Better RFP Responses & Management
What We Have Here…

What We Have Here…

…is failure to communicate.

– from Cool Hand Luke

In my  book, I give a real (albeit unbelievable) quote from a resume submitted to me for editing on an RFP response a few years back.  Psychic translation powers would have been more to the point than editing prowess. The text was unreadable: surely the mind behind it could not have been less amenable.  

Are resumes always incoherent?  Certainly not.

Are they ever straightforward?  Equally certainly not.

In the old days, as I plowed through resumes written for no discernible purpose (certainly not to show suitability for the position for which the candidate was being proposed) and to no apparent standard (certainly not to comply with the RFP’s response instructions), I had a touching faith in the power of communication to sort this out.

“Just ask clearly for what you want,” I thought, “and you shall receive.”    

Not asking was the route of all resume evil.  Or so I thought.

But lately I’ve seen more and more companies asking quite clearly for what they want:  sending out templates for resumes (Fill in the blanks here!) along with completed examples.  Yeah, that oughtta  do it.

Nope.  The damned things still come back all over the place.

Several months ago, I sat staring at two resumes at polar opposites on the detail dimension, although both nominally filled in the blanks.

One guy summarized ten years of fabulously diverse project management experience in, oh, fifteen words. Not one detail to be seen.

“Come on!  Are you thinking there are national security implications here?  Dive, dive!”

Another described his current job by filling three-quarters of a page with detailed bullets. Nary a hint of a framework.

“Now really.  Is that how you explain to your mother what you do?  Pull up, pull up!”

It isn’t so much a failure to communicate as it is a failure to think like one person.  Given that there are many people involved, that’s not surprising. Yet there is an easy way to make all the resumes sing and dance together: just assign one person to write them all, based on interviews with the candidates.

Of course, the logistics of Proposal Land usually preclude such a neat solution. Candidates are selected at seemingly the last minute, and then changed at what is truly the last minute, leaving little to no time even for smoothing, much less for substantive revisions.  And writers are in short supply.  And writers who are both marketing and technical savvy?  Even shorter.  So what’s laid gets played, even if it’s a goose egg.

What’s the answer?  It’s learning to live with something that’s nowhere near good enough, that looks like it could be so much better so easily, and yet that stubbornly resists improvement.  Is that a happy answer for most of us in Proposal Land?  Certainly not.  But equally certainly the best we’ve got.


  1. Christina M.

    Funny how you just posted this. Keep it up, Isabel, and I just may comment on every post!

    My engineering father asked me to check over his resume a few days ago. Seems like his proposal coordinator has been hounding him to update it for the last little while. I took it over, and armed with her resume style guide, (!!!) did a begrudging check to see if he complied.

    He did pretty well! Minor formatting errors only (“…I can’t believe I’m correcting this type of stuff again…”) and sufficient detail, and then I got to the bio. He peeked over my shoulder as I read it out loud. I snorted.

    “Who wrote this?” I scoffed, using my outside voice.

    “…I did,” he answered slowly.

    “Oh…” I answered just as slowly. “It’s perfect!” I chirped.

    Some laughs, protests, and tummy pokes later, I got to re-write it. He didn’t resist improvement, but I re-learned the healthy editor-writer relationship in a span of about 10 minutes!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Christina – Ah, yes, the Be Gentle commandment for editors (because even when you are gentle, they will still feel ravaged – I know I do when someone edits my flawless prose). Engineers are often a little tougher than other folks (don’t tell your father and don’t get me started!), but you knew that already from your previous life. Something about being the 1 in 3 in their starting class to actually graduate makes some of them inclined to figure they know better, even when it isn’t engineering. Oops – and there I am – started! Anyway, good for your father’s proposal coordinator for keeping their standard resumes up to date so that task doesn’t fall in the critical path to a deadline, and good for your father for being open to improvement. May we all be so organized, on the one hand, and flexible, on the other.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – I had not seen this – thanks for the link. In an environment where folks are screening hundreds (or thousands? Yikes!) of resumes for one job, I can see how a “Just the facts, ma’am!” attitude might creep in. If the resume doesn’t show why you should get an interview, it isn’t doing its (one) job. Too many folks have a standard resume they use for all applications, counting on the letter to make the connection. At least in Proposal Land we know that the resume has to make the sale, which is why an off-the-shelf resume is never ideal. It might be all that’s possible, but it’s never what’s best.

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