Dealing with Proposal Losing Streaks

Wait Until Next Year

I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. As you might imagine, that makes for a vexing sports entertainment experience. However, rooting for the Cubs has taught me the value of optimism in the face of long-running challenges. “Anyone can have a bad century,” as one Cubs manager put it. That doesn’t mean I learned to like losing.

This past week, a proposal I helped a customer write won the bid. This was a moment of joy for the customer and a great relief to me. I’ve worked on a lot of proposals over the past 3-4 years. To the best of my recollection, I’ve lost nearly every single one, going back to 2012–the last time I can recall a confirmed win.

It isn’t personal, Sonny, it’s just business

Note the “I” there. That’s my first mistake: an understandable one, but a mistake nevertheless. A proposal has many contributors, from the technical subject matter experts to the people providing the cost figures to the graphic designers providing graphics. Still, it’s the writer/book boss/proposal manager who typically has responsibility for the final product. To not win a proposal means that the potential revenue from that opportunity won’t be coming in, so there’s ownership and pressure there.

Ownership and pressure are inevitable side effects of proposal writing. Winning isn’t inevitable, however; and you will lose a few. Or in my case several of them scattered over multiple customers and years.

The important lesson here, as noted in the Godfather quotation in the heading, is: don’t take it personally. That’s not to say you didn’t have a role in some of the losses, but that’s also overlooking the realities of requests for proposals (RFPs).

Some reasons why it might be your fault


Okay, let me get this part over with so I can move on to the more optimistic angles. There are, in fact, a few things that a proposal writer or manager can do to torpedo the success of a proposal. You’re just asking for trouble that way, like Charlie Brown repeatedly accepting Lucy’s challenge to hold the football for him. There are some things you should just learn not to do.

  • Turn it in late. No excuses: you’ve got to make the deadline. One proposal I worked on was submitted in parts. Three fourths of it was submitted before the deadline. The last part–the cost volume, not my area, I hasten to add–was still being worked on up to the last minute and then some. It was submitted some  seven minutes late. Proposal: rejected. X millions of dollars in potential revenue: gone. The government takes its deadlines seriously. You should, too.
  • Submit a proposal that is not compliant with the instructions. Aside from the obvious deadline, government solicitations especially will prescribe the specific order of a proposal–even the section headings–along with the page margins, fonts, and font sizes. There might be other reasons a proposal gets bounced, which I’ll get into in a moment, but noncompliance with the instructions is an easy way for a reviewer to get your proposal off their pile and reduce their workload. Read and follow the directions.
  • Misspell obvious, visible, GLARING things. These are items such as the name of the customer, the name of your company/product, words in the title. Sad but true: people judge you based on the quality of your spelling. Those are the same people picking on you for typing in Twitter-speak. They’re out there, and they’re not all proposal writers (like me, ahem). And the Spelling Judges will think, “If they can’t even spell X product correctly, how am I supposed to believe that they’ll do the work well?” Spell checking is important, but reading is also important. Remember the lesson of the Spell Checker Poem.
  • Get the technology wrong. Say a subject matter expert gives you an explanation of the XYZ Widget. You think you translate the technobabble into proper English but neglect (or run out of time) to get a technical review. Your work ends up in front of the technical reviewer, who takes one look at your prose and says, “These guys are full of BS” or “That violates the laws of physics” or, more likely, “These guys don’t know what they’re talking about.” Make sure your technical writeups are making sense.

Some reasons a proposal loss was most likely NOT your fault

Unless your company is writing a task order proposal under a sole-source contract, the odds are good that you’ve got to work against at least one other competitor. The other thing you have to consider is the customer(s) and whatever is going through their mind. Let’s look at the factors that are beyond your control.


  • The competition had the lowest bid. Your company might have the best left-handed widget in the industry, but ABC Company down the street, which is almost as good, is also half a million dollars cheaper. If price is the most important criteria (and quite often they’ll tell you that), your company is going to lose, plain and simple.
  • The competition had a better product/service. Sometimes a customer is looking for the best left-handed widget, and ABC Company down the street is famous for designing and building left-handed widgets because they invented them and have stayed on top of the game ever since then. Or maybe you ARE the ABC Company and the customer is looking for something new and radical rather than something that’s been around for fifty years.
  • The competition has what the customer is looking for right now. I’ve seen this problem in both government technology opportunities and nonprofit foundations.

