How to write winning bids with tight limits on characters, words or pages

A businessman trapped in a small boxWhen you’re writing a bid response, it’s not unusual to find yourself bound by tight restrictions on the number of words, pages or even characters you can use. So how can you express all you need to in order to win when you can’t use as many words as you want?

It’s a question clients often ask me.

Here’s the advice I give them on how to make sure you’re making the most of whatever space you’ve got.
 

Understand your customer’s perspective

As with anything you’re writing, you have to understand your reader at the start – including why they’ve placed these limits on you. Consider that they may have good reasons for restricting the size of responses. Chances are they’re trying to minimise the burden on the evaluation team.

Evaluators will all have had the unenviable task of working their way through hefty responses that barely answer the question or where the response is buried within irrelevant content. (But you’re not going to do that, of course.)
 

Ask for more space – but only if you really need it

This option may just seem like a cheat. It isn’t – but it is one to use with care.

Procurement teams are often under time pressure when compiling tender documents and (as you may have noticed) there can be the occasional mistake.

Response limits sometimes seem well thought through and sometimes they don’t. Even when the procurement team have carefully considered the limit, they may have misunderstood the level of detail needed. They aren’t experts on the subjects they’re asking about (if they were, they wouldn’t have to ask). If you genuinely need more space, explain why and ask for it. You might just get it. But keep in mind that your competitors will get the same amount of space.

You may want to ask for extra space only for certain sections where you have lots to say (perhaps because you have competitive strengths to highlight or weaknesses you need to mitigate). But again, consider the pros and cons carefully.
 

Fill in the blanks

Of course, even when you ask for more space, sometimes the customer will say no or still give you less than you wanted.

When you’re stuck with the limit, you’ll need to make tough decisions about what to leave out. You won’t be able to tell the customer everything about your solution or your capabilities; there will be blanks that they’ll have to fill in (both consciously and subconsciously).

Your proposal will inform the picture they paint about your company and your solution. You are either easy to work with or not. You care about them or not. You can be trusted or not.

So, it’s not just what you say that matters. How you say it is important too.

Think about how you can write, structure and design your responses to make the customer’s life easier and send them the right messages.

Let’s look at some ways you can do that now.
 

Zero in on relevance

Focus on answering the question that your customer has asked (not the one you wish you were asked – an easy trap to fall into).

You know you need to explain the benefits the customer will get with your solution, highlight your differentiators and substantiate your response with credible, verifiable evidence. And you don’t have the space to include everything you possibly could.

So use what you know about your prospective customer to zero in.

Say you need to express something broad, like your experience of a certain type of work: you’ll need to figure out what matters to the customer and then focus on those points.

Which parts of your experience will the customer care about most? For example, would they care more about how long you’ve been doing this type of work or about the kinds of risks and issues that you’ve seen – and successfully managed – while delivering it?

And what can you write about to positively differentiate yourself from your competitors? There’s no point emphasising your 10 years of experience if your key competitor can boast 20. But perhaps you have more experience of delivering this kind of work for organisations in the same sector as this customer. In that case, focus on how the benefits of this specific experience qualify you to help them now.
 

Show that you can deliver what they want

Emphasising customer benefits is the best way to show the customer that you care about getting results for them. Obvious, perhaps, but true. And I mean emphasising rather than just writing – make the benefits obvious so that skim-readers won’t miss them.

Draw attention to benefits using:

  • opening and closing summaries (or just an opening summary if space is very tight)
  • headings
  • bullet-point lists
  • graphics with captions
  • tables with captions
  • callouts
  • different fonts (larger, bold, italic and/or a different colour).

 
You can also use a dash or two – like so – to make benefits stand out.

Rhythm can help as well. Occasionally, try following a relatively long sentence with a much shorter one. It works.
 

Show that you’re easy to deal with

You can also show the customer that you’re easy to work with by providing information in a helpful way.

For a start, use everyday words that are easy to understand, rather than buzzwords or abstract language.

And try to structure your proposal thoughtfully. Help the evaluators to find what they’re looking for by following any instructions the customer has given. If they didn’t provide instructions, try to mirror the structure, wording and reference numbering of the tender documents.

In individual responses, use a logical structure that makes it easy for the evaluator to see that you’ve answered the full question. Use headings that mirror the wording of the question and that break the question into logical components.
 

