The Shortest Text

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As time slips by, I am still learning. In my latest foray into a Public Sector bid, I learned that I already knew something but I had not realised that I knew it!  I know this sounds a bit perverse, but please bear with me.

Donald Rumsfeld alluded to this in his 2002 ‘weapons of mass destruction’ speech. In his famous list, he identified “known knowns”. But he did not lead on to using this information.  Just because you know it, it does not mean that you will use it.

In this particular bid, we were working on very tightly controlled response text. The client specified a limit of 2,000 characters for each complete and complex answer. This is about one half of this article. The questions were of the type, “Demonstrate how you will …” followed by a list of specific items. We were reviewing our client’s drafts against the questions and suggesting changes. Our recommendations were fairly consistent across all the drafts: answer the entire question, give assurance, reduce the sentence length, avoid the use of passive voice, etc.

Our client’s writers accepted our criticisms but were flummoxed about how they could do better within the character constraints. So, they issued us the challenge: write us a good example of a response which we can use as a template.

This was going to be easy, wasn’t it?  After all, we had many, many years of writing and critiquing bid responses. Actually, no, it wasn’t!

An old bid manager mentor of mine once said to me, “If you want 20 pages, it will take a couple of days. However, if you want two pages, it will take me 20 days!”. Trying to distil the most important messages down into a few words is a real challenge. You must have enough room for a complete description. Then you must add all the bits that will prove why your solution is best. This is even more of a challenge if you have the pressure of a bid deadline to meet.

We spent some time reflecting on what we had learned over the years. We put the bits together and came up with a template for doing it.

Step 1

State you can do it all, blatantly and succinctly.  Do this right up front.

Step 2

Open the next sentences or paragraphs with run in headings (headings which are part of the text of the paragraph). Use the client’s requirement text (actual words) in these headings, e.g. “We will meet each milestone on time by creating a project office …”.  Note: bolding their words will help the evaluators find their scoring points.

Step 3

Describe each consecutive step in the process in the style, “The Project Director will create a plan to …”.  “She will check for …”.  “If she uncovers a problem, she will …” etc.

Step 4

Show absolute ownership of the process steps. Check every time ‘passive voice’ is used and turn the sentence around to see if you can make it active.  It is no good saying “The plan will be created …”.  It is important that the client sees that the right person will be doing the work, e.g. “The Project Director will create a plan to …”.  This can also save words and characters.

Step 5

Examine every instance of “and” in your text.  See if you can replace it with a full stop.  (Did you see the “and” had gone from these two sentences?).  This saves more words and characters.

Step 6

If you have any words or characters left, select all you can from:

  • A benefit the client will get
  • A benefit the client’s client will get
  • Where you have done it successfully before
  • Where you have won an award for it
  • Where your solution has worked really well elsewhere (even if it was not you doing it). You must describe why you believe this is the best solution for this client.
  • The choices you had for doing it and the reasons you chose this way for this client
  • A testimonial from a very happy and similar client
  • Added social value

Step 7

Submit the entire text to a readability checker. Rework it until you get to the point that the “Flesch Reading Ease” score is better than 50. This can be tough if you are writing about a topic which has unavoidable complex terminology. (On its own, that sentence scores 42.5, so you can see the problem.)  In such responses, we would accept an overall response score of 45 but never, ever, below 40.

This is still like trying to eat your alarm clock; it is very time consuming! So, the trick is to do it lots of times. Then you will begin to write in this format and style automatically. This is what leads to you creating very short and concise text in a very short time.

In its allegorical form, Old Father Time with his beard and sickle reveals truth. It seems to me that you can learn something and even tell others how to do it. However, it can take time for you to appreciate and actually use that truth.

Of course, I knew all these steps. I have been critically reviewing bids for years. Each point in the template was what I had always tried to do. It was only when faced with the challenge to create an example that I put what I knew into one succinct package. Now I know what I knew.  Even better, I learnt from it, used it and I can use it again!

Does our approach work?  Our client got an example to use as a template.  It covered all the points and met the character count limit. The bid went in on time. The bid manager was happy and we await the outcome.

I hope you found this article easy to read and understand.  If you did, this was because I wrote it to achieve this.  The statistics are:

  • Long sentences – 1.06% caused by putting an explanation in brackets and lists of items in a sentence. I can live with this.
  • Passive voice – 2.13%, mainly from the example of passive voice. However, a small amount of passive voice can make the document easier to read. This level seems about right to me.
  • Readability (Flesch score) – 77 which means that even the MD will understand it!


I use a tool called VT Writer from Visible Thread to analyse all my text.  It provides the readability results and suggestions for improvement.  Now you know all my secrets.

This article was written by Andrew Haigh.

Andy is an expert in bidding and tendering, specialising in competitive formal bids into EU Public Sector organisations. He is an authority on EU procurement legislation and can bring all these capabilities together to initiate and drive major complex bids through to a successful completion.

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