Part 2 of Bring Home the Bacon! The Four-phase Collaboration Between Project Managers and Proposal Professionals

A Project Management Article by Lawrence L. Tracy

I hope that readers of Part One have “bought in” to the twin concepts (A) that Project Managers and Proposal Managers should work closely and early from the beginning of the bid process, and (B) that Project managers, who will be charged with “bringing home the bacon” in the oral presentation, should improve their presentation skills, not rely on their technical expertise alone.

Synopsis

This two part article evolved from my November 4, 2010 presentation at the PMTools in Crystal City. Part One emphasized

  1. why proposal managers/writers and project managers/orals teams must work in concert, not separately as is often the case, and 
  2. specific guidance enabling Project Managers to improve their presentation skills to make them more effective in leading oral presentations. 

Theses orals can be the “tiebreaker” in determining which company is awarded the contract. 

In Part Two, I’ll outline a four phase approach which unites the proposal and orals teams to enhance the chances of winning contracts.

Introduction

I hope that readers of Part One have “bought in” to the twin concepts (A) that Project Managers and Proposal Managers should work closely and early from the beginning of the bid process, and (B) that Project managers, who will be charged with “bringing home the bacon” in the oral presentation, should improve their presentation skills, not rely on their technical expertise alone.

Before launching into the four phase approach to ensure collaboration between proposal professionals and project managers, let’s discuss three salient points of oral presentations.

  • From the outset, orals should be developed from the perspective of what the customer wants done, not what you and your company wants to do. You may certainly try to shape the requirements of the RFP before it is released, but don’t push too hard.

  • If you are going to have sub-contractors to plug holes in your own capabilities, make sure you have the commitment of senior management of these companies that the best people will be provided, and that they will be available for the orals, even during vacation time.

  • In both the written proposal and the follow-on oral presentation, emphasize the discriminators which make your company a better choice than your competitors, and also point out, in a subtle manner, what the customer will lose by not choosing your company (proprietary software, a person with unique talent under a non-compete contract to your company, etc. )

 Four Phases for Successful Collaboration

Phase One

Meeting with the Contracting Officer and initial drafting of the proposal

Step one:

This phase ideally begins when the word starts to circulate of an impending RFP. Representatives of companies are free to visit with the contracting officer and other representatives of the prospective customer to elicit information about the upcoming RFP.

They may even be able to shape the RFP to a degree. These initial contacts are generally made by the capture manager and perhaps the proposal manager. Where is the project manager in this initial step? Nowhere to be seen. This is a huge mistake. If there are indications that the RFP will require an oral presentation, it is wise to have the Project manager who will likely lead the orals team be involved in these initial contacts with the customer.

Such meetings provide an opportunity for the customer—the contracting officer and perhaps others--to get to know the person who will oversee the contract if it awarded to that company. The contracting officer knows that he or she, and the company, will not see the proposal professionals again until the next RFP, but the company will be dependent on the capability of the Project manager and his or her team.

If the project manager is a known quantity, and the customer believes will be easy to work with, it increases the likelihood the company’s proposal “will make the cut.” This initial contact provides the customer the opportunity to size up the person with whom they will be working.

The project manager should request inclusion, pointing out that having he or she and the orals team involved in the early stages will serve to protect the intellectual investment of the proposal. If those in charge of the proposal object, then the project manager should take his or her case to senior management, which will be looking to maximize the odds of being the winning the contracer.

Step two:

While the proposal professionals and the project manager are coordinating with the customer, the orals team and the proposal writers should be working on the initial draft of the proposal, even before the RFP is released. The writers have primacy here, with the technical experts of the orals team “looking over the shoulders” of the writers.

The orals presenters can see the theme being developed, the discriminators being emphasized, the approach to the basic requirement of the probable RFP being taken. Information gained by the Capture manager/proposal manager/project manager team in their meetings with the customer should be continuously injected into this initial draft.