    The U.S. Government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) opportunities and the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) solicitations are annual, open invitations to businesses to submit bright ideas that could help solve a particular government problem. The RFPs frequently feature a range of topics or technology areas. Your company might have a bright idea for a right-handed widget that is just perfect to solve Problem Y. However, when the Source Selection Evaluation Board finishes going over all the proposals, they might decide that while your right-handed widget is quite clever, it doesn’t meet their needs because they’re really more focused on Problem Z this year, and the ABC Company has exactly what they want.

    In the nonprofit sector, foundations face similar constraints. They have particular types of organizations or projects in mind when they’re handing out grants. Sometimes other organizations just fit the objectives better.

Things you can do to improve your odds in the future

  • Ask for a debrief. This is pretty common practice in government contracting–contractors will request a one-on-one session or just an email or letter from the contracting officer for feedback on the proposal. This is often a good idea whether you’ve won or lost so you know your strengths and weaknesses. The loss discussion, while not fun, is absolutely vital for helping you and your company learn how to do better in the future. A win discussion is a good idea, less painful, is much simpler. In that case, you can ask the customer directly or send an email asking, “What were the key differentiators in accepting our bid?”
  • Up your game. Are you saying the same things in the same old ways? When was the last time you took a refresher course in proposal writing? If you don’t have the money or time to upgrade your skills, you can always go online and look for pointers. You are reading this blog, for example, aren’t you? So here are some freebie reminders to help you get back in the game:
    Tips for Improving Your Proposal Writing
    Getting to the Heart of a Matter in a Technical Proposal
    Marketing Language in Proposal Writing
    Proposal Survival Tips Revisited
    How to Decipher Government Solicitations
    Doing Effective Business Development Research in FedBizOpps
    Working in the Little Room
  • Get some help. Some proposals–especially the big-money, sink-or-swim proposals that the whole company is counting on to win–have the attention of upper management. Knowing the importance of the opportunity, they will assign additional help to ensure perfection: editorial, graphical, technical, etc. However, sometimes a proposal is NOT that important, but you feel could use the help anyway. Ask for it.
  • Improve your business intelligence ground game. You might or might not be part of the business development team that goes out and talks to customers, but you can encourage those who do talk to customers to get a better idea of what their current needs truly are so that future proposals are geared to meet those needs. Those discussions are easier if you already have a relationship with a customer, but there are other opportunities to reach potential customers, including conferences, where your business development team can have meaningful conversations that guide your future proposal efforts.
  • Shake it off, try again. Like I said, losing streaks can happen, but you can’t let it affect your confidence in your ability to do the work. You have written winning proposals, you will do so again. You have to believe that as a simple survival mechanism and for the good of your own mental health. Oh, yeah: and your paycheck.


Note: The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States. That didn’t stop me from cheering them on when they lost in the playoffs last year or all those many years that they haven’t even made the playoffs. Anyhow, they have been on top of their division for practically the entire 2016 season, and October is coming. Hope springs eternal.




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Your Favorite Teachers

Because I’ve been in learning/absorbing mode lately, I thought I’d touch on the subject of teachers. Into this category, you can throw in all sorts of people, if you think about it: not just the actual paid teachers from your elementary, high school, or college years, but also parents, relatives, work leaders, coaches, mentors, authors, on-the-job trainers, and many others. You can think of a teacher as someone who, after you encountered them and they imparted something to you, you thought differently.

Why should teachers matter within the scope of technical writing?

While we might, as people, be the sum of our experiences, inheritances, and assumptions about the two, we also are, to a great extent, the products of the people who taught us. The lessons we learn from teachers can affect how we operate as professionals and as people. Our teachers can serve as examples–good and not so good–for how we behave and create. And let’s face it: as technical communicators, the odds are more than favorable that we will end up teaching others as well, either formally or informally. We pass along our intellectual DNA, which is inherited from many sources.

Our first teachers

For most people, our parents become our first writing teachers, simply by reading to us or correcting our homework as we struggle to learn our alphabet, words, grammar, sentences, paragraphs, essays, and other projects on the way up the chain. Our parents’ attitudes toward learning can affect how we approach writing–as a pleasure, a chore, or a form of torture. I was fortunate to have a couple of somewhat bookish parents who had great respect for the written word, handled well. (True story: one time my father had my sister and me look up words in the dictionary as a game.) While not writers themselves, they were clearly spoken in their use of the language, and those patterns shaped how I put words on paper today.

