Let's Go to the Movies: exploring how the art of “storyboarding” can reduce the costs and improve the quality of proposal writing

Article published in the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management "Winning Edge"

In the early days of cinema, celluloid was very expensive. Movie-makers had to prepare carefully before they shot an inch of actual film. Preparation, or pre-visualisation, was done using the technique of “storyboarding” – building a series of images and instructions depicting the tale to be told. Displaying the images in sequence to members of the film crew and cast served three purposes:

  • To enable all involved to understand the plot and the plan
  • To validate the structure and flow of the story
  • To give the opportunity for improvement

Walt Disney was the first studio to use storyboards in the 1930s. The technique became widespread in the 1940s and today is an essential part of the creative process across multiple industries including the world of bids and proposals.


The Benefits of Proposal Storyboarding

Quite simply, it’s a question of getting it right first time. Just as movie storyboarding prevented wasting film and the time to shoot it, so proposal storyboarding saves the time people might spend writing the wrong content and the time and cost it would take to put it right. Figure 1 summarises an example of the impressive cost reductions and time savings that can be achieved.

Putting the effort into planning and preparing the proposal content early in the process also facilitates senior level buy-in. This can reduce the frustration and demotivation associated with last minute executive amendments. Given these benefits, there really is very little not to like about storyboarding.

Figure 1: The benefits of storyboarding. Over a two-year
period, one client experienced an increase in productivity from .28 pages per
hour to .65 and a decrease in the cost of producing the proposal from £203 per
page to £109.

Source: Shipley Ltd

How to Storyboard

Many people will be producing simple storyboard formats without even realising it. By creating a document structure with headings and sub-headings, you are providing your contributors with an “Outline” that gives an indication of the required content; this is a very simple form of storyboard. Going one step further and adding some guidance notes to the Outline creates what is known as an “Annotated Outline”. Beyond an Annotated Outline, a storyboard can be further developed to varying levels, which will include a range of additional details such as:

  • Relevant requirements from the Invitation to Tender
  • Details of your company’s strategy for winning this part of the bid
  • Strengths and weaknesses of your own company and your competitor(s) to be addressed
  • Details of any relevant scoring or evaluation criteria
  • The solution outline including features, benefits and proof points
  • Ideas and concepts for graphics

The medium used to present storyboards is not as important as the task itself. Acceptable media are:

  • Hand-written flipcharts
  • Mindmaps
  • Powerpoint slides or equivalent
  • A Word document or equivalent.

The important point is that time is spent planning word and visual content, not actually writing or drawing. The process encourages clarity of thought and structure, which in turn reduces time and rework. To offer a parallel, it is like mapping out the plot of a novel before writing anything. I would suggest that authors like Jeffrey Archer know exactly what is going to happen and when to each of their characters in detail before they put any words on paper.


When to Storyboard and Who Does It

Every bid response should be run as a project with a time schedule detailing the tasks, milestones, roles and responsibilities. A simple bid response plan is shown in Figure 2 below including the storyboarding step:

Figure 2: High level bid response plan. The Kick-Off Meeting will take place 10-20% through the time period; storyboarding can continue up to 50% through the timeline, which demonstrates the emphasis placed on preparation before production.

There are three key steps to the storyboarding process:

  1. Pre Kick-Off Planning: One of the Bid Manager’s tasks when preparing for a bid
    Kick-Off Meeting is to select or create the proposal document format and structure. In designing the response, (s)he will consider each section and sub-section, and decide on the level of storyboarding necessary; typically storyboarding will be focused on new material and complex sections. The Bid Manager will create storyboard briefing packs with available information from the tender documents and inputs from the pre-bid sales phase. The storyboard briefing packs will be shared with the writers at the Kick-Off Meeting and will give the writers their start-point and scope, with guidance on the output required.
  2. Post Kick-Off Preparation: Development of the storyboards takes place between the Kick-Off Meeting and the Storyboard Review (also known as the Proposal Strategy Review or the “Pink” Review[1]). During this period, which can continue up to halfway through the response timeline, the writers will analyse the inputs, gather further information and develop their thoughts, writing structures and concepts for visuals. 
  3. Review and Freeze: Having now prepared the storyboards, they must be reviewed. The rationale for an independent review is multi-fold:
  • No-one can be objective about their own work
  • Other people can improve work
  • Buy-in can be reinforced
  • Management approval can be gained
  • Subject Matter Experts’ (SMEs) input can be obtained
  • Confidence to proceed to the next step will be built

The Bid Manager will organise the Storyboard Review and will invite people who have knowledge of the early stages of the sales or bid cycle so they can see that earlier approved strategies are being implemented effectively. SMEs may also prove useful to provide peer-level review.

In advance of the Storyboard Review, the Bid Manager must fully brief all reviewers on the background, status and process. Storyboard reviews are ideally conducted with everyone physically present in a dedicated facility. Hard copies of the storyboards are placed around the room, on walls or on desks, in the sequence they will appear in the proposal. For detailed storyboards, they will be positioned with the top level section information in a horizontal sequence, to allow the proposal flow to be reviewed, and the detail below in a vertical sequence to provide section depth. Where physical presence is not possible, a virtual review should be conducted using collaborative software tools or distributing the materials with clear review instructions.

Reviewers must be able to add value to the process by being constructive and not destructive. No reviewer should be allowed to simply state “this is not good”. The reviewer must clearly state what can be done to make improvement. They should also indicate if their comment is optional or mandatory for action. Post-it notes are a good way to make suggestions in person. For virtual activities, create separate review
sheets to avoid having to collate multiple sets of track changes.

Once the Storyboard Review is complete and the changes implemented, the proposal design is “frozen”. By this stage, all internal stakeholders should have been engaged, exposed to the status and be in agreement with the approach. Hence, only in exceptional circumstances, where a major material issue arises from an external source, should the proposal design be open to amendment.


A Flexible and Scalable Technique

Those new to storyboarding can find it daunting. There is always a temptation to tackle the writing as soon as possible for fear of running out of time; the concept of not writing anything until up to half way through the available time is anathema to many. Similarly, all too often, people think that storyboarding will create more effort, not less.

Careful planning of when and to what level storyboarding will add value will lead to shorter timescales, less stress and much greater satisfaction all round. I use it for all my work, however large or small, whether working alone or in a team. Just writing this article, I had a mindmap with the sections and the key points. It’s really not that difficult and the benefits far outweigh any negative thoughts. I hope I have convinced you to at least try going to the movies.

In some bid methodologies, including Shipley, bid reviews are known by a system
of colours

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