Tender bids and sales copy are not the most glamorous side of B2B copywriting, yet still form the vital beating heart of many writers’ daily lives.
Business writing is all about impact. And nowhere is impact more necessary than in a tender. Livelihoods are at stake. The impact of success is great: the impact of failure greater.
The principles and motifs of clear business writing feature heavily in any good tender bid. And they apply just as much to the wider art of writing effective sales copy.
The two formats – bids and sales – are closely related. Both represent the essential DNA of good business writing, the archetype, the X Why Z.
What is a tender?
A tender is the process whereby an organisation which needs support for a project or large piece of work – often a public sector body but not always – invites businesses to bid to win a contract for that work. In simple terms it’s about suppliers of services or products specifying exactly how they will meet a set of given needs, and on what terms including price and time. And for significant projects, over a longer period of time or on a large scale, the process is detailed and demanding.
Public sector work, especially, has specific tendering processes to ensure fairness on all sides and value for money for the taxpayer. But it’s not just the public sector. Right across the board, in construction, property management, healthcare, local government, transport, education and procurement – not to mention manufacturing – tenders represent the essential core of daily commercial activity. This is a big chunk of the economy.
A brief guide
One key aspect of good business writing is having a clear, succinct brief, which specifies the important details of the proposition – target audience, wordcount, timelines, title, themes, questions/issues, format and the like – as well as practical things like review/sign-off process and delivery platform.
Tenders are usually accompanied by what amounts to a structured brief, though it will usually be known by some form of three letter abbreviation – an invitation to tender (ITT), request for proposal (RFP), pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) or some other variant. Either way it will be a structured questionnaire with parameters on technical features like wordcount as well as the content required from the bidder.
The word ‘structured’ is vital here. The brief for a tender is so ‘structured’ it actually amounts to a template. Now I am not a fan of templates, in general, but I recognise that in some forms of business writing (e.g. contracts) they are essential and in other formats (e.g. press releases) can have great value. In writing tender bids, in practice, we will usually be operating to a template. There is nothing wrong with a template: just think of it as a highly structured brief.
Make me a match, catch me a catch
In any good business writing the reader’s needs are paramount. They define the scope, the style and the structure of the content. They define the content itself.
In the same way, the key to writing a good tender bid is to be specific as possible exactly how your capabilities match the client’s requirements. If you make a match you’ll catch a catch. What are the client’s concerns and needs? The timelines? The price or budget? The quality of the delivery, and any associated guarantees? Sub-contracting arrangements or project management skills? Health and safety standards? Although it sounds strange, health and safety is a big preoccupation of tendering clients these days.
Many tenders will cover a range of such requirements. The key thing in writing a successful tender bid is to – in writing terms – ‘meet the needs of the reader’. To ensure you focus on the things your client is concerned about. Often, invitations to tender will include specific indications of what these primary concerns are, or even state them as requirements of the successful bid. How exactly will you meet those concerns?
It’s often said that price is always the driver behind a winning bid. And, even if not the winning factor, it’s always an important one. But more qualitative factors can also have an effect. So ask yourself what you can deliver to the tender which trumps your competitors. If your bid can tell a really strong story about these factors it may reduce the primacy of price in the tendering client’s decision.
Accuracy and consistency are watchwords for any business writing. It goes back to business writing being all about impact, engagement and fulfilling your reader’s needs (including some they might not even be aware of).
You don’t always know who your readers are, or everything about them. They might be sticklers. Inaccuracy in spelling, grammar or punctuation upsets sticklers, prompting disengagement and a loss of impact. Inconsistency upsets sticklers too, and what’s more it has subtle insidious effects even on readers who aren’t sticklers. It distracts them while they work out the meaning of the inconsistency: ‘Is this word capitalised for a reason here when it wasn’t earlier? What does the difference mean?’
The inconsistency disturbs their cognitive process, even momentarily. And if that happens too often it will start to affect the reading experience of even the most patient and least stickler-ish of your readers – consciously or unconsciously.
Or your tendering client might actually be a stickler. Assume they are and beware.
Earn the right to play
In my business writing classes I talk about earning the right to play. It’s a sporting analogy, applied to rugby and football, where you sometimes have to defend grimly before you get the chance to show off the silkier attacking side of your game. It’s fine being able to play like Barcelona in the opposition’s half, but not worth much if your defence is worthy of Hackney Downs on a Sunday morning. You need to work on the defensive side of your game as well as – before – giving vent to your creative side. You have to earn the right to play.
The business writing equivalent is being flawless on the defensive side of your game – spelling, grammar, punctuation – before you start worrying about the niceties of style, messaging and story. Flawless accuracy is your platform, your foundation. This certainly applies to tenders, where the tendering client will be looking for any excuse to discard your bid from the dozens she has received. Inaccuracy and even inconsistency provide just that excuse – however beautifully formulated the words.
