Using Graphics in Page-Limited Proposals
By Mike Parkinson, PPF.APMP, 24 Hour Company (@Mike_Parkinson)
RFPs often ask for the sun, moon, and stars in 10 pages. The challenge
we face is when, where, and how do we add graphics to a 10-page proposal
(that should be 40 pages to effectively answer the RFP).
First, let me answer why it is a great benefit to use graphics in a page-limited
proposal. The reasons are numerous but below are the top three:
- Graphics are easier to understand. Your audience
is human. You may have the best solution, but they may miss or misunderstand
a critical element. Evaluators and decision makers are distracted, tired,
overworked, and often take short cuts to help them decide who should
win. Make it easy for them to quickly understand your solution. Include
features, benefits, and discriminators. Graphics communicate up to 60,000
times faster than text alone and increase our understanding of the presented
material and our recollection of the information by at least 38% (according
to independent research).
Graphics communicate complex concepts quickly. What is easier to understand:
a textual explanation of an organizational structure or an organizational
chart? Can you imagine trying to textually explain the following chart?
- Graphics quickly say more than words alone. Graphics communicate your company's commitment, quality, and the
importance you place on working with your future client. Anyone can
write a proposal. Few can write a great proposal. Fewer still allocate
the time, thought, and money into developing a compelling visual representation
of their solution. A clear, communicative, professional graphic tells
evaluators and decision makers that you care and shows you have more
resources (than your competitors) at your disposal. Graphics also demonstrate
that you are committed to solving their challenge. The quality of your
graphics subconsciously communicates the professionalism of your company.
Graphics make it easy for you to stand out from the pack. Looking at
the following proposal pages, which is the better company—A or
- Graphics can lower the perception of risk. We trust
that which is familiar. As Robert S. Frey, author of Successful
Proposal Strategies for Small Businesses, says, "Our audience
wants to see themselves reflected in our proposals." Based on
this belief, which slide would be more appealing to the U.S. Army—A
Don't get me wrong. I am NOT saying graphics are better than text.
I'm saying that graphics and text work together to better communicate
your solution in a way that is more compelling and far easier to understand
Let's move on to the when, where, and how to use graphics in page-limited
When to Use Graphics
There are three reasons to use graphics is a page-limited proposal:
- Your solution is complex. Often a graphic can communicate
complex concepts more succinctly than text alone. Consider network diagrams,
quantitative charts, dashboard graphics, Gantt charts, organizational
charts, and process diagrams. All communicate complex information that
is easily digested.
- You want to ensure your information stands out. Good
graphics pull our eyes to them because, to simplify the explanation,
they look different than the text around them. Visuals communicate faster
than text because text is decoded linearly and graphics are absorbed
all at once. Graphics are instantly stored in long-term memory whereas
text must go through short-term memory before they are stored in long-term
- You want to quickly communicate the professionalism and commitment
to the project. As stated earlier, graphics show you care and
speak to the quality of the service/product your company provides.
Where to Use Graphics
Anywhere they are needed. The golden rule is a graphic per page, but I
have found it unrealistic to shoehorn a graphic onto every page despite
tight budgets and page limitations. Place your graphic as close as possible
to the associated text.
How to Use Graphics
There are a few secrets to ensure your graphics are clear, compelling,
concise, and as small as possible. First, let's focus on clear,
compelling, and concise.
Before developing a graphic, you want to know four things (I refer to
as the "P.A.Q.S."):
- Know the graphic's primary objective (P). What
is the purpose of your graphic? It should never be "To win the
proposal." The primary objective should be client focused. For
example, a clear primary objective could state, "To show how our
solution solves our future client's problem." Alternatively,
your objective may be to explain a complex concept critical to the win.
If relevant, tie features to benefits and discriminators. Your primary
objective may read, "To show the new system architecture and why
it is better."
- Know your audience (A). What are their challenges?
What are their hot buttons? What do they care most about? Your graphics
should focus on your future client's wants and needs. Include
graphics that help them choose you.
- Know the questions (Q) that need to be answered to achieve
the primary objective. Refer back to the primary objective.
Your primary objective is "to show how our solution solves our
future client's problem." Imagine meeting your future client
at an event. You say, "Boy, our solution can solve that problem
of yours." How do you think they will reply? Perhaps they may
ask, "How?" Your graphic should answer the burning questions
related to the primary objective.
- Know the subject matter (S). To correctly answer
your audience's questions, you need a clear understanding of the
presented topic. If you do not understand, how can your audience understand?
You need to answer their questions quickly and with a thorough knowledge
of their business, issues, and requirements.
Successful graphics have a primary objective, are audience-focused, and
answer your audience's questions (as they relate to the primary
objective). All other graphics are confusing and detract from your proposal.
Next, how do you make graphics as small as possible without sacrificing
quality (or compliance)? Step one is to know the P.A.Q.S. This process
guarantees that extraneous information is purged so the graphic is to
Step two is to use the following six design and writing techniques (when
- Exclude extraneous words and descriptors. Change "Our Systematic,
Quality Evaluation Process" to "Evaluation Process."
- Use known acronyms. For example, "quality control" becomes
a sans serif, narrow font like Arial Narrow. (If your document does
not embed the font, make sure the end user has the font.) Sans serif
fonts are cleaner looking and easier to read for short chunks of text
and small sizes. Narrow fonts shorten the width of each character, which
allows more content in the same space.
- Decrease line spacing. For page-limited proposals, I recommend using
a .85 multiple line spacing in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and the
same line spacing as font size in Adobe products (for example, 10-point
line spacing for a 10-point font).
- Use short arrowheads.
- Remove all unused space.
- Delete extraneous imagery. If an image quickly communicates information,
keep it. If, however, the image merely supports the information, delete
You now know the three tips you need to increase your chances of success
on your next page-limited proposal. Practice makes perfect, so be sure
to remain vigilant and use these tips until they become habit.
About the Author
Mike Parkinson, PPF.APMP, is an internationally recognized visual communications expert and APMP Fellow. He is a partner at 24 Hour Company (www.24hrco.com) specializing in bid-winning proposal graphics. His Billion Dollar Graphics web site (www.BillionDollarGraphics.com), "Billion Dollar Graphics" book, and Get My Graphic website (www.GetMyGraphic.com) share best practices and helpful tools with proposal professionals. Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-533-7209.
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