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Know Everything About Proposals? Think Again.

By Matt Handal

Sometimes we’re so familiar with something that we think there’s nothing more that can be learned.

But if we’re lucky, a few times in our life, our beliefs get flipped on their head.

For example, I spent 30 years eating chocolate. I ate dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and every kind of chocolate given out on Halloween within a three-mile radius of my childhood home.

But then I met a bright, inventive, chocolate maker from Boston.

She sent me a box of chocolates that taught me a lesson. Chocolate can be spicy hot.

For 30 years, I thought I knew chocolate. Clearly, I did not.

I’d like to completely transform your experience with and perception of something you are probably very familiar with…proposals.

Whether you’re new to the proposal game or submitted hundreds of proposals…

…I can guarantee you that there’s more to learn. I guarantee there are things you don’t know.

I’d like to do this by telling you some of my stories and sharing a few things I’ve learned from putting on my proposal workshop with SMPS members across the country.

I’ll be presenting this full workshop in January here in sunny Boston.

Even if I don’t see you there, you’ll benefit from the lessons this instructor has learned from the students. And hopefully, you’ll be entertained by my stories of lies, cries, and buys.

Proposal Professionals Are Forced To Live In A Bubble

It’s not your fault. I submitted hundreds of proposals before I even once had to be the one selecting a winner amongst a set of proposers.  And I worked for years, putting proposals together, with technical professionals that had never experienced the other side of the proposal game.

Think about that. A whole industry that’s only seeing half the picture.

The problem with living in a bubble is known as the availability heuristic. We can only make decisions based on the information available to us.

And if you only see half the picture, how can you make the right decisions?

I believe if you could experience what it’s like to be one of your clients, your proposals would be a lot different. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

The portion of my proposal workshop that people find most valuable is what I call “Client For A Day.” I sit you down in groups. Then I give you an RFP and six proposals. Each group has to award that contract to one of the proposers.

I’ve never heard anyone describe it as anything but an eye-opening experience. If you ever have the opportunity to get out of your bubble, you should take it.

The Proposal Profession Is More Emotional Than You Might Think

Believe it or not, there is emotion involved with putting together proposals. I always tell people that these proposal efforts can represent our life’s work. And we need to be proud of what we bring to this world.

We have an emotional investment in these proposals. When we lose, it can hurt. When we win, it can feel good. And when we win a contract nobody expected us to win, who can blame us for walking on the clouds?

I’ve felt all these emotions, good and bad.

When I put proposal professionals into the client’s shoes and make them award a contract based on real proposals…it’s always an emotional experience.

At one session, I had a woman stand up with tears streaming down her cheeks. She said the experience made her ashamed of the proposals her firm (a large engineering firm) was submitting.

That’s not the only emotional response I’ve received from my workshops, but it was by far the most unanticipated.

One firm principal who attended a workshop said she felt “petty” after selecting a winner. A vice president for a very large construction firm didn’t believe me when I described the experience as an emotional one. Out of 60 people, he had the most emotional reaction.

It’s OK to admit we care about proposals.

 The People You Work With Have Been Fed Lies

The people you work with have been fed lies by:

  1. Clients who don’t want to hurt feelings or aren’t in a position to tell you the full story.
  2. Industry “experts” who base their advice completely on observation.

Let me give you an example. An owner I know, who worked at a large university/healthcare system, tells a very telling story.

He would attend design team shortlist interviews. The first team would come in and say, “We’re been your go-to firm for 30 years.” The second team would come in and say, “We’ve been your go-to firm for 15 years.” And the third team would come in and say, “We’ve been your go-to firm for 31 years.”

The selection committee would just roll their eyes and laugh about this.  They had worked with all three teams. Yes, they had “relationships” with the members of each team. But the idea that any one of those teams was considered this big system’s “go-to” designer was foolish.

Regardless, nobody was going to be so rude as to correct them.  Therefore, you’ve got three design teams living in a reality that doesn’t exist.

Here’s another example. In the following video, I refer to some “expert” advice that any owner would quickly identify as “BS.”

I love this example because I sat in on a selection committee where an architect used this exact tactic (obviously unsuccessfully).

Another classic lie we’ve been fed is, “Your clients make emotional decisions.” That statement, taken at face value, is a lie. There are decades of research into how the brain works, how people make decisions, and what influences those decisions.

In fact, there is Nobel-Prize-winning research on this topic (some of which I discuss in my workshop).

Yet, some marketing consultant reads a headline that says, “People make emotional decisions.” Then he or she goes around propagating this idea, without reading or understanding the actual research.

That’s a problem.

The truth is a lot more nuanced than that. That’s why I start off every workshop talking about the real science behind decision making. I go through the actual research studies, explain the conclusions, and then explain how it relates to your day-to-day.

Yes, the people you work with have been fed lies (for years).  And that’s influenced how they’ve approached proposals.

Sometimes these lies are so often repeated that it’s extremely hard for logical people to reframe their thinking.

People always ask whether they should bring technical staff to my proposal workshop. My answer is always the same: Bring them.

 What You Do With Proposals Makes A Difference

Sure, there are instances when what’s in your proposal doesn’t matter, like the famous story of the worst proposal ever submitted. Or when a crooked politician accepts a bribe.

But 99.9% of the time contracts are awarded by honest people (just like you and me) who care about the outcome and want to make the best decision.

We often make the assumption that a contract is “wired” for a firm or clients just select the lowest price. But once proposal professionals learn the science of decision making, experience what it’s like to be the client, and understand the most important proposal question to answer

…they start to see just how much they can influence the outcome.

You start seeing proposals as what I know them to be. The opportunity for you to have a significant contribution to your firm.


Matt Handal provides marketing strategies that actually work at He is the author of Proposal Development Secrets, Contributing Editor of SMPS Marketer, and leads the Construction Owners Association of America’s Communication Committee.




Kristie Norris is a Proposal Manager who enjoys theatre as a both a performer and audience member, horseback riding, and occasionally lifting kettlebells. She is a contributor for the Favorite Five blog series and a member of the Communications and Professional Development Committees.

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