Developing Your Own Personal Writing Style

What do we mean when we talk about writing style? Is such a thing even permissible in “technical” writing? Let’s take on the first question first.

The Bartish definition of writing style encompasses the words writers choose when communicating their thoughts. Of course it’s more than just words–it’s the order they use, as well as their diction, punctuation habits, range of vocabulary, emotional tone, and favorite turns of phrase. If you’ve read this blog for a while, for instance, you might already be aware of my stylistic “tics,” my habits of long dashes, personal storytelling, meandering prose, and occasionally sarcastic tone to keep the content useful and accessible. My writing style here is a text-only version of how I tend to speak, minus some extraneous cussing and with undoubtedly better grammar.

Of course that’s just my blogging style.

I’ve had to develop different styles for proposal writing, official correspondence, marketing materials, white papers, letters to Congress, and emails and blog entries for the Science Cheerleaders. Occasionally I even write fiction, though you will note that I pay my bills writing nonfiction.

If you’re a technical writer, you’ve no doubt noticed that your style has had to vary as well. The usual circumstances that affect my writing style are audience, situation, and outcome.

How your audience affects your style

Just as the person you want to communicate with greatly affects how you will speak to them, so too it will (and should) affect how you write. A personal thank-you note to a dear friend or close family member will read differently from a formal letter to a Senator you’ve never met requesting an official appointment. Why is that? One reason is simple familiarity. Unless your close relative IS a Senator, you’re unlikely to use the same casual language as you would with someone you’ve never met. Familiarity or lack thereof affects your level of formality.

Are you writing to one person or multiple? Family members? Friends? Coworkers? Members of the general public via a letter to the editor? The larger the audience, the more distant you are from them and the more general your tone needs to be. Lots of other little things about an audience can affect your writing as well, such as their average age, their political or religious affiliations, their level of education, and their gender mix. This doesn’t mean pandering, but it does mean being conscious of how you phrase things so as to ensure that your audience is receptive to your message.

How situation affects your style

After you settle on your audience, you need to consider the circumstances of what you need to write: is it good news? Bad news? A request from a stranger? A reminder of a favor? Simple information? Is the information you need to share new or familiar? Does what you say/write affect someone’s (or many someones’) job/financial security? A lot of these questions boil down to your audience’s potential reaction to the information. How you share the announcement of the early arrival of an expected bonus will be quite different from how you announce an unexpected layoff.

How your intended outcome affects your style

“Outcome” is simply how you want your audience to react after receiving the information you impart. Maybe you just want them to be aware. Maybe you need them to check a box or fill out a form. Maybe you want them excited and happy (easier when it’s a bonus). Maybe you want them calm and receptive (tougher when it’s a layoff). Maybe you want them angry/outraged and ready to take action.

How audience, situation, and outcome combine to affect style

Okay, so now you can see how the circumstances of a piece of communication will greatly affect what and how you write:

  • A short thank-you note to your parents for taking you to dinner can be as warm and fuzzy as you like because you want them to come away from the note with a good feeling.
  • An engineering proposal to a government agency is going to be a lot more formal but can include more dynamic language about your product or service to get your potential customer interested in buying it.
  • A speech announcing a massive company layoff is going to be carefully worded to explain the how and why while requesting calm and professionalism and expressing sadness and inevitability: you don’t want to sound so sad that people come back with, “If you’re so sad about it, why are you letting us go?”
  • A letter to a member of Congress/Parliament making a specific request of the government is going to be polite, formal, and deferential without being too obsequious.

And so forth. Time and experience–and the input of others–will help you shape your communication outputs to ensure that you use the right words to achieve the ends you desire. The more writing situations you have the chance to encounter, the better you will know and use those words that make for effective professional and technical communication.

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Taxes for the Freelancer

I was just chatting with a friend who was wondering what to do about her taxes and I thought maybe I’d pass on some thoughts to you, my fearless, loyal readers. If you’re not a U.S. citizen or living/working in the U.S., you can read this for curiosity’s sake or move along. I won’t keep you. And for gosh sakes–talk to a professional tax preparer. I am not one.

When should you file your own taxes?

