Getting to the Heart of the Matter in a Technical Proposal

How do you choose what’s most important information to share in a proposal? How do you know which facts are most important to your audience? Which arguments will be most likely to persuade your audience to choose your proposal over another? Sometimes a lot of your thinking can be guided just by reading the non-technical words you do understand, parsing those words, and asking the right questions.

Say you’ve got a bunch of technobabble in front of you…

Energy from the power cell is controlled by all three modules and routed by shielded conduits to a prefire chamber, a 1.5 cm diameter sphere of LiCu 521 reinforced with gulium arkenide. Here the energy is held temporarily by a collapsible charge barrier before passing to the actual LiCu 521 emitter for discharge out of the phaser, creating a pulse.

One magic word might jump out at some of you: phaser. This is, of course, an excerpt from the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical ManualThe point is not to pick on my friends Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda–they wrote a book that, among other things, helps authors who wish to write stories about the starship Enterprise how that mythic 24th century vehicle works. In this section’s case, the text is explaining how the hand phasers work.

But let’s say you needed to include the language as part of a proposal–trying to get the contract to build the phasers, perhaps. We can take this paragraph one section at a time…again, the point here is not to help you write proposals for Starfleet (though that sounds like an awesome job in my world), but to walk through the thinking process of translating Engineerish into Marketing English.

Energy from the power cell is controlled by all three modules

Energy from the power cell is controlled by all three modules, you say? How might that be an advantage? That might be a sign of redundancy, which translates into safety or reliability.

and routed by shielded conduits

Shielded conduits? Aha, extra safety. Or durability. This is important, especially for a combat weapon, yes?

to a prefire chamber, a 1.5 cm diameter sphere of LiCu 521 reinforced with gulium arkenide.

There are a few directions you might go here:

  • The prefire chamber is 1.5-centimeter sphere. This is a pretty small area. That might convey light weight, increasing the utility and handling of the weapon.
  • The sphere is made of LiCu (lithium-copper) 521. Is that a useful alloy? Durable? Easy to manufacture? Resistant to high temperatures?
  • Gulium arkenide–what the heck is that? Another futuristic alloy from the 24th century, no doubt. It is a reinforcing alloy–presumably strong, but what else? Lightweight? What other properties of this 1.5-centimeter sphere are worth highlighting and marketing?

Let’s move on to the next sentence…

Here the energy is held temporarily by a collapsible charge barrier before passing to the actual LiCu 521 emitter for discharge out of the phaser, creating a pulse.

This is obviously a process statement, describing how the power cell of the phaser works–the battery, if you will. You’ve got a collapsible charge barrier–what does that do? It’s a barrier, so presumably it holds the energy in place until it’s ready to be used. Why not say that for the non-engineers on the proposal review board?

And note that you’re using a LiCu 521 emitter, too: the same element being used for the power cell. How might that be an advantage? Since your company is already working with the alloy on one part, they presumably have the expertise to make the other, and they also can buy and shape the alloy in bulk.

In the end, you need not be an engineer to write for engineers. You do need to identify the key properties (features) of the technology or service you are trying to sell and be able to translate those features into benefits that will match your customer’s needs. If you can’t deduce the advantages of your company’s technology, ask. Engineering is a human task done to achieve human aims. Your subject matter experts should be able to explain to you why their work is better. Then it’s up to you to make the words fit together well.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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