Kitten Whiskers and Proposals

When I mentioned yesterday that sometimes I’d rather just write about kitten whiskers, one of my favorite colleagues pointed out that combining them with work is totally possible. She is right, so today I present you with kitten whiskers and proposals. Kitten whiskers have two functions:

  • To gauge the size of an opening so the kitten can determine whether he can get through 
  • To fall out and painfully stick in your foot when you’re walking across the room 

Seriously, words cannot convey the level of ow that is a whisker in the sole of your foot. It’s almost like stepping on a Lego. Despite those ninth-circle levels of pain, the gauge function is more important because it keeps the kitten out of places in which he really doesn’t fit.

Similarly, proposals have two functions:

  • To convince a customer or potential new customer that your solution will fit their needs 
  • To ruin your life for the 30-90 days between the Request for Proposals (RFP) release and the due date 

You can see the parallels, yes? We’ve all been there: shoved into an ill-fitting proposal effort that consumes our days and nights until we’re left exhausted and wondering what malformed beast of a response we just shoved out the door. These situations happen because someone either wasn’t using their whiskers or didn’t know how to trust them.

If you’re new to proposals, you might not trust your whiskers yet to tell you truly whether you should invest the time and people to submit a response. That’s okay! Until you’re comfortable with your own, you can borrow mine. Here are some tip-offs that will tell you to steer clear of an opening that really isn’t a good path for you.

  • Suspicious Specifics. The opportunity is obviously wired for another company and you can see it in the specifics of the solicitation (e.g., “The PM must have sandy brown hair and 11.2 years of experience in the South end of Building 4011.”) 
  • Cannon Fodder. The Contracting Officer called you out of the blue and spent 15 minutes telling you about the upcoming RFP and how nice it would be if you responded to it. If they’ve never spoken to you before and spend the briefest amount of time to reel you in, they already know who they want and just need a certain number of bids to be considered competitive. 
  • Incorrect Container. In addition to work you do very well, the RFP contains requirements you’ve never seen or heard before. Unless you have a strong teammate to cover those new areas, you (and your response) will definitely not fit in there. 
  • Lack of Capture. A new RFP has dropped from nowhere, but it perfectly describes your areas of expertise! No. If you didn’t know about it beforehand, you don’t have the opportunity data necessary for a successful response and most likely will fall into one of the three traps above. 

I hope these tip-offs help you when you’re faced with a dark hole in the wall and the question of “Should I go in there?” Just remember that everyone gets stuck occasionally, and it’s good to ask for help when you need it. You can trust me. My whiskers have a pretty solid track record.

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Holy Activity, Batman!

You might have noticed a bunch of posts appear out of nowhere today. It’s like Christmas! I love you guys, so you get lots of my brainial manifestations to read! Woo!

Oh, and also I decided to kill my business blog and move those posts over here. Because they’re full of good information about writing, design, project management, and the way I work, I didn’t want to remove them from the world entirely, and this spot seems like a good compromise. Why did I kill the biz blog? For two reasons:
  • Business blogs need to be updated on a stringently consistent schedule. I kept getting too busy to follow this rule.
  • These blogs also need to provide compelling content for customers, prospects, and partners. I completely agree with this rule, but I was unhappy with the constraints it placed upon me when it came to subject matter. Sometimes I’m completely uninspired for proposal/design topics and just want to write about zombies or kitten whiskers or Firebird tires.

So, there you have it. The Spotted Cat will be the best of both worlds for me, and I think for you guys as well. The subjects will be a bit more varied and we’ll all have a bit more fun because I’m free to be weirder over here. Everyone knows weirdness makes me happy. Also, customers and partners who wind up in this spot will get to know me better, and that is a very good thing.

More manifestations will appear soon! o/
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Fun with Outlines

Originally posted by Heather Lee on February 4, 2013.