Not everyone is so lucky. I know of people who grew up with parents who dreaded writing, or worse, who were hostile to learning: “Don’t get getting too big for your britches” being their general attitude–in other words, “Don’t go trying to get smarter than me or putting on airs because you’ve had some education.” Others can have parents who go too far in the other direction and try to push a young person beyond their abilities too soon and thereby shame the child who is unable to reach impossible standards. Others have well-meaning parents but grow up with dyslexia or other challenge that is overlooked because people don’t want to take the time to address the problem. Learning to write well isn’t impossible under those circumstances, but it can be quite difficult and require a lot of personal dedication and passion to overcome.

The point here being: our original teachers–our parents–can and do have a large impact on how we approach our role as a communicator. If some of your attitudes are very strong or set, odds are you can trace that back to your original teachers.

Teachers in school

Your formal teachers for the basics, like your parents, are people you don’t choose for yourself. You have no control over the content, teaching methods, or grading mechanisms. If you and your teachers are persistent, you can and will learn. (Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle likes to tell the story of his mother, who taught farm children in rural Tennessee, and over her years of teaching, there was only one she could not teach to read and write. “Though he wasn’t able to learn much else, either.”)

If you’re very fortunate, you encountered teachers who are exceptional at recognizing skills, challenging those skills, and inspiring students with specific skills to improve them. That’s true about teachers you had in school and just about any other person you learn from over the course of your life. Not every teacher “inspires” in the same way. Sometimes you learn to improve just to avoid public humiliation in front of your peers as the teacher insults your work in front of all of them. Sometimes a teacher provides negative inspiration (expiration?), where their teaching methods manage to prevent or turn you off from learning. I was lucky to have several teachers along the way who could get me to channel my abilities, do my homework, or improve the quality of my work (I was and am quite lazy when it suits me).

I think, if anything, academic teachers give us our strongest impressions of the mechanics of writing and thinking skills. Positively or negatively, those individuals affect how you approach the formal rules of your trade.

Authors–teachers you find on your own

People who write for a living also tend to be avid readers. Those black lines on the white paper call out to us, beckoning us to understand them and learn more. That collection of authors, from Dr. Seuss on up, teach us subtly about how writing works–or doesn’t work. As we read more and more, we learn what we like, both in terms of subject matter and style. Our innate interests draw us to particular topics, and the skills of particular authors draw us to more of their particular works.

Early on, I developed an interest in transportation–cars, boats, and airplanes. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to get me interested in rockets and spacecraft. Eventually, I grew interested in the genre of science fiction and most other types of fiction bored me from that point on. Still, if you look at my book collection, in addition to SF, you will also find a lot of philosophy, politics, and history, followed by a smattering of other genres. This mishmash of writings has given me a rather academic, technological focus to my writing; and for whatever reason I’ve been drawn to writers who are excellent in conveying technical information intellectually, if not visually. As a result, I’m not the flashiest writer when it comes to physical descriptions or emotional depth (note that I am a technical writer by trade, not a novelist).

The thing is, consciously and unconsciously, our writing style quirks and obsessions are often drawn from the books and authors we read. If you find your style lacking in some areas, you might need to find other books and other authors.

Other teachers

All of our other teachers are primarily informal or people not necessarily trained as educators, from managers and peers to customers and random strangers. Our dealings with our peers are what teach us–again, with the inevitable mixed results–how we interact with others. A supportive family life can provide confidence in dealing with other people while a long string of bullies can make us cautious in certain situations. Yet still: we learn.

A coworker of mine whom I was training to take over my job actually helped me with the process. I was stuck in a corporate writing style and trying to get her to write in the same way. Frustrated by my approach, she asked, “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” The question helped shake loose my emphasis on style and shift my focus to meaning. The transition process went better after that, and I’ve carried that approach with me since then.

Sometimes we learn lessons from friends, peers, or coworkers that we would rather not–like misplacing trust with an untrustworthy person or discovering that a specific person is not meant to be the love of your life. Again, such lessons are not always pleasant, but our experience with those particular “teachers” can identify a weakness in how you behave and “inspire” you to act differently in the future. We all have our moods and our attitudes when it comes to dealing with people, but our teachers in human interactions will often guide what we do with them.