Phase Two:

Initial drafting of the oral presentation while the writing of the proposal continues simultaneously

When the RFP is released, the writers will start adapting what they have written to the actual proposal. The presenters, continuing to provide technical input, will at the same time look for “nuggets” to include in the oral presentation.

At some point, the presenters will break off to concentrate on the initial draft of their presentation, but will maintain continual interaction with the writers to ensure consistency between the two products.

The Project manager must develop an opening and close which serve as “bookends” to the presentation. Remember the 3-1-2 System described in Part one? It provides the model for developing these “bookends.” Begin by drafting the concluding remarks, the “3,” which will be delivered by the project manager, showing why your company provides the best value for the customer. It must be delivered with emphasis and inflection.

This is where the key discriminators are enumerated (and make sure they are in fact advantages which no competitor has!). After developing this close, draft the “1” opening statement which is an overview of the company’s capabilities, past performance with similar projects, and a brief introduction of the members of the team.

The objective is to “shake hands” with the evaluators and increase their confidence that your company can do the job better than your competitors. The “2” is the technical narratives by the respective team members addressing the Selection Criteria of the RFP.

If your company is the incumbent, emphasize that awarding the contract will avoid a steep learning curve. Point out how you will you will “hit the ground running, because you know the ground so well. If you are competing against an incumbent, point out how you bring innovative (proprietary?) solutions to the problems of the customer. Any intelligence you can acquire on the customer’s dissatisfaction will be helpful.

Phase Three

Intensive simulated practice presentations, or “Murder Boards,” with proposal writers playing the role of the customer’s evaluators.

In Part One of this two-part essay, I noted that the Murder Board permits presenters to be (1) more responsive to the informational needs of the evaluators, (2) develop answers for likely questions to be asked, and (3) gain confidence in their speaking ability.

Keep in mind that the purpose of the Government’s emphasis on oral presentations is to have the people with in-depth knowledge make the presentation, not polished speakers who possess less-detailed knowledge of the RFP requirements.

Nevertheless, the team of experts making the clearest and most professional presentation certainly increases its prospects of winning the contract. An outside orals coach should be brought in to show the technical experts how to make a coherent and effective presentation that focuses on the customer’s needs.

He or she should certainly use a video camera so you have “game films” of the various practice sessions. In the first session, however, the coach should not use video. There will be understandable nervousness on the part of the presenters, and the presence of cameras will just add to their “performance anxiety.”

In subsequent Murder Boards, two cameras should be used: One to record each individual presentation, thus permitting presenters to review and improve upon their “performance” privately; the second camera should record the entire presentation to see how the various presenters “fit” together. Having a video of the entire presentation will also aid in staying within the RFP-imposed time limit.

In addition to providing knowledge of the speaking art, this coach can be much more frank in providing constructive criticism to presenters than will co-workers, who, wanting to maintain positive working relationships, may be "kinder and gentler" in their critiques of presentations.

The coach’s objective is to blend the techniques of effective presentation skills with the expertise of the presenters. The fusion of these two elements produces contract-winning presentations. The coach should concentrate developing the delivery skills of the presenters, and helping them overcome obstacles to good delivery.

Let’s look at some of these obstacles. First, the boring monotone of most men. A few minutes of a monotonic presentation is a cure for insomnia. The orals coach can help those afflicted with the monotone to place emphasis on verbs and other words that connote action and movement.

They must then listen to themselves on a tape recorder, seeking to continually put inflection in their voices at appropriate times. Many women reading this are probably smiling and nodding. Not so fast, ladies. I am an equal opportunity offender, and now it is your turn.

Women, while having a natural inflection, sometimes speak at too high a pitch. For women with this problem, my advice is to practice, again with a tape recorder, lowering your pitch. Three role models to emulate are the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the late UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, my former professor and a friend for 30 years, and, of course the “Voice”—Maya Angelou. All three of these women spoke with a lower than normal pitch, but retained their essential femininity.