I haven’t done my own taxes in five years or so. Partly it’s because I’m lazy, partly it’s because I lack the patience to read the tax forms, and partly because I’m not particularly good with math. If you can relate to all of those statements as well, you might want to give H&R Block or some other tax-assistance business out there. The reason I liked H&R Block is because they will represent you in the event you’re audited. They get paid by taking a chunk out of your return or by payment at the time you submit your return. However, there are times when reality should overcome laziness and you should just do things yourself, especially if you can answer “Yes” to the following:

  • Can you do math or use a calculator?
  • Did you have only one employer, customer, or source of income in the past year?
  • Do you have minimal investments or unusual sources of income (rental properties, agricultural exemptions, etc.)?
  • Did you have only one home address in the past year?
  • Did you give to only one charity?

If the answer is “No” to all of the above, give some thought to talking to a professional tax preparer.

Handling sources of income

If you’re a full-time employee, you receive a W-2 form at the end of the year showing how much money you were paid and how much money was taken out for taxes. W-2s are usually submitted along with your 1040 or 1040 EZ form.

If you’re a contractor/freelancer, you’re more likely going to receive a 1099 form, which is the same thing, but all it will show is how much you were paid; contractors do not have taxes taken out of their pay–you have been setting aside money for taxes throughout the year, haven’t you? I’ll get back to that in a bit. Incidentally, you keep the 1099s for your records, they don’t get submitted with your 1040 SE form…at least this fiscal year (2015). Because you only get 1099s by the end of February the following year, it’s a good idea to keep track of your income as you acquire yet, as freelancers pay their taxes quarterly. And that’s perhaps the major difference between full-time employees and freelancers: full-time employees have their taxes taken out of their paycheck before it ever hits their bank account; freelancers write a check every quarter, so they’re often more conscious of what they’re paying in taxes. It’s eye-opening, to be certain.

If you’ve got a wide variety of income sources–stock dividends, residual payments, rental property income, agricultural exemptions–you’ll be filling out other forms as well. Taxes are fun (cough).

Handling business expenses

Another thing you need to be doing throughout the year, in addition to setting aside money to pay your taxes quarterly and at the end of the year, is to keep the receipts from your business-related expenses. What are those? Just as a sampling:

  • Moving expenses: Did you have to move as a result of changing your job? Save your receipts: the movers (or truck); the packing materials; the hotel, gas, and food charges you picked up during the move.
  • Travel: Did you pay for travel to a conference out of your own pocket (and were not reimbursed by a client) in connection with your work? Save the receipts or at least track your credit/debit card statements from the airline, hotel, rental car, and parking so you can claim those as part of your cost of doing business. If you were reimbursed by your customer, do NOT then claim them on your taxes as well–that’s called double-dipping, and it’s illegal. The U.S. Government’s General Services Administration has limits on how much you can claim for hotels, meals, and incidental expenses (MI&E) per diem (per day). And note that the per diem rate varies by city or metropolitan area.
  • Meals: Did you pay out of pocket for business lunches or dinners? Save those receipts. Be realistic and honest about what constitutes a business meal, though.
  • Coworking: You can claim coworking memberships and the mileage you incur to drive to and from that location.
  • Medical expenses: You can claim your insurance premiums as a direct business expense, plus out-of-pocket expenses (pharmacy, doctor visits, mileage to/from doctor offices, etc.) if they exceed some magic percentage of your income. If you don’t know how much you paid out of pocket, check some of the statements you got from your health insurance provider–they’ll tell you how much you paid out of pocket.
  • Other expenses: This includes things like your telecommunications expenses (phone, internet, cell phone); professional memberships; parking and tolls; and business mileage.

I have other thoughts on legitimate and non-legitimate expenses here.

What you’ll be paying for

Now on my second year of freelancing, I started setting aside around 50% of my income throughout the year–both for rainy-day savings and for tax purposes. I presume that, at the worst, as much as 35% of my income might get gobbled up by Uncle Sugar.

I’m operating as a sole proprietor, so in addition to income tax, I also need to pay self-employment tax. So far as I can tell, it’s the individual equivalent of paying “corporate taxes.” If you set up a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) or some other official company, you’ll have a whole new set of paperwork to fill out. Don’t ask me about that, I know nothing.

I have to pay into FICA because just as my customers didn’t take money out of my pay for tax, they also didn’t take money out for Social Security and Medicare. As a full-time employee, your employer contributes half of your 12.4% FICA contribution; as a freelancer, you pay the whole thing. If you live in a state with an income tax or you own a house and pay property taxes, you have to set aside money for those as well.