Last week I read a great post by Aaron Hamburger on reverse outlining. We all know the outline process isn’t always as helpful as it should be; outside of a thesis or a proposal, trying to force an idea into an orderly skeleton can require a jumbo mental shoehorn. Fortunately for us, we have more than one way to work an outline. Knowing how you prefer to write will help you develop your own successful process. Which of these guys describes you best? 
  • The Mapper knows exactly what he wants to say and maps the document accordingly before committing text to paper. He builds an outline first and holds firmly to it as he proceeds.
  • The Spackler daubs information here and there as it comes into his brain and likes to organize as he goes along. He might start with a loose outline and move things around to suit the evolving idea.
  • The Sprayer dumps all his ideas into a big textual quagmire and organizes it afterwards. He tries to cover every possible information angle before he puts a sense of order to the document and rarely, if ever, starts with an outline.
For example, I tend to be a Spackler because of my twitchy thought processes. If I don’t set down each idea as it occurs to me, the next quantum brain jump takes me somewhere else and I forget where I was going. Understanding this tendency helps me take advantage of it when I need to outline for something more structured, like a proposal or technical manual. You can do the same when you know which of these guys you’re like. Here are some helpful outlining tips for each one.
The Mapper Method
If you’re a Mapper, your best friend is preparation. Gather all document requirements, including purpose and audience, before you start to outline. Mappers tend to have an easier time with complex and stringent requirements like those found in Requests for Proposals, but knowing as much as possible ahead of time can simplify the process even for creative pieces.
The Spackler Method
Although preparation is always helpful, Spacklers also rely on a stream-of-consciousness approach. At the bottom of your outline, write down every entry as it hits your brain, no matter how weird it seems. Leave yourself space between sections to insert them where they fit best and toss the outliers when you’re finished. This approach benefits documents with very light or loose requirements that are difficult to organize from the front.
The Sprayer Method
Sprayers inherently have a more difficult time outlining than the other guys because they focus on what they want to say rather than organizing it beforehand. If you’re a Sprayer and you have to create an outline first, go ahead and write out all your ideas, but keep them to one or two sentences. When you’re finished, look for a pattern in the information. You should be able to build your outline from there.
Do you have other ideas for outline easification? (Yes, I just made that up. Verbs aren’t the only words we forge around here.) Let me know in the comments or via Twitter @VerbForge!
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The Verbivore

Originally posted by Heather Lee on January 29, 2013.

During my time as an information developer in the oil and gas industry, I was lucky to work with an outstanding writer and editor who also became one of my best friends. We share a love of words, especially creating new ones, and it was she who dubbed us verbivores. In an industry where many people would be hideously bored, we were endlessly entertained. How could we not be when presented with words like “appurtenances” every day?
Being a verbivore is a big part of why I became a writer. It’s also what makes my editing and content projects so much fun. I’ve been writing creatively since I learned the alphabet (my mother has the proof), and importing that creativity into technical projects is a critical component of the way I work. For example, we all know documents need to convey information to a target audience. Sometimes the best way to do so is to present that information differently. This is where the verbivore steps in.
Now I’m not advocating making up your own technical words willy-nilly, or even rooting through the thesaurus to find the most esoteric synonyms known to man. Just keep your mind open to the available options. Do look at your thesaurus when a paragraph reads so dryly you think your message might get lost in the dust. Do consider rewording when a sentence sounds too much like something from another document. And above all, do have fun with your composition, even if you don’t keep all of the fun bits.
By the way, I’m thinking of adding Chief Verbivore to my next batch of business cards. What do you think? Tweet your vote to @VerbForge or leave me a comment on LinkedIn and I’ll post the results here next week.
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Change is Fun. No, Really!

Originally ​​Posted by Heather Lee on January 7, 2013
Many people don’t like change, and I’m right there with them in many cases (how dare you update my favorite 70s-style mall?!). However, when it comes to technology, I love change. Changes to the technology I use to do my work are especially fun.

For example, a lot of my friends had kittens when Microsoft updated Office to the ribbon. They hated that change. Me, I loved it. If I couldn’t find something that had moved, I hit F1 to look it up and kept on trucking. That’s my approach to any software update, though: find the improvements and work them into my proposal processes to maximize efficiency.

Process change is a bit more difficult, but we can adapt this kind of flexibility beyond the tools we use to the way we work. In my experience with process and procedure development, building a framework and refusing to flex it leads to tears and yelling. Nobody likes those, so here are a few ways to make sure your processes can tolerate change.

Cover your contingencies. No single process can cover every situation, but you’re familiar enough with your business to cover many of them. Build your process around the most likely situations while keeping the fringes in mind. Having an immovable time frame to provide pricing data isn’t doing you any favors when you receive an emergency request for task order proposals with a tight turnaround.

Include your minions. Designing a process around an entire team without consulting the people who will carry it out is just daffy. These people will think of contingencies you won’t, and it’s in their best interest as well as yours to maximize efficiency within a process. They’re an excellent source of flex, especially when you need to scramble proposal teams.

Avoid bottlenecking. The temptation to pin a process on one department or a particularly strong staff member is both evil and common, so don’t. Bottlenecking leads to stovepiping, which is the death of flexibility. Each of your support teams must be able to work with your capture team daily to adjust to RFP modifications and new incoming information, or your proposal won’t reach compliance.