Speaking of Maya Angelou, she once wrote. It takes the human voice to impart deeper meaning.” Let’s look at how a project manager of an incumbent vying to be retained can emphasize this deeper meaning. He or she should punch out this message by saying “If we are fortunate enough to be awarded this contract, there will be NO learning curve, NO transition, No loss of momentum. This emphatic delivery, using the Rhythmic Triple covered in Part one, may appear a bit theatrical, but emphasizing those key points will likely register on the minds of he evaluators far better than a monotonic declarative sentence.

What are some other vocal distractions? Again, as I said in Part one, the most egregious fault is repeated use of the fillers “Uh” and “You know.” Speakers improve in direct proportion to the reduction of these abominations of the English language. In my workshops--and you and the orals coach can do this in working with the presenters--I conduct a drill that normally proves effective in reducing this tendency. Speakers greeted with a chorus of high decibel “Uh’s!” from their colleagues when making that sound, and equally loud “No, we don’t!” when they say “You know.” A few such behavior-modifying sessions will at least reduce the use of these fillers.

Some body language obstacles are poor posture, hands in the pocket or in the “fig leaf” position (I refer to those who move and back and forth to that position as “Flashing fig leafers.”). A slouching posture suggests indifference, and robs a presenter of projecting an image of really caring about winning the contract. (Remember those concerns of evaluators I mentioned a few minutes ago.) A passion for the company’s capability can be conveyed not just by words, but how presenters look and sound saying them.

People have a tendency to read from a script or from the PowerPoint slides on the screen. Little eye contact is made with the evaluators, and the chance of reverting to the dreaded monotone is increased. Note cards--3x5 cards are best because their size precludes writing too much--with memory joggers can certainly be used, but speakers must show they "own" the material.

Glancing at the slides on the screen is certainly permissible, but remember that the evaluators are literate and do not need you to read the words to them. Few things alienate people more in any audience than to have the speaker read verbatim the words on the visuals. Reducing to a minimum the text on the visuals during the various Murder Boards will help presenters avoid the "reading from the screen" trap. If possible, presenters should place their laptop in such a position that they can glance at the visuals on its screen, then to the evaluators, avoiding turning to the large screen.

Who should role play the evaluators in these simulated presentations? None other than the proposal writers, with the Proposal manager playing the role of the Contracting officer. These people certainly know the proposal’s strengths as well as its potential vulnerabilities.

Consequently, the writers can anticipate objections from the perspective of the evaluators, and help the presenters address these in the Murder Board, thereby possibly preempting any questions that might be in the minds of the evaluators as they listen to the oral presentation.

Government Evaluators in particular have a responsibility to get the "best buy" for the taxpayer’s dollar, and may, at least subconsciously, see a correlation between the effectiveness of the team’s presentation and how the company will accomplish the requirements stipulated in the RFP. They may view a disjointed and unclear presentation as an indicator that this team will be unable to perform the terms of the contract.

In the Murder Board sessions, all participants should listen to the practice presentation with concerns evaluators may have, such as

  • What is the chemistry between and among team members?

  • Does the team have a clear vision of what the Government wants accomplished, or does the presentation suggest the team is still trying to figure out what is required?

  • Do the skills of the different companies and individuals complement or clash?

  • Is the prime contractor really in charge, or do there appear to be some Prima Donnas among the sub-contractors, suggesting later friction?

  • Does the presentation demonstrate that the consortium has the experience to accomplish the project required by the RFP?

  • Is there a willingness of team members to accept Government oversight, or an attitude of "give us the contract, then get out of the way?"

  • Does the company/consortium seem genuinely interested in, and demonstrate proven capability to solve, the Government’s RFP-expressed problem?

The RFP will generally call for a separate Q&A session for clarification purposes after the formal presentation. Consequently, separate Murder Boards should be conducted with the creators of the proposal again playing the role of the evaluators, and asking questions they believe will be asked.