Summary

So, to keep yourself on the right side of the IRS:

  • Pay your taxes, even if you’re paid in cash.
  • Track your income and set aside money out of everything you earn so you can pay your taxes when they’re due–quarterly or annually.
  • Save your receipts for legitimate business expenses.
  • If you’ve had a lot of transactions, sources of income, and expenses in the past year and are confused, intimidated by, or overwhelmed by the tax-preparation process, talk to a professional preparation service and bring along whatever paperwork you have.

You can do this.

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Why Have Standards for English?

“Why are you being so hard on us? None of us wants to be a professional writer!”
–Business writing class student to his professor

I’m in the process of reading a series of essays by Richard Weaver, a rhetoric and composition teacher who was also a conservative opinion writer in the 1950s and early 1960s. His political opinions are hit-or-miss with me, but his opinions on the teaching  of English represent some deep thought and have spurred me to write this little essay.

We don’t need no education…

I have heard most of the arguments against “proper” or “conventional” English:

  • Language is ever evolving, slang is ever new
  • New words and ideas are constantly appearing
  • Nouns are verbed on a regular basis
  • “Proper” English varies depending on which part of the world you are inhabiting when you are writing or reading
  • No two people understand the same word the same way, so complete understanding between individuals and peoples is impossible
  • Insisting on proper spelling, punctuation, or grammar makes you a “grammar Nazi”

You might agree with one or more of these arguments. And yet we continue to teach English in our schools, both as a basic skill and for specialized purposes, such as technical communication, science writing, playwriting, novel writing, poetry, and songwriting. If there are no standards, why do we bother?

Arguments for a consistent teaching of English

Achieving common understanding

When I visited Europe in 2009, I learned that rather than being the common tongue of a large population, German (Deutsch) was in fact a common lingua franca that allowed a number of tribes in North Central Europe with different languages communicate. For me, this lingua franca principle is one of the most important reasons why we need to establish, teach, and yes, insist on, a standard, consistent form of English: It makes communication between diverse peoples possible.

Preventing political pettifogging

Neologisms and political correctness are regular pet peeves of mine. George Orwell–a man of the left, from which the term “political correctness” originated in the first place–does a much better job of explaining the perils of PC than I can, so read his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The subject of neologisms is a regular headache for strict grammarians and people who lament the addition of “ain’t” to the dictionary. As a person who grew up reading science fiction, I don’t find new words or concepts terrifying or harmful to the English language (can you grok that?). That said, I have a problem with words that are created out of a political motivation to hide the truth–pettifogging, it’s called. My typical example of this is “downsizing” a corporatespeak word (note the neologism there) that means laying off a bunch of employees. It might sound like a more neutral or pleasing word, but it’s a euphemism for a painful reality. Changing what you call an unpleasant reality to something that sounds more pleasant does not change the reality.

Seeking out philosophical truths

The aforementioned Mr. Weaver argues that the teaching of proper English should not simply be for utility or tradition, but that it is a philosophical matter, as calling things by their proper names helps the student approach or apprehend the Truth of things. This requires a broad, subtle, and consistent understanding of words and how they are used. If you’re going to allow words to go astray and change meanings continually, you are in essence giving up on any common understanding of the Big Truths of Existence.

Making technology work

I’m not quite that lofty in my thinking. However, as I argued (unsuccessfully) when I was in graduate school, you must assume some commonality and reality-grounded use of language or our technologies simply will not work. My favorite field, aerospace, is a prime example. If you don’t have everyone from the engineering bullpen to the pilot’s cockpit all speaking and understanding the same words the same ways, aircraft cannot and will not fly safely. People will die. To ensure technical safety, you need consistency, which also requires a minimum level of correctness, quality, and understanding.

Looking professional

The best answer I could give to the student quoted above was to share an example from another of my travels, this time through the hill country of northwestern Virginia. My friends and I passed a movie theater marquee that was highlighting its current attraction, Batman Begins. However, the individual who posted the movie title had it as “Batman: The Biggenning.” I said, “You don’t want to be that guy or gal who makes their business look stupid.” However fluid language or spelling might get, businesses are still expected to get some basic things right.

