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Bid Writing – Structure & Narrative Part 1 – The Foundations of a Great Tender Response

Oh! The analogies I could use! Structure is: concrete, breeze blocks and beams; flour, butter and eggs; primer, BB and contour; onions, carrot and celery.

The point is, structure is the first – and most important – element to consider when responding to tender questions.

In Part 3 of my series on Writing to Word Limits, I touched on how structure can help you stay on topic and within any set word limits:

Headline topics are a great way to structure your answer. Read through the question and identify any and all distinct topics within the question that you can then use as subjects in your draft. For instance, you could identify the following topics:

Question:

Please detail your experience of delivering similar services to similar organisations. Explain how you will use this experience to ensure the successful delivery of this contract.

Topics:

  • Delivery of similar services
  • Delivery to similar organisations
  • How our experience relates to this contract
  • Our approach to delivery for this contract

I also talked about that old favourite saw of mine, ‘who, what, how, why, where and when’. I know, I’m a bore on that subject but it is so important, I’m going to keep on banging on, even as your eyes roll completely out of your head.

The example above pulls out four topics from the question to focus on. It’s a good start but it could be better – at this point you’re still going to have to do some thinking about the content for each topic and thinking takes time and energy and is fraught with ‘what ifs’ and ‘not sures’. Dangerous.

By creating sub topics under your headline topics, you’ll start to develop a clear blueprint for your answer that’s easy to follow and hard to veer away from. For each sub topic, consider what’s most relevant in terms of the processes you follow and the areas of your business that are involved and then pick a who, a how, a what, a where, a why and/or a when that fits. For example:

  • Delivery of similar services – what; when; where
  • Delivery to similar organisations – who; how; where; when
  • How our experience relates to this contract – what; how; why
  • Our approach to delivery for this contract – who; what; how; why; when

Bear in mind that all these whos and hows and whatnots need to relate specifically to the individual topic. So the ‘who’ within ‘delivery to similar organisations’ will be other organisations, whereas the ‘who’ within ‘approach to delivery’ will be people within your organisation and/or within the contracting organisation.

Inevitably, some topics are going to cover a wider range of sub topics than others. Where ‘delivery of similar services’ arguably only needs the overall ‘what, when and where’, something like ‘approach to delivery’ might benefit from being broken down even further, especially where different areas of your business are each involved in successful contract delivery:

Our approach to delivery for this contract

  • Contract management
    • Who is responsible for contract management?
    • How will they meet those responsibilities – will there be regular meetings with the contracting organisation and if so when will these be; will there be invoicing protocols you will stick to?
    • Who within the contracting organisation will they liaise with?
  • Quality management
    • Who is responsible for quality management?
    • How will quality be measured, monitored and managed?
    • How will quality issues be resolved internally and who will be involved in that process?
  • Customer service
    • Who is responsible for customer service?
    • What processes will they follow for: responding to orders; meeting delivery deadlines; responding to complaints; escalating issues?
  • Overall approach
    • Why have you chosen this approach?
    • How do each of your departments work together to meet or exceed the contract requirements?
    • What benefits or added value does this approach bring to the contract?

OMG, what an absolute faff! Why can’t I just start writing?

There are a couple of key benefits to this method of structuring. By working out what you need to write about before you start writing it, you’re less likely to forget where you were and what you had in mind if you need to do something else for a bit, such as doing your actual day job or going home and having some kind of life. It also helps you spot areas where you’ll need – or could save time by having – input from other people early on, so you can get those people working on that right now while you concentrate on the rest.

If you’re a small business, it’s likely that some of the people responsible for those different areas listed above are going to be one and the same, responsible for, say, quality management, customer service and involved in contract management in some form. In that case, you may want to combine each of those sub topics, especially if word limits are constrictive. However, laying it all out separately at first means that you won’t forget to mention all of the areas of responsibility they have and how those elements interact.

It’s also a good way to spark a bit of ‘what else is there, what have we missed?’ type brainstorming, whether that’s just in your own head or with your whole team. Conversely, it also functions as a good way to spot unnecessary waffle that doesn’t actually relate to the question.

Déjà vu, all over again

Tenders are notorious for asking the same question in different ways in several places. While there are good reasons for this, for the poor sod tasked with writing the response, it can be extremely frustrating. When time is short, it’s also tempting to just copy and paste what you’ve already written in Section BxJ3C1d over to Section CfL4E3m.

One of the biggest risks of these seemingly duplicate questions is that, actually, they’re not. Duplicates, I mean. Dissecting each question into topics and sub topics forces you to understand the angle each question is coming from and respond to it accordingly. While there may be some cross over in terms of the facts you’ll use, how the question is phrased should direct how it is answered – what and where the emphasis needs to be, to ensure you’re answering all of that question fully.

If you need further convincing, my post ‘Reusing bid content – a warning’ explains why copying and pasting from bid to bid is a bad idea; the central principles also apply from answer to answer within a bid.

Good structure leads to good narrative

Developing a good structure is probably the easiest yet most time consuming aspect of putting your bid together.

It easiest because it’s logical: Read the question -> break the question into headline topics -> break each headline topic into sub topics.

It’s time consuming because you want to make sure that nothing gets missed. This means going through the Read the question -> Headline topic -> Sub topic process at least a couple of times for each question, so that you can be sure you’ve got every angle covered. And when you do find a similar question elsewhere in the tender, it means going back and comparing the two and making sure your headline topics and sub topics truly match the individual questions.

But once you do have it in place, your narrative almost takes care of itself. Almost. In part 2, I explain how you can use your structure to create a compelling narrative that:

  • Clearly lays out all of the facts and information your assessors are scoring; and
  • Builds in opportunities to demonstrate how your company can add value to the contract

Structure & Narrative Part 2 – Telling Your Story

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