

    Rewrite each sentence that needs changing so that:

    • The customer name or need is mentioned first
    • Followed by the results you are providing
    • Then the features that deliver it

    In essence, you are writing a longer caption.

    The key is to stand in the customer’s shoes, and write to their needs and the results they are looking for. They are not interested in hearing about how “unique and leading-edge” you are.

    They only want to know how you will provide the best, most cost effective solution to their problem, backed up with verifiable evidence that you can “…successfully deliver the requirements”.

    If you can discipline yourself to write your answers in this way, you will truly stand out from the competition. I can guarantee you that they will be starting pretty well every paragraph with “We” or “Our” – as we saw in the actual client example above.

    Making your Answer Easy-to-Evaluate
    This is pretty obvious:
    6.2 Making Your Answer Easy-to-Evaluate 
    So, how to achieve it? Having made your answer customer-focused, there is still another step: Break down the wall of words and make your answer easy-to-read and evaluate As we saw in the training, it’s all about formatting.
    6.3 In the Mind of the EvaluatorA wall of words is a mental block for any evaluator
    The goal is to format your answer text so that the evaluator can scan it, and get the sense of what you have written, without having to read every word. We do this by formatting the text using:
    • Headings and sub-headings
    • One idea per paragraph
    • Short sentences
    • Bullets for lists
    • Tables for longer lists
    Below shows how we broke down the wall of words to make it easy-to-read, without changing a word of the text.
    6.4 Breaking Down the Wall of Words – One idea per paragraph, add sub-headings, bullets for lists
    When you compare the wall of the words and the formatted version as shown below, which example do you think would read best, and score higher?
    6.5 Breaking Down the Wall of Words – Making your answer easy-to-evaluate will help you gain a higher score
    Pretty obvious isn’t it? It only took A FEW MINUTES to make these effective changes that will greatly increase your chances of winning your next bid. This is a great investment of your bid writing time!
    Hemingway – Your Personal 24×7 Bid Writing Editor

    If you need help with identifying the changes you need to make, that is always available, then consider using Hemmingway.

    You don’t have to implement every readability suggestion, but it will show you clearly what areas you need to be looking at.

    There 2 versions:

    • Free web-based
    • Paid desktop-based
    6.6 Getting Help – Making your answer easy-to-evaluate using Hemingway app.
    Proof Reading

    Now that you are at the final draft stage, you MUST proof read your document. There is nothing more annoying to an evaluator than typos and errors in an answer.

    It signals lack of care and attention, and generates a strong, subliminal, negative reaction that undermines all the work you done.

    I have interviewed evaluators, and they have said they form a negative opinion of poorly proofed answers, and they will tend to knock off points.

    Enough of those lower scoring answers and you could end up losing the bid, just because you did not proof read your answers.

    Can you afford to take the risk of submitting answers that have not been proof read? You would be surprised how many people do exactly that.

    Many clients that I have worked did not proof-read their bids. (I changed that J) Why? Because they did not plan for it. So: PLAN TO PROOF READ YOUR ANSWERS

    You will be looking to:

    • Correct typos
    • Fix formatting errors for text and bullets
    • Ensure Word styles are properly applied
    • Ensure table styles are consistent
    • Check heading numbering is correct for all heading levels
    • Ensure all graphics have captions
    • Check figure and table numbering is correct
    • Headers and footers are correct

    The most effective way to proof read is to:

    • Select a proof reading task, i.e. check heading numbering
    • Go through the entire document doing just that
    • Check it off on your list
    • Select the next proof reading task and repeat

    Finally, it is never a good idea to proof read your own work. You need a fresh set of eyes to catch the errors. So, always have someone else read through your final draft using tracked changes.

    Please see the downloadable Draft Edit Checklist. Print it out and refer to it as you edit.

    6.7 Edit Checklist – As you complete each of the 10 tasks, tick in the right-hand column

    6.8 Writing Timings – Guidelines to help you plan your time

    6.9 Create Graphic Timings – Always allow for a realistic amount of time for editing

    6.10 Writing & Create Graphic Timings – Always allow for a realistic amount of time for editing