Saving civilization

Perhaps this last answer seems a bit lofty, along the lines of what Professor Weaver was preaching, but I’ll try to make it practical. I believe that striving for ongoing quality in English education should not just be a rear-guard action against linguistic barbarism. Our world is growing ever more interconnected, diverse, and complicated. Our machines–thinking and otherwise–are getting smarter, more powerful, and potentially more dangerous when mishandled.

The language we use–and right now English is the international language, for good or ill–shapes how we handle the complex mechanisms around us, both technological and social. Striving for a consistent, perhaps even elegant, level of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax can help ensure better thinking about what sort of world we want inhabit. Better and more subtle thoughts are made possible by a wider and wiser understanding of the language we use to communicate them. If acronyms, bad spelling, profanity, dislocated grammar, cloudy thinking, and emojis are to be the extent of the 21st century’s “deep thoughts,” that will tell our descendants as much about us as whatever ideas we hoped to convey. Surely our posterity deserves better.

I’ll close with Professor Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady, who provided a much better answer than I did to my student on why we should use the English language well:

“Think of what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language. It’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest sentiments that ever flowed in the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixture of sounds. That’s what you’ve set yourself to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.”

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Tips for Improving Your Proposal Writing

For the last ten years, at least a third of my income has been derived from proposal writing. I still have no idea what goes through the minds of Source Selection Boards or other organizations to ensure that you will win. What I can offer are tips to help your proposal rise above the usual engineering textbook.

You’re busy, so I’ll just get to it.

Don’t be boring

What’s boring in the proposal world?

  • Providing bland descriptions of your technology or approach: we will do X, we will do Y, we will do Z.
  • Reciting statistics…say, about your MTBF performance or how many widgets your ABC Machine(TM) can crank out in an hour.
  • Parroting the solicitation language back at the evaluators.
  • Reciting your company’s/technology’s history of doing whatever it is that needs doing.
  • Using a lot of passive voice.

I can hear some of you saying…”But, but, BUT! That’s what they asked for!” Yes, yes. And a lot of engineering proposals require the reader to be immersed in the latest software, propulsion, nanotechnology, or robotics wizardry. Technobabble is unavoidable. All reasonable points. Some of your readers might even enjoy reading dry engineering descriptions. That is no excuse for boring your readers.

State your advantages

Now I’m imagining my engineering readers thinking, “Oh, great, here comes the marketing guy trying to add razzle-dazzle and BS to a sound technical proposal!” Not at all. Lucky for my engineering colleagues, I don’t know enough about their hardware to overpromise or make up capabilities. I take the proposed engineering work for what it is. I just submit that engineering writing need not opaque.

So how would I improve things? Let’s start with that first bullet: providing bland descriptions of your technology or approach. Trust me, I’m a fan of clear and direct language–no fuss, tell me what you’re going to do–BUT…before you dive right into how you’re going to lay out your composite laminates or set up an agile coding team, it would do some good to open the overall proposal and individual technical sections with a paragraph explaining the context of your approach and why your customer should want to use it. For instance, engineering proposal writers might assume that the reader knows as much as they do so they don’t need to explain everything. I beg to differ.

You might, for a completely made-up example, have a software development approach that enables software to be developed at a specific rate or at an error rate of 1 per 1,000,000 lines of code, which might be 10X better than the industry average. You might know that, but do your readers? They might, but event if they do, that advantage is worth restating. Or you might have a technology that improves the ability of a telescope to see 8X farther than any instrument built to date; however, if all you do is describe the technology, stopping short of explaining that advantage or outcome, you miss the opportunity to highlight why your proposal stands out, you leave it to the reader to understand the implications.

Show how you’re answering the mail

Yes, it’s good to show your reviewers that you read the solicitation, and it’s often helpful to sprinkle in some of the words found there to show that you’re giving the customer what they want. However, it’s more important that your proposal “answer the mail” by showing how your solution matches the intent of those magic words and your customer’s priorities. Some of that goes to your proposal evaluation criteria: If your customer’s primary emphasis is cost, you want to be able to highlight all the places where your approach keeps your approach inexpensive (or, barring that, less expensive that your competitors’). If your customer’s primary interest is in your past performance, you shouldn’t just recite a list of everyone you’ve worked for before, but your results…hopefully all good ones. If your customer is looking for the latest gee-whiz high technology, you want to be able to show the newness of your approach/research.

