A Killer Proposal Starts with a Kickbutt Kick-Off

You spend way too much time and money on your proposals to squander the head-start that a carefully-planned and well-run Kickoff Meeting provides.  Stop thinking of the kickoff as a one-hour time-waster with sparse attendance.  Start demanding – and getting – more from this one-time chance to plan your way to success with ALL the stakeholders.


Step-by-step agendas for kickoff meetings are widely available, so pick the one that suits you best. But whatever formal agenda you choose, be aware of the exact information you and your team need to take away from the kickoff.  Things like this:

The Job

o   A shared understanding of what the customer needs done, and the level of complexity involved. 

o   A discussion of what lies underneath.  What do the request for proposal (RFP) and the data gleaned from your opportunity assessment reveal about the customer’s pain points?

o   The blueprint for how we will fulfill the contract to the letter, while making a profit.

Who’s Responsible for What, and By When?

o   What’s our proposal development schedule?  Is It reasonable?

o   Who develops the proposal outline and compliance matrix?

o   Who’s the technical approach lead?

o   Who’s the management approach lead?

o   Who’s the quality assurance (QA) section lead?

o   Who selects, and who produces the resumes and past performance summaries?

o   Who actually writes and who reviews?

Managing the Team

o   Points of contact with teaming partners.

o   How will progress/color team reviews be conducted?

o   Which writers will need extra time or help?

o   How will we establish a dialogue between the technical and pricing leads? (the former wants a Cadillac tech solution, the latter a Hyundai price. They can’t read each other’s minds.)

Selling Our Solution

o   Section M -- Evaluation Factors: what’s on the surface, and what’s underneath?

o   What is our unique selling proposition (USP)?

o   What metrics will we offer to prove our capability?

o   How will we tie our metrics to the past performance summaries?

o   How will we tie our resumes to the personnel qualifications requirements?

o   What will our proposal style mix be (graphics, text, callouts, color, etc.)?

o   What are our win themes and discriminators and how will we sprinkle them throughout the proposal?

And by the way, everybody needs to have seen and read the RFP by the time of the Kickoff.  Otherwise, you’re talking into a void.


Kickoffs come in two mouth-watering flavors:

  1. Are you the Prime?

  2. Are you a Subcontractor?

Let’s look at both a little closer.


  • Rule #1: No subcontractors are invited to the kickoff before signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and Teaming Agreement (TA). No exceptions.

  • Rule #2: There are to be no absentees from this meeting. Everybody invited MUST be present or at least designate a proxy, either in-person or by wire.

  • Rule #3: Your positions on every topic relating to proposal development must be in writing so they are clear to your writers and easily accessible. There’ll be no time later for he-said, she-said. Designate a note-taker to document any side discussions or oral commitments, and distribute the minutes.

With these details out of the way, let’s now dive into the weeds a little.

The Job:

  • Distribute summaries of your technical and management solutions, keyed to the RFP requirements. If disagreements or alternatives arise, get the gist of them, then address them offline following the meeting.

  • Distribute your perception of factors that are not specifically addressed in the RFP, e.g., the customer’s hopes, fears, pressures, expectations, desired end-state, and limitations.

  • Distribute factors specific to this customer, e.g., previous contractor experiences, political pressures and agency culture, media/news coverage, and leadership.

  • Distribute questions you plan to submit to the agency. Ask teammates for their questions.

Who’s Responsible for What, and By When?

The proposal schedule must factor in time for writing, regular progress reviews, color reviews and recovery time before the next draft, and proposal production.  Work on holidays and weekends will depend on the customer’s due date.

Ask attendees whether and how the schedule must be adjusted.  Get it all straight NOW and avoid surprises later.

Every major section and subsection in your proposal outline must be assigned to a specific lead person and/or writer.  THIS INCLUDES TAILORED, UP-TO-DATE RESUMES AND PAST PERFORMANCE SUMMARIES.

Managing the Team

Distribute Writers Guides to the team.  The Writers Guides are the key to reaching the Holy Grail of Proposal Writing:  A First Draft That WORKS.

