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Vendors Beware! It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It.

Written By: D. Geller
Published On: August 22 2000


Like most Associate Professors, Dr. Daniel Berleant has to apply for funding to support his research and graduate students. So he writes proposals. Naturally he wins some and he loses some. Being a scientist, after all, he wondered whether there were factors beyond the content of the proposals that affected the chances of success. So he did a study, which was published in the Communications of the ACM, a leading professional journal.

His conclusion is that simple choices in formatting and organization do make a difference in the chances of success of a proposal. Proposals from university researchers are made to government funding agencies, philanthropic organizations, and R&D units of large corporations. Thus it is possible that his conclusions will not hold for proposals made by vendors in competitive sales situations. However, we'd be surprised if some of these results don't carry over.

Whether seeking funding or a contract, the writer of a proposal is attempting to communicate ideas to the reader, and most readers are pretty much the same. For example, a study that was reported more than two decades ago showed that readers of technical manuals preferred writing at a 5th grade level, regardless of whether they were administrative assistants with high school diplomas or scientists with Ph.D.s. So we'd advise vendors to look closely at these results, which we summarize in the next section. If you're unsure, you could do your own internal study. Or, why not contribute some funding to help Professor Berleant move his results into the commercial arena? Couldn't hurt.

Research Results

Professor Berleant looked at the formatting and organizational parameters of 30 proposals to one funding agency. The proposals had been rated by the funding agency as "Highly Competitive," "Competitive," and "Not Competitive."

Format: Table 1 shows the ratings received by the thirty proposals based on the font sizes used for the body of the text.

Table 1 Competitiveness vs. Font Size

9 pt
10 pt
11 pt
12 pt
Highly competitive
Not Competitive

Figure 1 shows these data in a possibly more useful different form. The orange line shows the probability of a proposal receiving a Highly Competitive rating given the font size used; the blue line shows the probability of receiving a rating of Competitive or better. With due allowance for the small sample size it does appear safe to suggest that a proposal in 10 or 11 point text has a much better chance of success than one in a larger or smaller size. (Please note that the next section will discuss the degree to which results like these can or should be understood as offering causal relations.)

Figure 1. Likelyhood of Sucess For Different Font Sizes

Professor Berleant also looked at the use of sans-serif sub headings when the proposal itself is in a serif font. Those results show that the probability of a proposal being Highly Competitive is more than twice as high if sans serif headings are used than if the headings do have serifs. The sample here had only 16 data points, since all of the other proposals were entirely in sans serif font. Note that of the 16 proposals in which a serif font was used for the text body, none were found to be Not Competitive. On the other hand, twelve of the remaining 14 proposals, all written in sans serif font throughout were determined to be Non Competitive. If you are about to send out a proposal written in Ariel or Courier throughout, TEC strongly recommends that you try Times Roman instead.

The study also looked at subsection numbering, somewhat more common in academic than commercial proposals. The question was whether the numbering of subsections in the main part of the proposal should be relative to that section or whether they should reflect their position within the larger document. That is, if the narrative is section 3 of the proposal, should its sections be numbered as 1, 2, or 3.1, 3.2? The conclusion is quite clear that the former, simpler scheme is the one that pays the rent.

Content: The study also looked at the organization of the content. Should there be a conclusion section? Although the guidelines did not call for a conclusion, Figure 2 shows that the proposals with conclusions scored much better than those that didn't.

Figure 2. Probability of Success Given Presence or Absence of Conclusion

Although all proposals were required to have summaries, authors took different approaches to whether the summary section was reused, in whole or in part, in the main narrative sections. Proposals rated Highly Competitive tended not to do this. However when those rated either Highly Competitive or Competitive are examined the better strategy seems to be that some reuse of the summary can be helpful; see Figure 3.

Figure 3. Probability of Success Given Reuse of Summary

Early submission: The more competitive proposals were the ones that tended to be submitted early, as Figure 4 demonstrates. This is consistent with what your mother told you.

Figure 4. Probability of Success Given Submission Date


What is most interesting is not the specific results as the fact that there were definite identifiable success factors. Some may seem obvious to anyone who has had to read a number of proposals in a short period of time, others like the strong preference for contrasting headings, are less so. Overall, the clear conclusion is that the form of a proposal has a relationship to its likelihood of success.

Knowing that there is a relationship does not tell us what that relationship was. That is, we can't tell whether it was the use of contrasting headings that made a difference or just that the people who were successful tended to be the ones who used contrasting headings. Were early submissions more successful because the early submission impressed the judge, because the judge had more time to read it, because people who get their proposals in are the ones who write better proposals, or because the later submissions had a last-minute look to them?

Regardless of whether the features studied were the causes of the success (or failure) of proposals or whether they are diagnostic indicators of other factors that weren't directly studied, both academic proposal writers and vendors have a bottom-line stake in learning more.

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