Communicate clearly and directly

Passive-voice writing makes me crazy. It’s the difference between “The magnet will be moved” and “The team moves the magnet.” Another headache for the proposal reader (who, by the way, is reading more proposals than just yours): confusing readers on what the subject is and/or separating your subject and verb. Example (fictitious):

The mission of the new Constitution class vehicle, with its need to advance rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days, can be advanced by employing the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive.

All sorts of things done wrong here–on purpose–so you can see how they might be improved. First off–what’s the subject here? The mission of the starship or the starship itself? What’s being advanced? One clue is that prepositional phrase: “of the starship.” So really, “the mission…can be advanced.” You could fix this by saying

The new Constitution class vehicle’s mission, with its need to advance rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days, can be advanced by employing the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive.

Okay, that’s a slight improvement, but let’s dig a little deeper. There are still way too many words clogging up the space between the subject and the verb. I added an extra bit of ugliness here by making the verb passive: “can be advanced” vs. “advances.”

The new Constitution class vehicle’s mission, with its need to advance rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days, advances by employing the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive.

Better? Maybe. But do we really want the mission to be the subject of this sentence? We really want the actor here to be the warp drive. So let’s do some more serious rearranging and add some more verbs to make it clear what’s being done to what:

The Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive advances the mission of new Constitution class vehicle by accelerating the ship rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days.

Now we’ve got a much more active sentence, with the product you want to sell–the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive–being the first thing discussed and the subject of the sentence. And look! The verb is the next word. And two words later? There’s the thing being acted upon: the mission. This is what English professors call classic SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) construction, and it’s one of the simplest sentence structures to read. In this case, we have SVO (the warp drive advances the mission) followed by some explanatory text afterward, which might or might not be needed. The most important things done with this editing exercise were to:

  1. Clarify what is done and who is doing it
  2. Explain how it is done

If you’re an engineer and all this seems like too much thinking, just concentrate on who is doing what to whom (SVO) and leave the rest to your friendly neighborhood editor. The important things here are to make your writing clear, active, and understandable.

Do some additional reading

For more insight into how to improve your writing, the best, hands-down editing book I’ve ever read and used is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. It’s worth the time and money.

Happy proposing!

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Why I Study Philosophy

In addition to my fondness for science fiction, I also read a great deal of philosophy. As a result, I was surprised and pleased by how much instruction in philosophy I received as part of our learning in the tech writing graduate school at University of Central Florida.

Philosophy helps you set priorities

As you’ve no doubt noticed, different philosophers have different perspectives on what constitutes the best approach to metaphysics, ethics, politics, epistemology, or aesthetics–and those perspectives can be instructive as well, even if you disagree with them. But what does all that have to do with technical communication?

Aside from learning and general mind-expanding, philosophy helps the technical communicator identify different approaches to what’s important to a given audience or within a specific document. Are facts or ideas more important? The physical or the intellectual? The spiritual or the logical? The facts or opinions?

You probably have (or at least should have) your own convictions about which ideas should take priority. Those are the convictions that drive you toward your personal goals and ensure that you behave in an ethical or responsible manner. However, it’s important that you have some notion of other interpretations of reality–not because other perspectives are less ethical, but simply because different customers or tasks will require different priorities. The more different perspectives you encounter, the better you are able to understand other people’s priorities, how they think, and how best to communicate in ways that will persuade or make sense to them. (Science fiction can do this, too, by the way.)

Philosophy helps you better reach your audience.

Another aspect of philosophy that is emphasized in formal technical writing classes is the Greek (Aristotelian) form of argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. 

Ethos is, essentially, writing with authority. It’s not just writing ethically (though that’s the same root word); you write with ethos when we back up our work with solid knowledge or speak in “the company voice.” Writing with ethos is a way to show that you know what we’re talking about.

Pathos is emotion–the same root word from which we get sympathy and empathy–it’s writing with feeling. Depending on what you’re writing, you might or might not use pathos in our writing. If you’re writing technical instructions for something that could go boom, we probably want to focus on “just the facts, ma’am.” However, you might have a situation where you’re trying to keep things light, in which case some added humor might be of use. Taking another situation, let’s say you’re writing a persuasive speech about a particular technology–for or against. You can cite fact and statistics all day, but occasionally you might need to move your audience, and emotional appeals do that more quickly and effectively than recitations of the facts. Of course even a recitation of the facts can have an effective emotional appeal.

