Proposal Tips: Using Boilerplate Effectively

Spend time with Proposal Managers or Writers and you’re likely to hear discussion of “boilerplate.” The word is a bit of jargon borrowed from the newspaper industry. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, ads and other filler content would be stamped onto sheet metal—sheet metal like that used to make steam boilers—which could then be fed into the printing press day in and day out, no changes necessary. Eventually the connection to steam boilers and sheet metal was forgotten, but the jargon remained, shorthand for “durable, reusable content.”

Boilerplate is an extremely useful tool in proposal development—but only when it’s used carefully. Badly used boilerplate can quickly ruin your credibility with the customer.

Imagine, for example, you’re proposing a unique network security solution to the Navy. Your proposal makes much of the fact that the solution is carefully tailored to the Navy’s unique operating environment—except for one boilerplate graphic, which makes much of how the solution is uniquely tailored to the Army. Oops. Now, no matter how good the rest of your proposal may be, the customer suspects that you’re sloppy at best and dishonest at worst.

Given such risks, why use boilerplate at all? Because when used correctly, boilerplate can save time and money better allocated elsewhere.

If, for instance, your company uses the same well-defined quality assurance approach on all contracts, there’s little sense in using valuable hours to retell the same story again and again. Instead, your resources would be much better spent by designing one killer graphic depicting your process, and customizing it as appropriate later on.

To make the most of boilerplate, we recommend the following dos and don’ts:

DO use boilerplate when it applies. If a process remains very similar regardless of the contract, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel each time; instead, use boilerplate to show the core of the process and tailor the specifics to this opportunity. Likewise, if you have a handful of excellent customer quotes that you cite all the time, go ahead and bundle them into an easily reusable package. If you take the time to perfect the way you tell the story now, it will be much easier to retell it perfectly later.

DO maintain a well-organized boilerplate library. Boilerplate is useless if you can’t find it. Only you know what approach works best for you, but some way of reliably storing and retrieving proposal artifacts is key. Popular approaches include embedded tracking numbers, searchable file names/tags, and folders organized by topic.

DO make sure your review process carefully screens boilerplate. It’s important to make sure that boilerplate is read especially carefully so that incorrect content doesn’t make its way into the proposal. To accomplish this, you might meticulously scrub all customer-specific information from boilerplate before archiving it, or you might highlight boilerplate content within early proposal drafts so that Pink and Red Team reviewers know to read it especially carefully. Whatever your approach, make sure to follow it consistently to avoid embarrassing (and costly!) mistakes.

DON’T try to force boilerplate to work. Not all content is reusable, and not everything can be built from boilerplate. The point of boilerplate is to make writing a quality proposal more efficient. If it’s going to take more work to shoehorn boilerplate into a given proposal than it would to just write new content from scratch, then don’t bother with the boilerplate.

DON’T use boilerplate as a substitute for content planning. Every RFP is different, and every customer is unique. It’s essential that you carefully plan the content of each proposal in accordance with RFP requirements, customer hot buttons, and so on. As the Association of Proposal Management Professionals Body of Knowledge states, boilerplate should be used “to build a tailored description customized for the project and client.” In other words, boilerplate should be tailored to the proposal, NOT the other way around.

DON’T overdo it. If you’re able to build an entire proposal from boilerplate, then something has gone very wrong. Writing a quality proposal requires strong knowledge of the customer and a thorough understanding of the work. What keeps the customer up at night? Why would they prefer your solution over your competitors’? Remember that a generic proposal that could appeal to everyone won’t actually appeal to anyone. The time you save by not recreating frequently used content from scratch can and should be used to craft a focused, customer-specific story.

When used as described above, boilerplate means fewer wasted hours and higher quality content. If you’d like to discuss more ways to strengthen and streamline your proposal development process, contact Global Services today!