The goal of the Writers Guide is to give detailed guidance and confidence to non-writers. Each Writers Guide is an annotated outline that allows a writer to simply write to their subject, and not worry about “wordsmithing.”  Whether in outline form or storyboard form, the Writers Guide spells out, at a minimum, the following for each major-and sub-heading: 

  • Section /subsection Title

  • RFP references

  • Marketing and sales themes for assigned sections and subsections

  • Features, benefits and proofs to emphasize

  • Associated project risks and risk mitigation

  • Best-value proposition/discriminators (“Why Us?”)

  • A short lead-in paragraph, and a short closing/transitional paragraph, with a bulleted outline between them

  • Suggestions for graphics, and graphics titles and captions.

Assign your Pricing and Technical Leads to stay in close touch.  48 hours before submission is NOT when you want to learn that your gold-plated tech solution has blown your price out of contention.

Reassure everyone that timely requests for writing assistance will be regarded as a sign of intelligence, not weakness.

Selling your Solution

Distribute risk mitigation and cost containment plans tailored to the opportunity.  (These should be part of your proposal, whether required by the RFP or not). Ask writers to continually emphasize risk and cost mitigation.

Distribute significant metrics showing your team’s effectiveness on similar projects.  How many, how fast, measurable changes, mean-time between failures (MTBFs,) volumes, quantities – these speak louder than adjectives to the government reviewers.  Ask your subs to add their own.

Distribute the “attaboys” you have received from satisfied customers, and ask your subs to provide same.  These are to be shown in the proposal inside highlighted “callout boxes.”

If possible, distribute a Draft Executive Summary of no more than one page. State compliance with the RFP, similar and successful projects, our most significant metrics, and end by saying you look forward to serving. That’s it.  Ask subs for enhancements, but keep it to a single page.


You’ve been invited to the Prime’s kickoff.  That’s great.  Be sure to wear a clean shirt.

  • Rule #1: Say little and listen hard. Represent your company with professionalism, restraint and seriousness.

  • Rule #2: Make no snap commitments beyond what’s in your TA. “Let’s discuss that offline” is always a good thing to say.

  • Rule # 3: Only discuss your slice of the contract revenue offline. That should already be covered in your TA.

The Job:

  • What is your piece of the work? Have there been changes since the TA was signed, or the RFP issued?

  • Do some RFP requirements present larger obstacles than others? Where might you need advice and counsel from the Prime?

  • Present any questions you have for the agency.

Who’s Responsible for What, and By When?

  • What are your writing and reviewing assignments? What is your word/page count? When are your drafts due?

  • Are you required to supply resumes for proposed staff? Past performance summaries? Make sure you can supply these on time, up-to-date and in full compliance with RFP requirements.

  • Do you have any problems with the proposal schedule?

Managing the Team

  • Who are your Points of Contact with the Prime? Who do your technical leads contact to ensure common understanding?

  • When are interim and color reviews scheduled?

Selling Our Solution

  • Remember, your role is to help the Prime win, not to take center stage in the proposal.

  • What expertise were you brought onto the team to provide? When called upon, explain what your company will DO, and link it to your Prime’s themes, discriminators, etc.

  • When called upon, summarize how your presence on the team will reduce risks in performance, cost, schedule and personnel.

I hope this will help you get more out of what is too often viewed as a tedious, pro forma step in the proposal process.  Instead, prepare in advance to use the Kickoff as your best early opportunity to get your whole team on the same sheet of paper, establish a common direction, ask and answer questions, and introduce your people to your partners so that they’ll really want to work together.  Good Luck.


Dr. David Christovich has over 30 years in marketing for high-tech software, engineering, IT and telecom companies supporting DoD and civilian agencies. He has managed over 300 competitive proposals to the Federal Government, ranging up to $1 billion in value with a proposal win rate over 40%. He has also been a marketing/proposal manager and consultant for many small and large businesses in the Washington, D.C. region.  A graduate of Washington and Lee University, the University of Connecticut and the University of Georgia, Dr. Christovich taught at the college level for five years.  He has trained and supervised Business Development and Proposal teams including account executives and marketers, software developers, engineers and scientists, telecom and IT specialists, contracts/pricing, subcontractors, graphics specialists, technical writers, and independent consultants.