Logos is logic–your reasoning. What facts or arguments do you use to make your case? How do you arrange them? What train of thought do you use to ensure that your audience reaches the same conclusion?

Truly effective technical communication draws upon all three of these ancient concepts–ethos, pathos, and logos. You must communicate ethically and with authority, you must touch the  the right emotional chord with our audience, and you must reason clearly so that your audience is persuaded of your point of view.

Philosophy informs your views of the world

I had a friend who insisted that “politics has nothing to do with philosophy.” I would most respectfully disagree. As I noted above, philosophy is the personal framework we use for determining what our priorities are. If politicians champion particular public priorities, they are taking a philosophical stance, and they must use ethos, pathos, and logos to convince us of the rightness of their position.

In a similar way, effective technical communicators must set priorities in their work to determine the most important ideas and make those ideas useful for their audiences. So if someone tells you that philosophy has nothing to do with technical communication, you now have a bit of logos to refute their argument. How much ethos and pathos you use is up to you.

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The Tech Writer as Event Planner

[This post has been modified from the original version. My apologies for any ugliness in the original posting.]

I had this grand idea of starting this post by sharing how I got into the volunteer event management business. However, to keep things brief, I’ll just share with you some thoughts on how my skills as a technical communicator relate to event planning. You can decide for yourself whether this is a line of work for you.

Covering the who, what, where, when, etc.

Even if you’re running an event for actual aerospace engineers and astronauts (which I did in 2011), convention or event management really is not rocket science. It does, however, require an organized, detail-minded thought process, and working as a technical communicator can give you the skills to do that. As with any technical process or writing project, an event requires answering some basic questions:

  • Where is it (place of performance)?
  • When will it occur (deadline) and how long will it run (schedule/period of performance)?
  • Who will participate (audience)?
  • Who will help execute the event (team)?
  • What is the actual content going to be (content)?
  • What feeling or action do you want attendees to come out with (outcome/tone)?

Finding who’s going to help

I got into event organizing as a volunteer. Before I got into a position where people trusted me to set up and run events, I had to do a lot of other little things along the way to prove that I was a capable, responsible person. Few organizations–for-profit or non–are going to hire an event manager off the street. So as I was going along doing smaller tasks, including volunteering for conventions other people were running, I was meeting people, making friends and contacts, and getting to know who was good at or knew what.

This slow build-up of skills and contacts allowed me to learn how various organizations worked, prove myself, and develop a subconscious database in my head of who could do what. By the time I was in a position to be put in charge of things, I had also acquired a large network of people I could call upon to help me run the event.

Getting the event ready and operating on schedule

Like most projects, conferences and events have a known deadline–it will happen on a specific date or dates, which means all of the pieces of the puzzle must be in place by the time everything begins. If not, you start inconveniencing your audience, most of whom likely paid to attend.

Leading volunteer events is a lot different from running events in the professional meeting management industry due to one key factor: while people skills are necessary for both, they are critical for a volunteer organization, as you have to maintain good relations with your fellow volunteers and keep them motivated to participate without straightforward incentives like pay. This is why it’s good to make sure you have the most reliable people you can find on the front end and a common understanding about deadlines and everyone’s willingness to commit their time and efforts. Last-minute drop-outs mean more work for the existing team or going out and trying to find another volunteer.

Another critical skill in event management is calendar and time management–understanding what needs to be done by when and sticking to the schedule.

Delivering what you said you were going to do

In the end, you want your event to go off with as little friction as possible. If that means you and your team are running around like maniacs nailing down the last-minute details but the participants are enjoying themselves, you’re on the right track. Continuing communication with your team is essential to keeping things on schedule and on track. And yes, given that you’re dealing with people, last-minute requests and crises are often the order of the day, so it helps to have a good sense of humor and an ability to keep calm in the midst of chaos or sudden change. It’s not for everyone, and most of the skills necessary for handling event management are learned, not automatic (especially if you’re an introvert), but if you can plan a formal dinner party or a large family vacation, you’ve got the early starting points for a job as an event organizer.