The project manager should quarterback this session, directing questions to team members according to their respective expertise. The stress level will probably be less on presenters during the actual Q&A session because it will take place within the more familiar conversational context. But remind them in this session that in the “real thing” they will still be on stage, so they should not be lulled into a false sense of comfort.

Phase Four

Going for the Gold: The Oral Presentation

Lockheed Martin had a commercial on television a few years ago that showed two fighter jets maneuvering, with a dramatic voice intoning, “If you train the way you’ll fight, you’ll fight the way you trained.”

That is solid advice for presenters—practice the way you will present, and you will present the way you practiced.

Here is some advice for the Project manager and his or her team as they sally forth:

  • They should stay at a hotel the night before the presentation. Why run the risk of a traffic delay, or arriving tense from a rush hour drive?

  • They should do a reconnaissance of the room in which they will present, checking the location of electrical outlets. If the room has a fixed screen, which may be impacted by sunlight, the team should bring its own screen.

  • They should arrive as early as the customer will permit to set up, and should have backup laptops, bulbs, and extension cords. Being so attentive to detail sends a psychological message that the team has its “act together.”

  • Assure that the team points out clearly the key discriminators, which separate your company from competing firms. Perhaps you have proprietary software or some other unique capability, which will enhance accomplishing the requirements of the RFP.

  • The team can then articulate the message “if you don’t give us the contract, the government will not have access to this capability.” This message, of course, must be done in a subtle, non-threatening way.

  • After the presentation, the team should conduct an immediate “post-presentation analysis,” focusing on the reactions of the evaluators and their questions in the Q&A session. This can set the stage for the next proposal/orals the company will make.

  • After this grueling experience, go out and have a drink with the proposal team.. You have worked together, now celebrate together.

  • Win or lose, seek a debriefing. You will gain “intelligence” which will improve your next proposal and oral presentation.

Let me close by returning to the theme of Part one: That Project managers should not just rely on their technical knowledge, but realize their ability to ”sell” them selves and their ideas are vital. To support this view, I turn once more to one of the greatest “project managers” of the Twentieth Century, Lee Iacocca, who saved Chrysler from bankruptcy with a highly effective and persuasive “oral presentation” to Congress in 1979 to get a “bail-out” for that beleaguered company In his autobiography, he wrote:

“ I’ve known a lot of engineers with terrific ideas who had trouble explaining them to others. It’s always a shame when a guy with great talent can’t tell the board or committee what’s in his head.”

About 2500 years before Iacocca’s observation, the great Greek statesman Pericles wrote something remarkably similar: 

"Those who can think, but cannot express what they think, place themselves at the level of those who cannot think."

Iacocca and Pericles have a warning for companies competing for contracts, and particularly for project managers who have the responsibility to “Bring home the bacon.”

"Terrific ideas" can easily be trumped by those who can "express what they think." If your competitors are improving the presentation skills of their project managers and other technical experts because of the importance they attach to oral presentations, while your company relies on your superior ideas, programs, and experience, you may find your firm losing millions of dollars. A small investment in presentations training can pay large dividends when lucrative contracts are awarded.

About the Author

Lawrence L. Tracy

President Ronald Reagan described Larry Tracy as “An extraordinarily effective speaker.” He was an Army colonel assigned to the State Department at the time, debating controversial foreign policy issues throughout the country.

He is now cited as one of the top presentation skills trainers/coaches in the country in publications such as the Information Please Business Almanac and Sourcebook, published by Houghton-Mifflin, Best of the Best, published by Insight Publishing, and What to Say When… You’re Dying on the Platform, published by McGraw-Hill.

Larry’s book, The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations, published by Imprint Books, Charleston, SC, distills the techniques he teaches in his executive workshops, and is the text for the Oral Presentations Course at the Center for Leadership Education at Johns Hopkins University. It is available at his website (www.tracy.presentation.com) and on Amazon.com.

He is a member of the National Speakers Association, The Association of Proposal Management Professionals, and the Project Management Institute.

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