Successful process change really comes down to attitude and the willingness to fix what’s broken in spite of it being “the way we’ve always done things.” When you build this attitude into your processes (and even your life!), change really is fun.
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Song and Excellence

Originally ​​Posted by Heather Lee on December 31, 2012
This Christmas Day, my husband, Brian, and I were watching Ms. Katherine Jenkins singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as we opened our gifts to each other. I’m a sucker for a great choir, and even though I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, I love to sing (usually in the car or alone in the house where no one else has to be afflicted with my caterwauling). When I wistfully expressed my wish to sing as well as Ms. Jenkins, Brian turned to me and said, “You do. You just do it with words rather than your voice.”

That is the best compliment I’ve ever received, and in addition to cementing his Husband of the Century Award, it turned my thoughts to the coming year and my goals for Verb Forge. The theme for this year is New.

Do something new. Take on a new subject matter or project type to expand my brain space, because I thrive on learning.

Go somewhere new. Travel to a project location I’ve never visited before, because I enjoy experiencing different cultures.

Help someone new. Work within my community to help local organizations reach their audiences, because I want to contribute to our foundation.

Music has always inspired me to push my limits and improve, both personally and professionally: listening to such talent makes me want to achieve the same level of excellence in everything I do. As we work together for a fantastic year in 2013, remember to keep a good song in your head along with your goals. Success is even better with music.
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Formats and Frameworks

Originally Posted by Heather Lee on December 3, 2012
As my friends know, starting a new project that needs an original document format or template is like going to an amusement park for me. Both activities require planning, which is half the fun, but format design doesn’t require Dramamine. You can probably guess which I’d rather do.

Although everyone has their own method for putting together a document, we tend to follow a basic process to get from blank page to beautiful baby. I’m posting my nine-step process to help people who get stuck somewhere along the way.
1. Understand the document’s purpose.
2. Consider the final audience.
3. Gather format requirements.
4. Rough cut the document’s information requirements.
5. Build your framework.
6. Incorporate your rough cut.
7. Add your full draft information.
8. Tweak.
9. Treats.

Here is each step in a bit more detail.

1. Document Purpose. The first thing I think about when designing a format is the document’s purpose. Is it a proposal, a marketing sheet, a procedure, or a technical paper? Proposals tend to be lengthy with specific delivery requirements, while marketing sheets are short and slick. Procedures are often designed to fit within a 3-ring binder for easy access during a work activity, while technical papers are bound for distribution at conferences to be read at leisure later. Purpose has a huge effect on designing the optimal format of a document.

2. Final Audience. The next thing I consider is the final intended audience for the document, often referred to as “end users.” In my work I’m usually designing for companies who need the documents to go to their own customers. Meeting the requirements of both entities can be a challenge, so I put a lot of thought into this step.

3. Format Requirements. These can come from both sets of customers and are critically important to meet, especially in the case of proposals. I make sure I have all format information stated before I start the framework design, including paper sizes, fonts, margins, color palette, and delivery requirements. Delivery requirements can be digital (PDF, MS Office) or hard copy (printing and shipping).

4. Rough Cut. The rough cut information comes from the high-level document headings. I start with each major section and work down two levels for a detailed rough cut, then set it aside to shove into the framework.

5. Framework. I use the previous information to develop the overall document framework and the initial layout. All page sizes, margins, fonts, and colors are set here. This is the fun part because I get to be really creative in meshing each of those aspects together.

6. Rougher Cut. After the framework is set, I add the rough cut information from Step 4 to see how the overall document is going to flow. This step shows any organization errors that exist, so it often includes some rework to make sure everything fits as it should.

7. Full Draft. After tweaking the document with the high-level rough cut, I add in the full draft text and graphical elements to check for page flow and overall appearance.

8. Tweak. Aesthetics are extremely important to professional documents regardless of purpose, so I spend a lot of time on this step so it meets my standards as well as client requirements.

9. Treats. A full format design is quite a bit of work, even for shorter documents. I like to enjoy a treat (such as a frosty Dr Pepper) for a job well done.

So basically, Steps 1 and 2 are the most important for setting the right direction. Even the prettiest document in the world will fail if you don’t know what the document is really for and who needs to use it. Don’t leave out Step 9, though. A designer with treats designs better formats.
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Attitude = Win

Originally Posted by Heather Lee on October 21, 2012
I work a lot with AJ over at Four Points Proposal Services, and our customers have often commented on our unusually positive attitudes when it comes to our work (and in AJ’s case, life in general). We have several reasons for being so disgustingly sunny. 
  • We love what we do.
  • We think happiness is important for us and our customers.
  • We are confident in our ability to produce great work.