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How to Decipher Government Solicitations

One of the first (and sometimes biggest) headaches a proposal writer can face even before  sitting down to write is figuring out the format of the proposal. This might sound trivial, but the government–and contracting businesses–bounce noncompliant proposals all the time because they weren’t written in the proper order or format. Proposal preparation and writing, then, is an advanced version of that lesson you learned in kindergarten: follow directions.

In the past ten years, I’ve written proposals responding to multiple branches of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA as well as other U.S. Government agencies and customers. While my specific tips here are geared toward government solicitations, the general principles can be found in the nonprofit and commercial sectors as well.

Reading the directions

Depending on the length of a solicitation and the depth of your involvement in preparing the proposal, you might be able to read the entire set of proposal instructions in a couple of minutes or it might take you all day if you’re looking at a Request for Proposal (RFP) that runs several hundred pages long (I can go into why RFPs can be that long in another post).

Multi-page government solicitations often have standard instruction sections, labeled alphabetically A through M. The letters have little to do with the section name, that’s just the format that’s been used–at least since World War Two, but probably since the Revolutionary War. In any case, when the A-M categories are used, they mean the same thing agency to agency because the government likes consistency…and really, so do contractors. If each agency used a different order and format for each individual RFP, it would take even longer for government to get things done than it already does. And anyway, why reinvent the wheel each time?

So with that format in mind, let’s take a look at some of the sections that affect the proposal writer most directly and most often.

Section L – Proposal Preparation

Section L provides the format for the proposal. It will include things like what font and margins to use (the U.S. Government likes one-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman as its primary body text font), proposal section names, section contents, header and footer requirements, Export Control notice language, and page length requirements. This is the section I usually look at first because I like to get the format together to sort out my thoughts. Based on section L, I will create a proposal “shell” that the content creators can then use as a starting point for their work. Sometimes I’ll include the content instructions underneath the section headings to help prompt the content writers as well.

Section C – Statement of Work

This is the work your organization is expected to do. Your proposal responses will need to address the contents of section C in the order and format used in Section L. Much of this content will be handled under your Technical Approach section, if applicable.

Section M – Evaluation Criteria

In this section, the government agency will tell you how it intends to “grade your paper,” i.e., tell the bidders what its most important criteria are when judging the quality of your proposals. The most common figures of merit are technical approach, management approach, past performance, and cost, but agencies also might evaluate proposals on things like small business participation, uniqueness of the technical solution, partnerships with other agencies, safety, workforce qualifications, and proposed schedule. Cost is almost always a factor but you’d be surprised how often it is not the most important factor.

Section M is important because it affects the depth of your content and the amount of marketing language you use in your proposal. The government agency will sometimes help you out in Section L by specifying a higher page count for those areas where it wants more detail. Again, it boils down to following directions.

And all this is NOT to say you should not read the rest of the solicitation. You should at least become familiar with the other sections of the proposal, as they might affect, in some small way, your delivery of the final product.

What to do when the solicitation makes no d@mn sense

I’m not going to lie: there have been times when I’ve been stymied in my attempts to “translate” government proposal instructions into an organized proposal. There are times when it is obvious that multiple people wrote the instructions and that they did not consult with each other prior to getting the RFP out the door, resulting in conflicting or confusing requests. I’ve been in situations where each person in the proposal “war room” had multiple college degrees and none of us could figure out what the heck the government meant in the RFP. Sometimes, to use yet another Star Trek quotation, “There’s no correct resolution, it’s a test of character.”

That said, if you are still in the question period, you can email the contracting officer and ask for clarification, keeping in mind that any questions and answers will be readable by all of your competitors as well. (Related topic: if the solicitation is asking for content that affects the technical aspects of your response, you might need to be careful about how you word your question to the contracting officer–otherwise you might reveal to your competitors some of your company’s technical approach or your “secret sauce.”)

If you are past the Q&A period, you’re going to have to take your best shot, focusing primarily on what the government wants done. In that case, section C might overrule section L to have the proposal order make sense, or vice versa.

Final thoughts

Again, most of proposal writing boils down to following the directions. Even if you’re proposing an actual space vehicle, the fundamentals of proposal writing are not rocket science. The government wants a product or service; they want your company’s best solution and offer; and they want it in a prescribed order and format. Nail all of those, and you’re halfway there.

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