A Quality Idea: Storyboarding in Proposal Management

With insights and quotes from Ashley Kayes.

Ashley is a Senior Proposal Consultant for AOC Key Solutions. She draws on over a decade of experience in the proposal industry to provide a variety of services for her clients — from writing to consultant work — and covers the full proposal creation cycle. She's also a winner of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) 40 Under 40 award.

Storyboarding might make you think of Walt Disney drawing out Mickey's story in old-timey animations. You also might be picturing a clunky and time-consuming task in proposal creation that just isn't worth the effort.

When we discuss storyboarding, we're referring to both: storyboards were developed by Disney as a creative outline and visualization of a piece of content, and that process has been adopted into proposal creation. But we're here to set the record straight on just how beneficial proposal storyboarding can be — and how it's absolutely worth the effort.

Ashley identifies two key advantages that come out of proposal storyboarding:

1. They help your team decide and agree on what you're going to write before you start writing:

"You're deciding what you're going to write to before you start writing, so you have structure, a skeleton and some backbone. When you take time to plan before you write, it really does create efficiency down the road."

2. They provide the perfect format to review your plans with internal stakeholders, saving tons of time reworking drafts down the road:

"If you make time to have a storyboard review with your internal stakeholders... they review that before you start writing the draft. It's also going to save time because you can get buy in or identify any major issues with the structure before you start spending a lot of time drafting. So essentially that's going to translate to time saved of reworking that you're not going to have to do."

When done right, storyboards lay the foundation for a high-quality proposal. Unfortunately, proposal storyboards often aren't optimized or following best practices. If your storyboarding process misses the mark, it won't deliver on its promise.

Tackling the Biases

The proposal industry is pretty split on storyboards: most people either love them or hate them. But much of that hate stems from overcomplicated, underutilized and frustrating storyboarding processes. In other words, storyboards draw so much hate because most proposal creators are using them incorrectly.

Mistake #1: It's a solo or siloed effort.

Storyboards, by their very nature, are intended to be collaborative. Storyboard creation should never fall entirely on the proposal manager or on a limited section of the team.

Mistake #2: It's treated as a task to check off.

Proposal storyboards are often treated as a "check the box" kind of task: you do it because you have to, but you don't see the benefit, and it feels like busy work. It's often part of the gate process, meaning you can't move on to the next task until it's done; as a result, you give lip service to the idea of a storyboard and move on.

If that's the case, Ashley says, you're likely not using the storyboarding task correctly.

Mistake #3: It's used for more than its intended purpose.

Storyboarding has gained the reputation of taking a long time or oversimplifying important information, because many groups make the mistake of over-outlining, going too granular or simply doing too many storyboards.

Storyboards are not intended to replace outlines or capture all the details of a proposal. A storyboard should cover the first and second levels of your outline, but not more. It should provide the overarching framework for your proposal and give shape to different sections. But don't try to stretch a storyboard too far.

Storyboards Done Right

At its most basic, a storyboard is a high-level outline for your proposal that incorporates visual elements. It should cover big topics like which customer issues you'll need to address, the sections outlined by the RFP and which graphics you'll include. You can then carry those elements forward into your proposal draft template.

Here are some expert tips to optimize your storyboards:

Tip #1: Give plenty of thought to your graphics.

Just like in Disney animations, proposal storyboarding has a strong visual element. Graphics should never be a last-minute consideration. They're key to catching and holding an evaluator's attention. You need a graphic at least once a page to break up text.

Storyboards enable you to identify key graphics, determine their place in the outline and define how you'll write around those graphics. With storyboards, graphics never feel like an afterthought or slapdash inclusion to break up text: they're a thoughtful element in a cohesive proposal.

Tip #2: Identify key sections and outline accordingly.

Storyboards give you the chance to outline your proposal effectively from the beginning. You should include all key elements within the storyboard template, from customer issues to hot-button topics to considerations of what your competitors will propose. This allows you to think about what you'll be writing, anticipate what you'll need for each section (experts? price data?) and truly dig into what will make each section stronger.

From there, Ashley suggests, identify the features and benefits that you offer that will address those issues. Once you've selected the items that your proposed solution will revolve around, you can document all that in the storyboard. She notes that all these solution elements are what drive a truly hard-hitting strengths statement.

Tip #3: Collaborate!

It can't be overstated: collaboration is key. It's often forgotten in the storyboarding process, but creating storyboards independently undercuts most of the value you get from the process. Collaboration helps generate additional ideas and establish consensus on a solution and direction.

As Ashley puts it, collaboration "builds a cohesiveness across the board that you don't get when you're trying to storyboard in a silo." It'll also boost the range and quality of your proposal planning: "There are tons of studies out there that show that brainstorming as a group can help generate additional ideas, and it's much more effective."

Storyboards must involve all key team members and contributors who can add insight to your proposal. By looping them in from the beginning, you set your team up for success.

Tip #4: Vary how team members contribute.

That said, not everyone collaborates the same way. Ashley notes that you should also vary your solutioning format to meet the needs of different personality types:

"Some people are visual, so they need to draw things out on a board and see it in pictures. Some people need to talk it out and they need to have that group discussion. And then you're going to have people who really need some independent time to think through things."

When you format your process to get everyone involved, you optimize your collaboration and enable all team members to contribute effectively. You should provide those tools within your storyboarding process.

Tip #5: Take the time to do it right.

The biggest mistake made when storyboarding is not taking the time to do it right. With storyboards, you reap what you sow, and it's simply not a step that can be done halfway. The process shows results across the board, but you need to put in the time.

Reactive proposal shops that just get things on the page and out the door are less likely to storyboard, but their proposal quality will suffer as a result. At the end of the day, quality is what evaluators are looking for.

Employ tools like proposal management software to streamline your proposal process. With manual and cumbersome tasks taken off your plate, you'll have more time to invest into storyboards. With more time, you can capture all the benefits of storyboarding and see the payoff in your proposal quality — and ultimately in bids won.

Looking for more information? Check our post, "What is Proposal Management Software?" to see how software can save you time and improve your proposal process.