Inaccuracy can even undermine the credibility of your bid. Some tendering clients make a point of going through a bid document identifying small mistakes, which they take into account when weighing up bids against each other. It’s in your own interests to aim for flawless. That means checking a tender bid exhaustively, using both automated tools and human touch.
The rule of thumb for any business content is to spend at least as much time editing and checking as you have spent writing the content in the first place. And in a tender document that is the bare minimum: don’t be surprised if the checking-to-writing ratio stretches out to x2, x3 or even x5. Plan for it. It is worth the time and cost.
The X Why Z of effective selling
Let’s assume you have achieved flawless prose and fulfilled all the requirements set out in the ITT, including a clear and cogent account of exactly how you match the tenderer’s needs.
There’s still a magic ingredient to bring to a tender bid, which actually applies to sales copy more widely, as famously set out by Simon Sinek in his million selling book Start With The Why. Why you? What’s your unique selling proposition, your USP? There are dozens of competing bids that your tenderer is looking at: what it is that makes you stand out? Focusing on the why means you focus on benefits (for the buyer) rather than features (of your product or service). It’s more engaging for the buyer and less of an outright hard-sell – which in this age of consumer rights, cancellation rights, cooling off periods and ubiquitous mis-selling is going right out of fashion. Of course focusing on your USP doesn’t mean criticising your competitors openly, but talking positively, constructively and honestly about the solutions you bring to your buyer’s problems and needs.
Focusing on the why appeals to emotion rather than reason, and people buy based on their emotion. Yes, it has to be backed up with the what and how, but the why is the literally central part of the XYZ of effective selling – the X Why Z.
The five step persuasive writing structure
Forbes writer Greta Solomon has a compelling template for writing excellent sales copy which has the why at its heart. It’s called a five-step persuasive writing structure, as follows:
- Title and sub-title: highlight your main message.
- Opening: very briefly introduce your message (your ‘what’) in a compelling, clear and catchy way.
- Why? Put your message in context. Why is it so important, including the benefits and implications of making this choice.
- If. Paint a picture of how life will look once the what and the how are in place. Or, conversely, what life will look like if you don’t make this choice. Either will do, but paint a scenario.
- What and how? Outline the details and main content of your message.
Now it follows from what we were saying earlier about tenders and templates – and the important concept of the ITT or RFP – that you might have more limited scope in a tender bid to write free-form sales copy. No matter: it’s the ideas that count, rather than necessarily following the five-step persuasive writing structure in a linear way. And having the why at the heart of your tender bid is a way to really maximise your chances of success.
Ten tender tips
Finally here are ten tips to help you win more tenders, which you can also apply more broadly to writing other forms of sales copy.
1. Facts and evidence
In highlighting your why, bring in as much factual evidence as you can muster rather than sticking to vaguery and exposition. The more concrete your evidence, the more credible your bid or pitch.
2. Focus your attention
Although it seems counterintuitive the fewer tenders you respond to the more likely your chances of success. Concentrate on the tenders you’re most likely to win and be ruthless in ignoring the rest.
3. Take your time
Give yourself plenty of time and resources to do excellent preparation. Excessive haste will mean you overlooking small details and making small mistakes which could kill your bid.
4. Do your research
Go beyond the ITT or RFP by seeking out whatever information you can find – even informally – on what the tendering client really wants and values. Treat it as a multi-dimensional research project, and rigorously follow up any leads or even half-leads. They might give you the crucial insight that nobody else gets and that wins you the tender. Be smart – and sly if needed – to get the information, while of course staying entirely ethical and within the law at the same time.
5. Understand your USP
Know your ‘win themes’ – the factors that differentiate you from your competitors and most directly address your tendering client’s needs – and make them front and centre of your bid.
6. Tell your story
Ensure that your win themes run consistently through the entire fabric of your bid documents, a narrative thread or seam reinforcing the story of your bid at every turn.
7. Keep it positive
Use strong, constructive, positive vocabulary, always looking on the bright side and resisting the temptation to scare, demean or denigrate.
8. Keep it simple
Avoid unnecessary jargon, fluff words, long words, buzzwords. Keep your sentences and paragraphs simple and short, to reinforce the clarity of your arguments and ideas. A tender bid is not the place to aim for Pulitzer prize-winning prose.
9. Respect yourself
You are all equals and professionals: there is no need for an obsequious or flattering tone. Treat your bid as a process where the tendering client would be just as lucky to work with you as you would be to work with them. You’re aiming for a mutually beneficial and mutually enjoyable working relationship, where you may even learn something from each other.
10. Be human
In the end the client will want to work with you because you’re kind, funny, clever and smart as well as because your bid meets all their needs and represents good value for the taxpayer or the shareholder. Be tender, be human.