Seeing yourself as a teacher

Looking back on your own teachers, you might find yourself repeating some of their most important lessons when teaching others. Therefore, it’s worth considering who your teachers have been and what lessons you’ve learned from them. Perhaps you had good teachers and can share a lot of positive wisdom from them. Perhaps you had a lot of bad teachers and have a desire to share lessons on “what not to do.” If the “lessons” you share with others are not going over well, perhaps it’s time to unlearn some of the lessons that shaped your past and acquire some new teachers–a new mentor, perhaps, who can help you identify ways for you to improve how you operate and what ideas you share with others.

I spent a single semester teaching Business Writing at University of Alabama-Huntsville. I tried to teach as I would have preferred to be taught (not always a good approach, but what the heck, it was my first time at the front of the classroom). And while I learned early on that I didn’t have the right disposition for teaching, I did try to incorporate the practices or behaviors of my favorite teachers from back in the day. And so, if my sense of humor sometimes got the better of me in the classroom, I at least tried to challenge my students to think. Mind you, not everyone appreciated that mindset (“We don’t all want to be professional writers”), but that was my intent.

In the workplace and even in my nonprofit activities, I’ve been eager to share what I know about the operation, partly because I like to and partly because I’m lazy and am quite content for more than one person to know what I know so people don’t keep coming to me. That was a side-effect of a lesson I learned from a peer who enjoyed being “the expert” on something: everyone had to go to him for particular types of information, and he held that information close, like a miser. I found that mindset selfish and counterproductive, he saw it as “job security.” The point being, as a professional communicator, you are constantly applying lessons from the teachers in your life and passing on those lessons to others. Therefore, it makes sense to learn and teach the best lessons you can.

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Upgrading Your Skills

I’m at one of those points where I have too much time on my hands. After a period of enjoying the sloth, I eventually get to the point where I realize I should probably be doing something constructive with myself, and that’s this week’s activity. There are a few ways you can go about upgrading your skills, including traditional academia, seminars and conferences, and online learning.

Traditional academia

I took this route back in 1999, when I decided to get serious about getting a job in the space business. I went ahead and decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in technical writing through University of Central Florida. At the time, my educational background consisted of a B.A. in English Literature while my work experience was all service industry-related (retail + Disney front desk, guest letters, etc.). The time and money invested were, for me, absolutely worth it, as I had only taken a single course in technical writing while pursuing the B.A. and so was unfamiliar with the discipline. The extra degree opened a door to a defense proposal writing job in the DC area, and things progressed from there. I think the whole program cost U.S. $10-15,000. Per credit hour costs at UCF are about the same as they were then, so if you don’t feel the need to attend Stanford or something in the Ivy League, you can probably get away with a less painful student loan to pay off. And if you get the better-paying you job you want, the debt can be paid off that much more quickly.

Seminars and conferences

I’ve done this on occasion, as it’s a lower-cost, less time-intensive alternative to a full academic program. For instance, I took a five-day course in grant writing from The Grantsmanship Center and found that worthwhile. I’d already done proposal writing professionally for several years by the time I took that course, so the seminar helped me understand the details and differences in the nonprofit world. Total cost of that program was around $1,000.

On occasion I’ve also attended conferences that matched either my professional skill interests (technical writing, instructional design) or my content/customer preferences (aerospace, engineering). Conferences are usually 3-5 days of networking while also attending seminars on topics of interest to the given audience. Between hotel, air, and registration fees–most of which you can write off if you’re a freelancer or you can try to convince an employer to pay for your attendance if you can show a return on investment for them–conference can run you anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 (or more depending on your field).

Online learning

These days I’m looking for something quick to pick up specific skills. The internet’s resources along these lines have vastly improved. In consultation with my mentor D2, I was referred to several different Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) sites, including:

These are courses conducted online–live or asynchronously–by actual university professors. For an additional $50 or so, sites like will provide you with a certificate showing that actually completed the course. The courses themselves are often free, and so can be your best bang for the buck if you just want to learn about a topic.

