9 Tips for Making Your NIH Contract Proposal Scannable for Easy Review

by Tom Hollon

Making life easy for selection committee reviewers who want to skim rather than read is part of writing a winning proposal.

With all the blood and sweat your team pours into creating and honing and polishing your proposal, wouldn’t you like the reviewers on the contract selection committee to read the whole thing and then, even if for but a brief, teensy moment, pause to admire the skill with which you put it together? Wouldn’t you like a little praise for all that effort?

I kinda feel that way myself about the writing I do for my clients. I’d love it if they’d stop and say, “Gee, this guy really writes well.”

Dream on, friend. Nobody’s going to linger over your golden words or mine. Reviewers are busy people. They don’t want to dawdle in finding out what your proposal has to offer. While it’s possible some may read every word you write, you can count on it that many won’t.

Since some reviewers will scan, it’s your job to make it easy for them to find the decisive reasons for giving the contract to you.

Scanning is for many reviewers a solution to what we might call The Reviewer’s Dilemma.

On the one hand, there’ll be hell to pay at NIH if reviewers recommend a contractor who ultimately can’t do the job. So they do want to understand your proposal.

On the other hand, they hate slogging through long-winded, turgid, crushingly boring proposals that can’t get to the point.

And so some reviewers scan. They want to check those boxes off their checklist (which probably is based on the RFP’s Technical Evaluation Criteria) and move on. They turn through the pages of your proposal quickly when they can, they slow down to read closely when they must, and they assume when they’re done that they’ve understood accurately what you have to offer.

To create a winning NIH contract proposal, therefore, you must help scanners so their assumption that they can accurately understand your proposal by scanning is true.

9 tips for writing scannable NIH contract proposals

Tip 1. To make your proposal scannable in a way that accurately conveys what you have to offer, try to accomplish three things:
  • Make important points easy to notice on the page
  • Highlight words that will cause scanners to slow down and read carefully
  • Repeat important points so scanners have more than one chance to see them
Tip 2.  One way to signal reviewers to slow down and read carefully is to place headings and subheadings within your proposal based on the technical evaluation criteria.

Because they will be looking for information within your proposal that matches items on their checklist, appropriate headings and subheadings will let them know when they’re in the right place.

Here’s an example: A typical NIH RFP will have a section M, “Evaluation Factors for Award,” and within section M, a subsection called “Technical Evaluation Criteria.” In reading your proposal reviewers will probably have checklists based on the technical evaluation criteria.

In one proposal I worked on for a clinical trial support contract, one of the technical evaluation criteria for safety monitoring was as follows:

“CRITERION 1: TECHNICAL PLAN/APPROACH 50

Appropriateness and adequacy of organizational experience, proposed plans and procedures, availability of personnel, and understanding of problems and deficiencies for the following support functions:

“A. Safety Monitoring

“1. Establishing, operating, and maintaining electronic safety reporting systems. 2. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Serious Adverse Event (SAE) Reporting. 3. Evaluation and quality control of SAE Reports. 4. Preparation, distribution and tracking of Expedited Safety Reports.”

Knowing that some reviewers would scan, in the Safety Monitoring section of my client’s proposal, we created four subheadings that deliberately copied evaluation criteria in order to force reviewers to slow down for information sure to be included in their evaluation checklist:

APPROACH TO ESTABLISH, OPERATE, AND MAINTAIN ELECTRONIC SAFETY REPORTING SYSTEMS.

APPROACH TO DEVELOPING AND IMPLEMENTING STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES (SOPS) FOR SERIOUS ADVERSE EVENT (SAE) REPORTING.

APPROACH TO EVALUATION AND QUALITY CONTROL OF SAE REPORTS.

APPROACH TO PREPARE, DISTRIBUTE AND TRACK EXPEDITED SAFETY REPORTS.

Tip 3. Subheadings of only a word or two help scanners much less than subheadings of  7 or 8 words.

To illustrate, here are two proposal subheadings, as originally written by members of my client’s proposal team. Compare them to my rewrites, which are just a few words longer.  Aren’t my subheadings more likely to tell scanning reviewers where important information is that they’re responsible for evaluating?

Original subheading: Oversight

vs.

My rewrite: CROMS Oversight in Foreign DMID Clinical Sites

Original: Managing Recruitment

vs.

My rewrite: Managing Recruitment to Minimize the Recruitment Period

Longer subheadings will make your proposal easier to scan for specific information your reviewers are responsible for.

Notice also that in the second subheading I added a benefit, minimizing the recruitment period. Putting benefits in subheadings makes it easier for reviewers to find and remember important things that distinguish your services from competitors’.

Tip 4. Use the first sentence of each paragraph to explain what the paragraph is about. Alternately, make the first sentence the most important point within the paragraph.

This makes sense because scanner are more likely to read the first sentences of paragraphs than those that follow.

Tip 5. From time to time there will to be an absolutely critical sentence on a page that you want to be sure scanners don’t miss.
Make that sentence bold.
Tip 6. Include captions in your tables and figures.

Scanners will often glance at tables and figures when they won’t read the text.  Therefore, write captions so scanners can understand figures and tables without reading the text. In addition, if you have a key point on the page that you want scanners to notice, try repeating the point within your table or figure on the same page.

Tip 7. If possible, place key ideas, tables and figures within the red F-pattern where the eye tends to go first on the page.

The F Pattern

(Source: www.usability.gov)

In a 2006 eyetracking study, website useability expert Jakob Neilsen found readers tended to scan web pages in an F-shaped pattern (see the figure). According to commentary on the study by www.usability.gov:

Nielsen’s “eye tracking research has demonstrated that users read web content in an F-shaped pattern. The F-shape reading pattern refers to the viewing order: users start by reading across the top line and then look down the page a little and read across again and then continue down the left side.”

I assume reviewers’ eyes will also follow the F-pattern when they scan proposals on pixels or paper. Make use of this pattern to help scanners find your most important points by placing things you want them to notice on the left rather than the right and top rather than bottom.

Tip 8. It’s ok to use color on the page to make things stand out.

Just don’t go overboard.

Tip 9. Summarize each proposal chapter at the beginning and the end.

I know it may seem silly to summarize twice. But I worry about scanners rushing through the proposal and missing something important. I’d rather they complain about me being repetitive than miss the message.

Summing up

Easy proposal review is a factor in winning NIH contracts, so organize your proposal so it’s easy for scanners to find the crucial reasons why you deserve to win the contract.

 

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