There are all sorts of rules and guidelines when it comes to copywriting, but one holds true no matter what you’re writing. In fact, if there’s only one rule you should ever pay attention to, this is it: don’t make your audience think.
In other words, make it easy for the reader. You can use any number of tactics to stand out, attract your audience and get them interested, but at the end of the day if what you produce is difficult to comprehend, then what’s the point?
This topic is simply too large to cover in a single post, so I am going to do it in parts. The first part is in relation to responding to formal tenders. Next time, I’ll focus on copywriting for digital.
And please note: while the inspiration for these posts is varied, the title (Don’t make them think) is without doubt inspired by Steven Krug, who wrote a book on web usability with a very similar name. If you haven’t read it, and you communicate online in any way, go ahead and do so.
Don’t make people think about your tender submission
If you’ve put together a few tender submissions in your time you may have found yourself, while writing lengthy responses to the RFT criteria, pitying the person who must read the dam thing once you submit it. And well you should, because it’s their job to make sense of every single word you write!
Surely, then, the least you could do is make their job easy, if not for pity’s sake alone, then for the sake of your chances of winning the tender! But during the rush of putting a tender submission together many people will assume that close enough is good enough; that the reader will intuitively “get it” even if what they submit is half-baked or doesn’t quite address the tender criteria.
It’s human nature to make assumptions in this way about the ability of readers to interpret what we write. We can get away with it in person because we have the advantage of non-verbal cues to help us get our message across. But when writing we are essentially taking a punt that our invisible audience will be on the same wavelength as us.
Never is this truer than in formal tender submissions. We assume the reader will understand the unique benefits of our proposal in the same way as our existing customers do. We assume they will understand the brilliant claims we make about our ability to perform a job, even if said claims require specific technical knowledge to interpret. We assume they will intuitively know that we have done it many times before even if we don’t include examples.
The truth is, there are only 2 assumptions you should ever make with tender submissions:
- that the person reading your submission has never heard of your business before, and
- they will not, in any way, shape or form, do more than the bare minimum when it comes to assessing your response.
EVERYTHING ELSE is up to you. So without further ado, here are some of the very basic things you should be doing in tender submissions to ensure you are not asking too much of your audience.
Put your response in the right order
I’m commencing with an easy one and it almost goes without saying. Almost. Yet I recently received some informal feedback about a tender I put together, along the lines of, “It was great because all the information was in the right order, unlike some of the others.”
It’s amazing but true that some respondents will ignore the order of the RFT criteria or, worse, submit little more than a glorified quote with only vague references to the qualitative responses requested of them.
But consider your audience – in this case the poor sod who is reviewing the tender. In fact, for larger tenders there will be several people reading different sections of your tender, sitting in different parts of a building and all with very different backgrounds. Their collective job is to score your response against a series of criteria, one by one, in a logical sequence. The very least you can do, therefore, is submit your tender in the order the information has been requested so that the reviewers can match your responses to the questions. If you don’t, the reviewer may miss part of your response or they may simply decide your response is non-conforming – and it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.
Putting your answers in the right order makes perfect sense but, in the rush to prepare tender responses, it’s little details like this that go flying out of the window. Unfortunately your chances of winning the contract might also take a flying leap if you fail to put your information in the order requested.
Use clear headings
Related to the above and just as critical is clearly labelling your response throughout with headings – preferably the same headings the purchaser used in the RFT document. If there are lots of specific questions under each heading, use those questions as sub headings so that the reader knows exactly what you are talking about.
Whatever you do, do not combine multiple responses into one block of text and leave it to the reader to ascertain where one response ends and another begins. You’ll likely end up with a zero score for the responses that don’t have headings, which is a disaster you can do without.
Avoid ambiguous text and graphics
There are no points for lengthy prose in tenders. Almost every time, the reviewer will prefer that you answer the question in a concise and clear manner (hence the tactic of placing word or page limits on some responses).
Avoid the temptation to wax lyrical and focus on responding to the questions. In the words of William Strunk, “make every word tell.” If you do, you may find that you do a much better job of selling yourself than if you wrote a lengthy preamble that vaguely addresses the requirements.
Make sure you answer every single question, even if the question is not relevant to your response. “Not applicable to the scope of services” is better than saying nothing at all. By saying nothing, you are leaving it open to interpretation.
And finally, make sure graphics are legible and communicate their message clearly. Are you tempted to throw in that grainy image that is a photocopy of a fax that is almost, but not quite, readable? Avoid it – instead, get someone to recreate it in Word or PowerPoint or, if you have access to a graphics expert, get them to do it.
Substantiate every claim
Remember: even if you are the incumbent contractor, it is up to you to provide sufficient evidence of your capability to perform the job. Even if you are the incumbent contractor you should never assume the reviewer knows this because, chances are, the person reading your tender won’t know you from a bar of soap.
We’ve talked about unsubstantiated claims previously on this blog (they’re also known as motherhood statements). When you’ve been around tenders for a while, motherhood statement stick out like a sore thumb and never reflect well on the respondent. You’ll often find motherhood statements near the beginning of a tender response when the respondent is explaining how skilled, experienced, innovative or capable they are or how committed they are to health, safety and the environment.
It’s perfectly fine to make those claims, but not in isolation. If you want to point out that you have significant experience, make sure you refer to the many contracts you’ve performed in the past and name them. If you are committed to safety, mention your accreditations, HSE management plan, how you hired a consultant to get you certified, how you have specific safety roles and responsibilities within your organisation… you get the picture.
One final point on the topic of evidence. It’s great to list examples of previous contracts you have performed. It’s even better to also explain what the outcomes of those jobs were. Think about timeliness, safety, quality, audit results, client feedback, unexpected benefits to clients, whether you had to be innovative or use initiative and so on. This stuff is like the icing on the cake.
Show as well as tell
There is telling (in a written statement); there is proving (by substantiating claims as above) and then there is showing via photos and images. In my experience, a photo counts for plenty, because a reviewer can be left in no doubt that the respondent is capable of doing the work.
This is a great tactic for tradespeople like plumbers and electricians who need to prove themselves capable of performing procedure-driven jobs like switchboard replacements. If you don’t already, start keeping photographic records on each job (eg before and after shots) to give yourself a valuable library of evidence to use next time you respond to a tender.
Don’t stop there with the photos, however – show your business in action. If health and safety is a key consideration in your industry, take photos of the safety precautions you take on the job, signage on notice boards, toolbox talks in action, PPE stored neatly in the warehouse, HSE inductions underway and so on. If you have special equipment, show it in an itemised list.
Rename your electronic attachments
If you are submitting a tender electronically with multiple parts or attachments, always ensure that files have clear filenames so that the recipient can easily identify which document is which. You might have a jumble of files on your hard drive sourced from various people, but it is never ok to assume the reader will take the time to open and identify them one by one. Consider the following:
- Use a consistent naming convention: Something like: Company Name_RFT Number_Response 1. For attachments, you might use: Company_Name_RFT Number_Attachment 1 (and make sure that the attachment name matches what you write in your response).
- Use a logical file structure to help identification. Put all of your attachments in one folder, the qualitative responses in another and so on.
- It’s best to convert all files to the same format if possible (PDF ideally)
- Test your file structure to make sure the files appear in the order you intend. A stray hyphen or numeral might send a document to the top of the pile. It sounds pedantic, but it’s little details like this that give the impression of organisation.
Even if you’re not asked to, it’s always a good idea to include referees for each previous job or contract you refer to. Even better: include a testimonial statement or letter of support from that referee to emphasise your strong relationship.
There’s plenty more, if you’d like to learn
We’ve covered tender writing topics previously on this blog.