At any rate, I suggest keeping your skills fresh one way or another, even if you aren’t looking to change careers. Thanks to the internet, there has never been a better time to acquire high-quality information and education. And when you’re done you can go back to posting pictures of cats.🙂


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Managing Your Money


I’ve talked about retirement planning before, but to get from here to there, you have to have money to begin with. This requires some good money management behaviors. I recall getting some of these lessons from a basic home economics class in high school, some from family members or well-meaning friends, some from books or articles online. Whatever the source, I’ve done my best to apply what I’ve heard.

Why personal finance matters

You might be wondering why I’m talking about money in a blog about technical writing. Well, I’m also keen to talk about the business of technical writing, and that business includes handling your own personal finances. Proper money management is essential if you want to keep a roof over your head, your body fed and clothed, and the other aspects of your life in your possession.

Your credit rating is what enables you to obtain better interest rates on housing or vehicle loans. It’s a virtuous cycle: the less debt you have, the less banks will charge you to borrow money.

Not handling your money well can also affect your ability to get specific types of jobs. For example, over half of the people who are denied a security clearance with the U.S. Department of Defense are denied based on bad credit. The logic being, if your employer or customer knows that you’re having serious financial difficulties, they might suspect that you’d be willing to do something unethical or illegal to get out of them.

So, yes: handling your money well matters.

Basic personal finance

Forgive me if these are obvious bits of advice. However, the average American household carries over $15,000 in credit card debt, so a few reminders couldn’t hurt.

  • Make and live within a budget. You’ve got a list of necessities to live in this crazy world, some negotiable, some not: housing, food, clothing, and transportation (along with the utility or insurance bills that come with them) can be considered basic non-negotiables for you, your significant other, or children. Other items are more subject to negotiation, such as cable, phone, or internet access. Gym memberships and other items start moving under the heading of luxuries.
  • Set money aside for savings up front. One book I read called this “paying yourself first.” However you look at it, setting money aside for emergencies, luxuries, vacations, investments, or retirement should be a default part of your money handling, so take that money out first and consider the remainder the money you have to work with to pay your bills. If you’re working for an employer with a 401(k) or other retirement plan, that can be easier than self-discipline, as you don’t really see the money. If you’re freelancing, you’ve got to make the effort to throw money into savings or retirement every chance you get. One number I heard for setting aside money for savings was up to 10% of your income. That’s great if you can do it. If you can’t, at least do something each pay period.
  • Pay your bills second. After you’ve “paid yourself,” pay the bills you have in front of you–rent, groceries, insurance, etc.–before you go out to eat or spend money on fun. I learned that the hard way a couple times in my 20s. I would get paid and that money would be burning a hole in my pocket. I’d spend a bunch of money on whatever amused me on pay day then find that I’d come up short when it came time to buy groceries or pay a bill.
  • Live within or below your means. Whenever you go in to buy a vehicle or a home, they’ll do a credit check to find out what you could afford. That’s not to say you should buy a vehicle or home at the upper limit of your ability to pay. The real estate person or car sales rep might want you to go for the limit, but they’re motivated by commissions.
  • Pay for things out of money that is yours, not borrowed. This means, essentially, cash or money from an existing checking or savings account. If you don’t have the money right now and the item is not an emergency, wait and save until you can pay for it outright. Your money does you a lot more good than putting things on the credit card and paying it off later. (I do know an exception to this: I have a friend who pays for everything on her credit card to get the frequent flyer miles and then pays off the card every month. But, again, she pays off the card.
  • If you must acquire debt, make it “good” debt.” Good debt would be for things like a home, vehicle, or student loan. Bad debt would be credit card debt for purchases.

