Unofficial Oral Proposal Guide
Why Some Evaluators Prefer Written Proposals
I’ve encountered naysayers who have told me they can’t review or evaluate written proposals on a computer monitor because they need to see it in print and spread it out across their desks, and that their screens aren’t big enough to see the proposal, the solicitation, and any other relevant documentation all at once. If they can’t fathom evaluating digital submissions, they may have an even harder time with oral proposals.
Some of this is generational, with 60ish Baby Boomers remembering a time when they spent the last 15 minutes of the day shoving paper into drawers to abide by a Clean Desk Policy at one end of the spectrum. At the other end, Millennials easily click between tabs or put all necessary documents on a bank of vertical monitors for quick reference.
I get it. I’m “of an age” and I love my paper. I love the delicious smell of books, the sensuous feel of the printed page, the way my red pen grazes the single-spaced 10-point Times New Roman text to circle an error fiercely or seductively scrawl a question in the margins like a love note to future readers. I’ve done it this way for years. Decades. Like many of my source selection teammates.
They want to take their 50 or 100 pages or more of text to their corners of the source selection room and read them leisurely, or maybe leave and return to the room numerous times because they have to run back to the office to handle their “regular” jobs.
In the source selection room, they hear the engineers in the next cubicle talking about something they haven’t read yet, and then they skip around because they’re literally not on the same page. They hate being in an eternal source selection, and yet written technical proposals can lead to a more chaotic evaluation and longer lead times.
Others look at the briefing charts that accompany oral proposals and say, “That’s not enough!“ They want to see more than a few bullets. They’re used to seeing paragraphs, long narrative, maybe a few graphics. They worry about how the winning contractor will ever be held to the work they’ve proposed.
The truth, of course, is that they’re held to the work the same way as with a written proposal—usually by the Statement of Work or Performance Work Statement in Section J of the contract, not by the proposal itself.
In other cases, evaluators are afraid they won’t understand the presentation in real time or can’t think fast enough to understand an audiovisual experience. It’s easier to talk to others about what they’ve read and exchange opinions before committing to an evaluation worksheet. Their insecurities and fear of change drive their discomfort with oral proposals.
Do consider if key evaluators might have hearing or eyesight problems that drive their feeling insecure about oral proposals. They may not want to call attention to their difficulty understanding a presentation. This could be as common as not being able to comprehend a slide across the briefing room because of an outdated glasses prescription or blurriness from high blood sugar, or the middle-age results of too much of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” in front of concert speakers back in the day.
If this is a problem, you might be able to shift the room to accommodate them or you might need to rethink using oral proposals. No need to call them out publicly. No one—including me—wants to admit weaknesses that come with getting older, and a lot of people will try to hide those irritating frailties with eyesight and hearing by being cranky and insisting on doing something the old way.
This problem calls for empathy and often can be worked out discreetly. For example, I once had an evaluator I realized over time—before the source selection began—was deaf in one ear and would turn his head or drift to my other side so he could hear me better or read my lips. So that he could face the vendor and hear them clearly during the presentation, I insisted he sit on a particular side of the conference table near the front to “balance the room.” No one questioned my seating arrangement, not even him.
Sometimes evaluators will try to make oral proposals into something mysterious and dangerous, listing all the possible things that could go wrong. In reality, an oral proposal has the same rules and restrictions as a written proposal—it’s just a different delivery method.
Still others will shrug off oral proposals because “they don’t really get you anything more than you could get with a regular old written proposal.” That’s simply not true, and may be due to their lack of experience or lack of success with oral proposals.
Be sure to get your legal counsel, policy reviewers, cost/price analysts, and other advisors such as Small Business personnel, competition advocate, Acquisition Center of Excellence, etc., onboard as early as possible. Legal counsel especially should be involved early since your lawyer will very likely sit in on the actual presentations if they are large dollar, controversial, or high-visibility. Legal counsel can make or break your process, and outside your immediate team, they’re probably your most important advisor. Get their help in brainstorming how you’ll customize oral proposal procedures to your acquisition, and share this guide with them.
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