Proposal Land

Impenetrable Text: Bug or Feature?

It’s a trick question, right? After all, any editor will tell you that impenetrable text is an all-too-common bug. Here’s an honest comment on scientific literature from a life-sciences PhD at the University of New Brunswick.

I will cheerfully admit to the “bug” half. Yes, much of our literature is poorly written. We write in complex sentences stuffed with the biggest words we can possibly find. We adore acronyms, seizing every opportunity to coin a new one, or seven if we can possibly manage it. We scrub any hint of personality from our writing, fetishizing the passive voice, avoiding informality like contractions, and ending up with colourless text that sounds just like everyone else’s. – Scientist Sees Squirrel

So, how could it possibly be a feature? Read on.

. . . like all writers everywhere, we write for a specific discourse community. A discourse community is a set of people who share background knowledge and context, vocabulary, and interests. Before you write anything – a scientific paper, a recipe, a piece of Star Trek erotic fanfiction – your first move should always be to think about the discourse community you’re aiming to be part of. Or, in simpler terms: ask yourself, who are your readers? If your intended readers are experienced legislators, you can probably use the word cloture (or closure or, colourfully, guillotine) but not the word rhyolite; if instead they’re petrologists, it’s probably the other way around. (Yes, that example is trivial, but you get the idea.) Our universe is complex, and our understanding of it is too, and expressing that in a way that’s useful for other scientists does require some advanced vocabulary and some textual complexity. In this sense, the impenetrability of our literature to outsiders is a feature; it arises because we are successfully pitching what we write to the discourse community that will read it.

How does this apply to Proposal Land? Thusly. Many editors are not expert in the content they’re editing: They’re not airport operators or building managers or software developers or call-centre supervisors or management/PR/HR consultants or  tradespeople of any sort. But, boy, do they write good.

If we know that both non-experts and experts will be evaluating our proposal then our task is to take all the value that editors bring in clarifying and improving technical text without losing any part of the text’s communication value for any experts who are also aboard.

If we really don’t know who’s involved, then we’d better assume the presence of both.

One good approach is to start every section with a plain-language statement of the problem/target and the proposed solution/approach along with its benefits. That’s to convince the non-experts. Then get into as much detail as needed to convince the experts. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

Should it be easy to read? Simple sentences and bullets? Plainer words where possible? Few (or, at least, defined) acronyms? Active voice? Helpful graphics? Absolutely.

Should it have precise technical detail, appropriately expressed as per domain/discipline/industry norms? You bet.


A New Chance to Begin Again

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Seth correct a post based on fact-checking. Today was that day, in his piece on the ostracodish. He had said it was extinct and it ain’t, although some types have disappeared.

So his metaphor of an organism evolving step-by-step into a state of being completely unfit for their environment lacks a little something, but the point he’s making is valid.

I’m sure there was a really good reason twenty years ago for all the steps that are now involved in the thing you do right now, but your competitor, the one who is starting from scratch, is skipping most of them.

Every day we get a new chance to begin again. And if you don’t, someone else will.

In Proposal Land we can also get into ruts – often thought of fondly as best practices.

We set a schedule that gives a whole whack of time at the end to perfecting and prettifying the document, just as if we were creating a brochure that had to last for several years instead of a one-off sales proposal. If we were starting from scratch, would we instead allocate more time upfront to planning how to do the work both better and cheaper than our competitors?

We ask technical experts with no particular writing or proposal-response skills to write. Or we ask overloaded technical experts to communicate with writers who don’t actually understand the work. Or we ask marketeers to jury-rig boilerplate to fit this requirement. If we were starting from scratch, would we instead invest in technical writers who understand our clients, our work, and proposals?

We use precious time during the response period to collect and document stories on accomplishments relevant to this work. If we were starting from scratch, would we, instead, pay someone to interview operators/managers/executives on a regular cycle to identify our accomplishments and store them in a searchable format?

We “stop presses” to review the whole document, driven (I expect) by what worked when we had to work on paper. If we were starting from scratch, would we instead give people ongoing access to the document as it emerges?

Every day we get a new chance to begin again. And if we don’t, someone else will.


Handling Harsh Feedback

As always, Seth has a succinct explanation, this time for harsh feedback.

It often comes from one of two kinds of people:

    • People who give themselves feedback in the same heartless tone.
    • Folks who honestly believe that their work is flawless.

As someone who has suffered through harsh feedback from Red TeamsAnd given my share? — I think Seth is onto something here, although in practical terms it might not help much. While there’s always hope for people to learn not to be harsh with themselves, the personal insight and growth required are usually outside the scope of Proposal Land management. And there’s nothing we can do about people who think their own work is flawless.

But his closing comment is even more interesting.

When in doubt, look for the fear.

Fear of what?

  • Fear of losing the business.
  • Fear of winning the business and losing money.
  • Fear of looking bad to a boss.
  • Fear of others thinking that the work you do under schedule pressure is the best you can do.
  • Fear of you thinking that the work you do under schedule pressure is the best you can do.

If you look for the fear in others — if you can understand or even predict it — it opens up new possibilities.

For one, expecting harsh feedback makes it easier to take. OK, sort of.

For another, understanding the fear might allow you to address its drivers:

  • You might take more care with presentation quality.
  • You might interview executives ahead of time or in quiet times to get their preferences and priorities and concerns.
  • You might add a proactive, pre-emptive risk briefing.
  • You might explicitly address a problem from earlier proposals and show how you’ve fixed it this time.
  • You might find a way to push status information so that people who are responsible for the outcome but who lack direct management control can track your progress without having to ask.

If you look for the fear in yourself, you can translate that insight into the personal growth needed to overcome it.

And less harshness in the world is a good thing, yes?



Enough is Enough

Given that the list of things to do is intentionally endless,
it’s on each of us to decide what ‘enough’ looks like.
Because more time isn’t always the answer.

Today Seth is talking about this general problem of limiting the length of our shift. It’s not unique to Proposal Land but it’s pervasive there.

It’s up to each of us to decide what “enough” looks like:

  • It’s on executives to decide what standard of presentation they will demand and to give clear direction on the relative priorities of all the work that *could* be done, because it can’t all *be* done.
  • It’s on team managers to communicate the priorities and to set and enforce reasonable work-day and work-week limits.
  • It’s on team members to address the executives’ top priorities first, rather than the easiest work or their own priorities/obsessions, within the established work limits. And to stop working when the shift is over.

And it’s on everyone to ask the folks above them in the proposal food-chain to do their part.

The work is intentionally endless. More time is not the answer. In that environment, what *does* “enough” look like?

You tell me: It’s not a discovery, it’s a decision.