Tips if you’re already in trouble

Someone in my reading audience might be saying, “Oh sure, easy for you to say! You’re a single male with no kids! I’ve got a spouse, two kids and crushing student loan debt.” I hear you. However, I’m seriously allergic to debt because I’ve had a lot of it over the years and have developed a bit of a phobia about it. At one point in my life, I figured I would be 87 years old before I paid off my credit card debts making just the minimum payment. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Assess the situation and commit to making changes. As it’s been said in other circumstances, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. Next comes a willingness to take your situation seriously and to take actions to reverse the trend. The following tips are what helped me dig myself out of the abyss.
  • Stop charging stuff on your credit card. As the saying goes, if you’re in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging. Along similar lines…
  • Eliminate unnecessary expenses in your life. I don’t mean eliminate all fun from your life, though it might come down to finding low-cost or free alternatives to for entertainment, dining out, or even acquiring some of the basics.
  • Make more than the minimum payments. U.S. law now requires credit card providers to show how long it will take you to pay off a given balance making only the minimum payment. That’s a really good excuse to make that date come sooner.
  • Apply any unexpected bonuses to debt relief. This one can hurt, as I’m sure you’d rather spend your tax refund on a vacation or a fun purchase. But really, any random sources of income can be used to improve your debt situation.
  • Pay off your smaller debts first. I’m sure other financial geniuses would say pay off your high-interest or high-balance debts first. I’m just sharing what worked for me. I found it comforting to pay off some of the smaller debts so I could concentrate on the big one (and for me, that was the credit card). Getting some of the smaller debts or balances paid off can help you feel like you’re making some progress, give you confidence that you can handle the situation, and provide you with more money to take on the 400-pound gorilla on the debt sheet.
  • Get a better or second job. Additional income can help bring down the debt. If you’re forced to take on a second job, only do so for the length of your credit emergency so you can get your life back.
  • Get credit counseling help. If you’re in seriously deep yogurt and none of the above tips will come close to making a dent in your debt, a credit counseling service can help you with debt consolidation, filing for bankruptcy, or other options. If you’re in the U.S. or Puerto Rico, check out the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Paying off your debts and keeping your lifestyle within the limits dictated by your income is a great feeling and a tremendous load off of your mind. It allows you to get back to a somewhat normal life and to have fun with a clear conscience…just don’t put that fun on the credit card.

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Arguing Over Writing Style

“If you’ve nothing to say, say it any way you like…If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn’t get it then, let it not be your fault.”
Larry Niven

A bad day at the office

I once got into an argument with an engineer over writing style. He was under the impression that unless text was written “as an engineer would write it,” then it wasn’t technically correct. Needless to say, I disagreed.

Things came to a head one day when he was assigned to provide the technical review of a paper I had written and he did his level best to make me want to tear my hair out: passive voice, bad constructions, multi-line separations between subject and verb, bad punctuation–you name it, he had it all. And the Track Changes markups were a sight to behold.

I had two choices: try to go back through the red markups and reconstruct what I had originally written or accept all of his changes and start over on my editing. For the sake of my sanity and blood pressure, I did the latter. I then went back and fixed the blatant errors of grammar and construction, added non-engineering language to make points more clearly, and reconstructed things so they sounded like English again.

This wasn’t passive-aggressive (I was nearly on the verge of full-on aggressive). I showed him what I did and explained it to him. He accused me of “dumbing down” the paper. I explained that a) engineers would not be the only ones reading the paper, and b) it was not a sin to write an engineering paper in language that a non-engineer could understand. He shook his head, not buying my muted English major outrage.

Setting editorial expectations

I took a deep breath and asked, “Is anything I did with your prose  technically incorrect?”

He admitted that, with one or two exceptions, my edits were technically correct. So finally I made a deal with him. I would do my job and write about the hardware as best I could with the knowledge I had on hand. His job would be to make sure that I wasn’t saying anything that violated the laws of physics or contradicted how the hardware actually functioned…and that was all.

A lot of this culture clash stemmed from a mismatch of expectations:

  • He expected me to write like an engineer.
  • I expected him to review only the technical correctness of the content, not the style.

In the end, I calmed down and life went back to normal, though it did require some education in both directions. I had to explain what I meant by a “technical edit” and ensure that he kept his hands off my prose unless it was getting the hardware or the physics wrong. He, in turn, had to educate me on some of the ways I was explaining the way the hardware worked.

Lessons learned

So things worked out and there were no hard feelings. But it did take some relaxing of the ego and reduction of control on the part of both parties. The engineer had to accept that writing in non-engineering English was acceptable for the products I was writing, and I had to accept that my wording could give the wrong impression of how a technology worked.

My usual refrain now when working with engineers is to ask them to “Please review my prose so that, in my zeal to make things grammatically correct, I don’t make them technically incorrect.” That arrangement seems to work. I trust the techies to get the technology write, and they trust me to get the language right. But if someone accuses me of not writing as an engineer would, I will still answer guilty as charged. If someone wanted the engineer to write, they wouldn’t have hired me, would they?

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On Vacation

Celebrating another solar orbit. The regularly scheduled foolishness will resume on Thursday.

