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5 Reasons Your RFP Proposals Get Rejected

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Cheryl Smith



4 min

Whether your win rate isn't as high as you would like or you want to avoid proposal rejections from the start, there are a few key offenses that are guaranteed to ensure your proposals get rejected. Avoiding these common and sometimes unknown mistakes in the bid process will help your proposal move ahead into further rounds of consideration, and ultimately help you win more bids

Writing Style

When creating a proposal, there are three levels of writing to be aware of during the editing process. You don't want your writing to be so high level that it is up in the clouds! Writing that doesn't describe how to do the work in enough detail to be understood will be considered noncompliant and cause your proposal to be rejected. However, copy that is intricate and detailed at a level that only experts will understand will also be considered noncompliant. Reviewers need to comprehend what they are reading in order to properly evaluate it. There needs to be a flow — a story — that is informative and easy to follow and compelling. Your writing should be high level, but detailed nonetheless.

A rule of thumb for writing proposals is to reduce the writing to a lower reading level. It might feel counterintuitive, as you want to convince the proposal committee that your research is sound and thorough. However, writing in a way that ensures whoever picks up the proposal will understand it is crucial.

Risky Approaches

Consider carefully your approach to the project and how you describe it. While it is okay to present a different way to solve for the project than the reviewers might have originally asked for, it can be considered risky. Reviewers need to be able to accurately compare proposals. Make sure that if you are approaching the project from a different angle you still answer the original requirements the reviewers asked for. A safe method might to be to save your new angle until after you have won the bid. A new perspective might be better received after you have shown you know how to answer the outlined proposal.


Pay attention to how the proposal is requested for submission. If it says "deliver non-electronic by this date and time", then be sure to have it either hand delivered on the day before, or have it in the mail with ample time, ensuring it will arrive in the right inbox well before the deadline. If you need to send it via email then try submitting a day or two early. You don't want to be hoping a technology glitch doesn't arise, or not knowing their email box is too inundated to accept your proposal. It is appropriate to confirm your proposal's arrival with a phone call, so if you are unsure about the status of your proposal, call and ensure it has arrived and is checked in.

Document Formats

The spectrum of meddling with the elements of your document will get your proposal rejected. It can be tempting to reduce margin size, or font size when trying to fit your research and information into the outlined page count, but this is a common and key mistake that will get your proposal rejected time and time again.

Pay attention and adhere to all document requirements. Reviewers will count the pages and tear off any pages that exceed the limit. Do not go under the font size requirement, ensure that covers or additional content like CDs have all the information on them and send in the outlined number of copies. Often, there is a checklist at the front of an RFP, or specific instructions in the body of the solicitation. Check off each element as you comply with the outlined requirement, it will be clear what you still need to accomplish and what is in good standing.

Using a system that allows for updated version control is important to keep document formatting consistent across the process and the proposal compliant in the end. Showing your internal reviewers the up-to-date version will ensure that as the process continues, there is clarity around versions and overall compliance.

Graphic Standardization

Graphics can cause your proposal to be rejected when you try to manipulate them to save space. Writing extensive captions in the graphic will be considered noncompliant, as the font size used under graphics is too small. Likewise, if you make the graphic itself too small to be clearly legible, then it will be considered noncompliant and will be rejected. Something that might not originally come to mind, but that you should seriously consider, is the quality of your printing options and whether they will represent the graphics clearly.

You need to check every page in every binder to confirm the pages and graphics are clear, in order and are printed correctly and compliantly. As well as checking that pages are properly numbered and free of all discrepancies. This includes checking that the graphics are still consistent with the content on the page. As edits progress, the original copy that was on the page might have shifted. The reviewer must consider all content, so inconsistencies will impact your evaluation.

Including a compliance matrix at the beginning of your proposal can help you get ahead of the compliance inspection curve. If you can spare the space, this is a good way to show your reviewers that you have addressed and checked what they are looking for up front.

Final Thoughts

The number of disqualifying factors presented when submitting a proposal can easily seem overwhelming. Face it, reviewers are only human and will likely seek ways to cut the number of proposals they must read as much as possible. They will naturally look for reasons to reject non-compliant proposals so they don't have to evaluate the content

The competition is already stiff enough without getting rejected because of margin sizes and other such trivial sounding reasons. However, there are ways to create a standardized, best practice process that eliminates compliance issues from the start and helps you move forward to create high quality proposals that win bids. Partnering with a team of proposal experts to enact a system that works for you will streamline communication and create a reusable framework to ensure you never need to start from scratch on a proposal again. Reduce effort, communicate clearly and watch your win rate soar.

Ultimate Proposal Checklist

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Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith is our Senior Content Writer. She has additionally been writing and managing proposals since 1998. Shipley trained, she has helped establish proposal centers and advised on capture strategy, coached orals teams and lead marketing, communications and knowledge management programs. Cheryl is a graduate of The George Washington University with degrees in Theatre, Communications and Literature. When she’s not sharing her passion for work, she loves drawing, writing, cooking and exploring the Virginia woodlands with her husband, their dog Chase and the fuzzy guests they host for Rover.

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