Proposal Writing for Engineers

Following my presentation last week, an engineer friend pointed out that the biggest adjustment he faced with technical writing was learning to write proposals. For reasons that elude me, unless they’re required to take a technical writing class, college/university engineering students often do not get any education in the art of proposal writing. Science majors learn grant writing early on, perhaps because scientific studies are heavily grant driven, and so grant proposals are built into the curriculum. Engineering is often detached from “mere marketing.” That doesn’t mean engineers are immune from that sort of work. Today I’ll share some thoughts to help engineers unfamiliar with the mysteries of writing proposals.

What to Look For

You’re not explaining it, you’re selling it

My engineering friend explained that when engineers DO get technical writing training, it is often on the process of writing documentation, i.e., explaining how a particular widget works. Selling the product is a different matter.

Perhaps the most important thing the unassuming engineer-turned-writer needs to remember is that s/he is not just explaining a product or service to someone who’s already bought the product. Instead, your reading audience hasn’t made up its mind yet. You have to convince them that your widget is better than or different from someone else’s.

Measuring performance

When you’re reading the request for proposal (RFP), you need to be on the lookout for your would-be customer’s figures of merit (FOMs) and priorities. Fortunately, in an engineering context, these FOMs and priorities usually can be expressed numerically. This benefits both the customer and the proposer because they can work with objective, measurable advantages between products. Some of these FOMs can include:

  • Speed: This could include the speed of your product in delivering its output or the speed of your company in making the product/service available to the customer.
  • Quality: This can include factors such as manufacturing precision, quality control processes, amount/rigor of testing, the use of clean rooms, and other specialized/high-tech hardware used to make your product. You want to demonstrate that how you make your product is as important as how fast.
  • Efficiency: This can include things like reducing waste by using additive manufacturing, high-precision lathes or six-axis machining tools; reducing the number of steps required to execute a process; or increasing the number of outputs for a known level or quantity of inputs.
  • Price: Are you (or your organization) able to offer a product/service at a lower price thanks to greater efficiency, an existing production line/supply chain, lower labor costs, or increased automation?

There’s an axiom in the engineering business that says, “Faster, better, cheaper–pick two,” which means that usually if a customer wants something done quickly for low cost, quality will suffer; likewise, if the customer is focused on quality, that will require more expensive equipment or processes, which in turn will drive up the price; or, if quality and price are the priorities, that will take more time to think through, which slows down your development timeline. Ideally, out of the Faster-Better-Cheaper attributes, your organization can deliver on at least one of them, and that advantage is what should be stressed in your writing.

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

As I noted in my HAL5/STC talk, it’s not enough to spout performance statistics about your hardware and assume that the customer will understand the implications of those numbers.

To take another example from aerospace, let’s say that your rocket engine provides a specific impulse–which is a measure of efficiency showing how much thrust it provides for a given amount of fuel–of a given quantity. Specific impulse, because of the way factors cancel out in the algebra, is measured in seconds. So let’s say you’ve got a super-duper rocket engine with a specific impulse of 450 seconds. If your audience is another engineer, they’re probably saying, “Great!” If your audience is a procurement manager or someone with less experience in rocket propulsion, they’re probably reading that number and thinking, “So what?”

Your job in writing about that in the proposal would be to explain why the performance statistics should matter to your audience/potential customer. This boils down to explaining in plain language, without a lot of jargon, how the customer(s) can achieve their goals better. “With a specific impulse of 450 seconds, the Super Duper Rocket Engine can deliver more payload to orbit in less time than anything else on the market.” Or, if you don’t know how good the performance of your competitors is, you could just say how many seconds it takes for your Super Duper Rocket Engine to do its work and let the customer determine if that’s good or bad.

You might have the best widget(s) in the world and be exceedingly proud of the work that goes into them. However, if it doesn’t meet a customer’s needs, it’s effectively worthless to them. You need to “answer the mail” in a way that proves your product/service can deliver what the customer needs at the speed/quality/price they want–or better. And if so, how and why? 

 

About Bart Leahy

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