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The tech is great, but what’s it good for?

I’m listening to one of The Great Courses on “Becoming a Great Essayist” to help improve my skill set. One of the more important things the professor has shared so far is the need for the essayist to make his or her observations on the world relevant to the reader. Otherwise, the writing is just a self-indulgent exercise for the writer.

The questions one doesn’t ask

This problem often comes up in technology-focused companies and organizations. Not to pick on my friends at NASA too much, but this can be a frequent problem among aerospace engineers (the folks we frequently misname “rocket scientists”). My first work at NASA was writing conference papers for the Ares Launch Vehicles, part of the Constellation Program that was going to send human beings to the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond.”

If you talked to the various element managers–boosters, engines, core stage, etc.–each of them could proudly share the performance characteristics of their particular part of the rocket, how it functioned, and how it did things better for the overall system. So far, so good. But eventually I’d move up through the system and get to the point where I’d ask, “What is the program good for?” and the conversation would uncomfortably stop. Apparently one did not ask that sort of question. It was obvious, wasn’t it?

My family members have not been particularly big space enthusiasts, and I spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood trying to explain to them why space exploration was worth doing. They were taxpayers, after all, and they had a say or a stake in how their money was being spent. So I came into the space business as a true believer, but one who had spent a lot of time justifying my support.

I recall having that conversation with one engineer who was one of THE experts on Big, Beautiful Rockets, and after some embarrassed squirming, he finally came out with, “Because the rocket will help get us closer to the stars.” He then added, “But you can’t say that in what you’re writing.” Which was true, because sending people to the stars was and is not NASA policy. That was why he worked on rockets, though, and it helped me narrow down the questions I needed to ask.

To his credit, my customer heard me out and tasked me to do some research and writing on why going to the Moon, Mars, etc., was a good idea and, more to the point, a good use of taxpayer dollars. That sort of content eventually made it into some outreach pieces, so my poking did some good, even if the program was eventually canceled.

Are you admiring the widget or planning to sell it?

I’ve worked in other technical environments besides the rocket-building section of NASA. In each one I’ve usually asked variations of these questions:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What do they care about?
  • How does Cool Widget X advance/improve what our audience cares about?

It all boils down to the “So what?” of a piece of writing, whether that piece of writing is a blog, a bit of marketing copy, or a letter to an elected official. The other variation of this is asking for the WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me?”) for the audience.

The risk for any organization is to become so enamored of the features of their particular widget, software, or idea that the benefits become lost in the noise. Or they are taken as self-evident. This is why branding and strategic communication matter in an organization. While the bulk of the organization might be focused on the doing–the what and how–there must always be at least one or two individuals who keep their eye on the ball regarding who the customer is and why they should care about what the organization is doing

The features of a given technology are obvious. The benefits are not obvious for the end user, the general public, or bill-paying customer; and those audiences do not always overlap. I recall asking a scientist a feature/benefit question about a telescope he was advocating (I was helping him write a proposal). He restated a couple of different ways that it would be capable of visibility over a specific spectral range. Not being an astrophysicist, the benefit was lost on me. I asked, stupidly, “Is that good? What will it enable the telescope to do?” That last question probably saved me because he said, “It helps us see more of the universe.” Aha! I could work with that.

Helping techies articulate product benefits

The bottom line with this sort of work is that engineers are often task-focused. They know what they need to accomplish and how to go about it. It sometimes takes open-ended questions to get responses from them to help them sell a product. These include:

  • Who do you define as the end users/customers? Are there multiple types of customers?
  • What are the customer’s priorities?
  • What are the customer’s key measures of performance?
  • How is this product better than what’s been done before (based on the aforementioned performance measures)?
  • What tasks/outcomes will the new tech/widget/product allow your customer do that they have not been able to do previously?

Don’t be surprised if you get some push-back on these types of questions. Engineers often look down on marketing (the practice or the people) as “fluffy,” unconnected to reality, or worse, unethical. They also don’t like to over-promise on performance. Check out Dilbert if you ever need examples of these attitudes. You can win over those reluctant audiences by not over-promising, merely sticking to the technology as they’re designing it. The goal is to sell the product, which keeps everyone doing their job. At the very least, your feature/benefit discussion should help answer that ever-important question: “Why should your audience care?”

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