Use SMEs Effectively to Develop Great Proposals

One frequently repeated cliché in the proposal profession is that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) often will not write or will not write well.  Unfortunately, this cliché is accurate.  SMEs are usually in great demand – their time is very limited.  In addition, they frequently believe that it is someone else’s job (yours?) to do the writing.  As a result, SMEs have a well-deserved reputation on many proposal teams for missed deadlines, poor writing, or no writing at all.

According to Harley Stein of Tenzing Consulting, there are six ways you can get SMEs to provide the information you need.

Provide a fill-in-the-blank template

Provide your SMEs with a very detailed outline and ask them to fill in the blanks.  To work, this template must be a paragraph-by-paragraph outline with such headers as “Understanding the Challenge:  provide four bullets that highlight key challenges.”

Write bullets

Have SMEs provide detailed bullets that address a proposal outline.  Then the Volume Lead or writer can work with the SMEs to expand them.

Let your SMEs create differentiators

SMEs often do not know enough about the proposal effort or the competition to create differentiators.  Instead, ask them to describe the strengths of a particular approach or solution.

Let Volume Leads and writers craft the text

Have SMEs do a draft of the subject matter content and then have the Volume Lead or writer craft into narrative text for the SMEs to review.  The SMEs should be provided with an outline and plenty of direction.

Use a step-by-step process

Provide SMEs with a detailed schedule and process and work with them step-by-step to create your proposal prose.  This will take supervision and the assistance of the Volume Lead or writer.

Ask your SMEs for information, not prose

Interview SMEs about the content of their proposal sections.  A whiteboard and a tape recorder may be useful. 

As Stein points out, these six approaches have four benefits:

  • Your SMEs can work to their subject matter strengths.
  • You train your SMEs to work with the proposal team and provide what is needed.
  • You keep your writing team focused on turning the SME’s knowledge into prose, which SMEs can review later.
  • By having SMEs to review their work, you help them become better writers and more effective members of the proposal team.

SMEs often take a lot of abuse in proposal development.  Some of the criticism may be justified, but their inability to help may be the result of not being provided with a useful framework from which the proposal team can extract their knowledge.   

We all need SMEs to do competitive proposals.  Find ways to help them work efficiently and effectively.  Both you and the SMEs will appreciate the results.


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