Bids and proposals

What is ego depletion and why every bid writer needs to know

5 minute read

Have you ever noticed how you are more likely to give in to temptation at the end of the day than at the beginning? If you’re on a diet, it’s generally after eight or nine at night that you tend to mysteriously find your hand in the cookie jar, not just after you’ve grabbed your mid-morning coffee.

It’s as if the iron resolve that enables you to resist an elevenses calorie bomb has rusted away to dust by the time the sun has started to set.


What happens to willpower

It’s not your imagination. That effect is real. Psychologists call it ego depletion. Nor is it just you – it affects everyone.

Essentially, the theory says that your willpower or self-control comes in a limited daily supply. When you draw from that supply by performing a task that challenges you mentally (or that makes you act in a way that runs counter to your beliefs), you’ll have less willpower available for later tasks. Multiple experiments have shown that cognitive load weakens self control, increasing the chance of impulsive behaviour.

So the ego-depletion effect also explains why a stressful meeting might lead you to pour yourself a large glass of Malbec in the middle of Dry January (remember that?). And it’s why you find yourself endlessly checking email when you really should be working on that taxing tender document.


Why ego-depletion theory matters to bid writers

But this effect is also why the evaluators who read the finished tender document might be so worn down by its heavy prose that they award you fewer points or why the prospects trudging through a wordy proposal give up.

The trouble is not just that the best, most persuasive arguments are wasted if decision-makers give up struggling to read the document you’ve written them in. It’s that the effort involved will bias their decision-making process against you, thanks to this well-established quirk in how our brains work.

If a proposal feels like hard work, they’re more likely to reject it.

Faced with too much cognitive effort, the brain’s grip on our impulses weakens – in fact, that’s even if those impulses are unrelated to the task in hand. Spend too long studiously ignoring your colleague’s Belgian chocolate birthday cake that’s sitting on a table just beyond your desk and you’ll find you have far less patience for sticking with difficult work-related tasks.


Ego depletion and bid evaluation

The implication for the bid-writing process is profound. Its potential consequences could cost you far more than gaining a few extra pounds. It could lose you millions.

It may seem obvious that an evaluator is more likely to award fewer points if they’re struggling to read your proposal. But they’re also likely to abandon their efforts altogether and just plump for your competitor – or stick with the incumbent supplier.

Yes, they may know they’re supposed to be more objective than that. They may even know that writing skills are not one of their key evaluation criteria. But if the language or structure of your bid takes up too much of their brain space, they’re likely to give in to temptation and cut your score or call it quits.


What this means for your next bid

So, now you know the theory, what should you do to keep your bid from meeting this fate?

Know that it’s not just the information you put into a bid document that counts. You have to get that information into the prospect’s brain with the least amount of effort.

The language, structure and layout of a bid all have a part to play in this delicate process.

Language that takes too much effort to process can be deadly. So don’t use ten words to say what you could in three or hide your message in obscure terminology.

Say what you need to say, in as few words as possible. If you can’t put something simply, ask yourself if you truly understand it. (Note though that this is very different from avoiding all jargon. Jargon is often fine: it’s the words in between the jargon that usually cause the problem. Just make sure that it’s your client’s jargon you’re using, not just yours.)

The same goes for sentences, paragraphs or sections that don’t flow logically or don’t make connections clear, especially when it comes to how the features you’re describing will benefit your prospect. Don’t leave the reader to pick a way through a convoluted path or join the dots themselves. They won’t.

And if you have control over layout (that is, you don’t have to submit your tender through a bid-management system), take that opportunity to ease the cognitive load on the reader. Wide margins are a great start here: white space is not wasted space. Use subheadings to tell the story (so that, together, they read as a summary of the document itself). Use graphics too – not only do they help clarify your messaging but they can draw a tired, jaded evaluator into the main document.


Don’t point your prospects to the cookie jar

So just remember that evaluators and prospects are as human as you are. Faced with too much hard work, their overloaded brains will resort to some cookie-jar therapy or seek solace in their inbox. Then they’ll grab a coffee and move on to the next tempting offer instead.



Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., & Frey, D. (2008). Self-regulation and selective exposure: The impact of depleted self-regulation resources on confirmatory information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(3), 382-395.

Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2014). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Motivation Science, 1(S), 19-42.

Ward, Andrew & Mann, Traci (2000). Don’t mind if I do: Disinhibited eating under cognitive load.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), Apr 2000, 753-763.


Image credit: Kues / Shutterstock


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Rob Ashton is the founder of Emphasis and posts mainly about writing and the brain – a topic he's been researching for seven years. You can read more of his work in Writing Matters – our weekly bulletin of career-building writing advice backed by science.

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