This combination boils down to attitude, and it defines our organizations as we work to stand up our companies. I’ll briefly explain our views on each aspect.

Loving our work. Although we have very different backgrounds, AJ and I landed in this business because we love to learn and we’re not afraid to try something new. Over time, we’ve carved niches for ourselves in proposal work. She loves SME discovery, graphics coordination, and compliance matrices. I love crafting document templates, past performance volumes, and proposal outlines. We feel that truly enjoying your work is the best way to be successful…so we do.

Sharing happiness. We keep ourselves happy by finding work we enjoy and then excelling at it. This excellence in turn keeps our customers happy. In our experience, business relationships are most beneficial when all parties are more than just baseline satisfied, so we aim for the best possible results on every project we take. We honestly want our customers to benefit from the work we do for them.

Being confident. Our confidence comes from experience and results.

In the end, there are many ways to win. Find the one that makes you happy, and you’ve won twice.
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Just Imagine

Originally Posted by Heather Lee on October 21, 2012
When I was a little Minion in Training, one of my favorite playtime activities was putting together organizations for my sister and myself. Yes, I said organizations. Businesses, clubs, teams, even mini-armies crossed my notepads all through elementary school. We’d come up with mottos, marching songs, ranking systems, identification cards, you name it. As you can imagine, these endeavors rarely got very far past the building stages. What you might not imagine is why.

I spent hours working on these things because planning them was fun. When one was finished, we were off to the next. Forming a wispy idea, developing a framework, and fleshing it out were endlessly entertaining activities. They eventually shifted into character creation for tabletop games, then seamlessly into world building for short stories and more.

These happy memories floated up today as I was rummaging around in my head for a blog topic, and what brought them to the fore is how natural the transition from clubs to worlds really was. For me, organizing is so strongly linked to creativity they’re pretty much the same thing. This link is evident every day in my proposal work, too. Why? Because doing this work well requires equal parts of both.

Now granted, we are bound by customer expectations and the requirements to which we respond. Compliance is a top priority and we want to build that into every part of our proposal, from the CLINs to the past performance. Being creative within those requirements is tough to do, but it’s also the difference between a good proposal and a great one. The key is keeping your mind open enough to see the opportunities among the structure.

For example, we have to lay out our sections according to instructions, but the road maps we give the evaluators are ours to design. We can be inventive without straying outside the lines, starting with our organization. The next time you’re staring at the RFP on your desk and wondering how you could possibly be creative in answering it, consider these points.

Proposal schedule. If you’ve got good capture, you can devote more brain time to innovation in your response.

Proposal outline. Though the customer designates the overall order, you can manage the subsections and paragraphs to best tell your story.

Storyboards. Make sure you’ve given your writers ideas as well as instructions in their outline sections; you can aim their thinking in new directions.

A lot of people look at our work and say that we have no room for creativity in such a rule-bound environment. I say the best part of having an imagination is finding opportunities to use it.
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Welcome to the Pool

Originally Posted by Heather Lee on October 21, 2012
What do Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and swimming have in common? Both require a towel and the following directive:

“Don’t panic.”

Among all of the entertaining lines in that book, that one has stuck with me since I first read it in junior high school. Honestly, it has even become my cardinal rule in proposal work and life in general. So much of what we do is mental; remembering those two little words can prevent us from drowning in stress.
Yes, it really is that easy. Don’t panic. Feeling overwhelmed is a common occurrence when you’re dealing with proposals, especially when someone slaps a gonzo RFP on your desk and asks you to break it down. So how do you not panic?

Like this.

  • Get a grip.
  • Divide and conquer.
  • Control your pace.​

    Get a grip. 
    Stop and think about it. The world is full of huge projects, and shredding that RFP for an outline or compliance matrix is just a big part of a yet bigger job. We don’t need to panic because we work through big jobs every day. Just get a grip and make your plan.
    Divide and conquer. Start by breaking out the major sections: Instructions to Offerors, Evaluation Criteria, Performance Work Statement, etc. Put them into separate stacks and then work through each stack, putting completed sections into your binder as you go. This method gives you the double benefit of better organization and a sense of progress while you work.
    Control your pace. You’ll always want to finish quickly so you can move to the next task on your list, but don’t let yourself rush. Rushing leads to mistakes or omissions, which lead to compliance problems, which lead to your team hearing, “We missed that requirement.”  You can maintain a steady pace without barreling toward the finish line and actually save yourself time in the end.
    If these three steps sound ridiculously simple, it’s because they are. They are the first and probably most important things I teach to new proposal teammates as they come on board. The more you develop your ability to not panic, the happier and more productive you’ll be. Welcome to the pool, friends. I brought you some floaties.
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