Don’t send the wrong messages

Don’t try to bend the rules or get around a tight page limit by using tiny font, narrow margins or minimal line spacing – or by not using paragraphs or headings. As well as making your responses harder to read and evaluate, you can undermine every effort you’ve made.

Tender documents often include rules against these tactics, so you might make your submission non-compliant. Even without such rules, think about the message the customer might get. Perhaps they’ll think you’re sneaky or tricky to deal with. Perhaps they’ll be annoyed that you haven’t understood their reasons for limiting the word count.

Evaluators are only human. Even the fairest of them – those who genuinely want to evaluate objectively – would surely be influenced if they have a negative impression of you.
 

Design your response wisely

Rather than putting everything in prose, try to condense some information into bullet-point lists, tables or process flow diagrams.

This can work well to explain certain aspects of your solution and your approach, or for giving an overview of your capabilities and experience.

For example, the customer might ask you to detail the equipment you would use to deliver your solution. In this scenario, I’d probably create a table to list the equipment and other relevant information, such as quantities and relevant features (and benefits, if feasible).

Or they may ask about your approach to certain management systems, like quality or health and safety. A process flow can provide a succinct overview and save you space to focus on the key benefits, differentiators and evidence.

Graphics can be very helpful in getting lots of information across with few or no words. Sometimes customers will count the words in graphics and sometimes they won’t. If you aren’t sure, ask.

If you have a page limit rather than a word or character limit, try using a two-column layout. This lets you squeeze more words on a page while keeping it readable. It’s also helpful if you’re using bullet-point lists, which eat up lots of space in a single-column layout.

You can also use run-in headings for some or all levels of headings. As the name suggests, these headings run into the beginning of a paragraph. You can still emphasise the heading by using bold, italic or colour. Here’s how it looks:

A run-in header example showing bold text of a different colour on the same line as running text in black font

 
Stuck with a tight word limit on your bid? Here's how to win anyway, by bid-strategy expert Paul White @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

Write concisely

Utilise little words as a substitute for sesquipedalian ones.

Choose short words over long ones.

Don’t try to impress your customer with grandiose language. Using short words will help you meet limits on pages or characters. And words with fewer syllables make reading easier.

Be sure that you do not use any words that are not strictly necessary.

Avoid needless words.

Once you’ve written your first draft, ask someone to edit it to look for redundant words. These are often more obvious to someone else (especially an experienced editor). Or, if you’re editing it yourself, try to give yourself a break between completing the draft and editing. It helps to have as fresh a perspective as possible.

The active voice should be used more than the passive voice.

Use the active voice more than the passive voice.

The passive voice has its place in proposals – especially to emphasise key points for a skim-reading evaluator.

‘£1 million will be saved by doing X’ might catch their eye more than ‘We will do X to save £1 million’. (Though you may prefer the active alternative ‘You will save £1 million through our X approach’.)

But using the passive voice too much usually makes for a dull read. Use it with care.

The use of strong action verbs is an effective way to make your writing more concise.

Use strong action verbs to make your writing more concise.

Watch out for verbs that don’t describe actions (such as is and seems): they often make sentences longer than they need to be. Sometimes you’ll need them, but cut them where you can to make your writing more concise.

Action verbs also make your writing clearer, more dynamic and more persuasive.

Ensure the removal of nominalisations.

Remove nominalisations.

Nominalisations are noun forms of verbs. For example, writing ‘we will deliver a reduction in costs’ instead of simply ‘we will reduce costs’.

Nominalisations make sentences longer because they need more words to support them. They also make your writing more abstract and formal, which can make your proposal read like an academic journal.
 

Customer focus is the key

As with everything in the bidding process (and business in general), customer focus is the key to success.

Understand why the procurement team want concise responses. But if you genuinely need more space – because you have lots of relevant information that will help them reach a decision – then explain this to them.

Design and structure your bid thoughtfully, so that you make the most of the space you’ve been given while making it easy for evaluators to do their job.

And learn to write concisely so that you can give the evaluator all the information they need in as little space as possible.

A final thought: the evaluators might warm to you if you can answer their questions comprehensively in fewer characters, words or pages than they’ve allowed for. After all, if you’ve answered the question while articulating clear benefits, differentiators and evidence, why say more?


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