19th Oct 2011 AUTHOR: Matt Milgrom

Design & Layout: 7 Ways to Skim-Proof Your Proposals

Time-poor reviewers wont read every inch of your proposal. So how can you ensure they absorb the key messages that influence their decision? Skim-proof your document!


  • Busy reviewers must absorb key messages even when skimming
  • Informative headings and Key Points quickly inform
  • Eye-catching graphics with persuasive captions attract and sell
  • Pull Quotes and Margin Themes reinforce key messages
  • Boxed content, colour and bold type spotlight important content

Pull quotes - like this one - arrest attention, reinforce key points and encourage further reading

We'd love to think that every sentence of our proposal is eagerly devoured by the tender review team. It isn't. According to our review and evaluation friends they are frequently under huge pressure to extract important details and form an overall impression whilst continuing with BAU (Business As Usual). Busy executives tend to skim-read proposals to extract the essence or to create a shortlist.

It makes sense, then, to make your submissions as skim-proof as possible. But how?

Take a good look at your daily newspaper or favourite trade journal. These publications are designed with busy skim-readers in mind, and use techniques which:

  • Arrest the attention of the casual reader, and
  • Convey important information quickly and clearly
Here are seven effective ways to do the same in your next tender submission.

1. Use Informative Headings

First things first: most requests for tender or proposal will dictate certain headings and section titles and these should be adhered to at all times. Failure to do so could render a tender response non-compliant.

Beyond mandatory labelling, however, subheadings within your own response text convey key selling points to a busy reviewer very effectively. The best informative headings are eye-catching, encapsulate the section, and suggest a benefit to the prospect.

It takes practice to upgrade generic headings to informative ones, but when you do, the results are impressive and convincing.

For example:

  • "Introduction" becomes "How our Proposal is arranged for easy evaluation"
  • "Team Structure" becomes "A Simple Hierarchy That Reduces Headcount Costs"
  • "Implementation" becomes "Our Ongoing Support During a Three Phase Launch"

2. Provide a Key Points List

Take a leaf out of pages of business journals: in detailed articles, a simple 'Key Points' box outlines the important main ideas. Lists of key points are a skimmer's delight.

At the start of each lengthy section, include a Key Points Box (like the one at the top of this page) and summarise the main points of the section as bullet points in order of importance. If possible, try to keep each main point to a single unbroken sentence.

Busy reviewers can't miss boxes like this and will absorb most of the key messages that follow without having to read the detail. These key points can often be used as the basis for a powerful up-front Executive Summary.

3. Employ Arresting, Informative Graphics

Bold, attractive graphics are an important selling aid. Elsewhere, we describe how the world of advertising uses them to combine facts with emotion to create a compelling whole.

Images set within a page of words are also impossible to ignore and will stop skim-readers in their tracks. A clear graph, instructive infographic or well-chosen photograph can powerfully present a key element of your offer in seconds - with emotion.

4. Use Persuasive Captions

The captions beneath an image and are nearly always read. This allows you to interpret the image for the reader and pitch your offer. Don't waste this valuable selling opportunity!

To be effective, your captions will include a complete sentence explaining the relevance of the graphic and present a benefit. It must make sense without forcing the reviewer to read the detail on the page, although including an attractive benefit may encourage further investigation.

For example:

"Figure 1. Call Volumes since 2007"


"Figure 1. Call Volumes since 2007. Hold times for callers have remained low despite scaling up call volumes by 200%, thanks to our dynamic staffing model"

5. Deploy Pull Quotes & Margin Themes

Magazines and trade journals use these extensively in their document design. These snippets of text arrest the attention of the skim-reader and powerfully present key points to tempt further reading.

A Pull Quote is a direct quote from the text, whilst a Margin Theme is a powerful statement supported by text on the page. Both of them usually employ large, bold, italicised text set in the margin or within ample white space within the page.

6. Create Boxed Content

Placing important but lengthy information within a box is also difficult for a skim-reader to ignore. This technique is best used for important reference material that includes several elements or bullet points. Boxed content is also easier to locate on the page during subsequent reviews.

7. Use Bold Type and Colour

Colour and bold type are two subtle ways to make important content stand out. Whilst the swiftest of page-flickers may miss these, a reviewer reading quickly through body-copy will certainly notice and absorb key points highlighted in this way.

A Word of Caution

Raising your voice may attract attention, but continuing to shout just annoys. To be most effective, these techniques should be used sparingly. A document full of attention-grabbing devices will have precisely the opposite effect. Instead, concentrate on showcasing just the key points and themes every few pages.

If you skim-proof your document well, a prospect can flick through a 200 page submission in five minutes and walk away with the key elements of your offer - along with an overall impression of your company.

Skim-proofing a document is a worthwhile exercise. A bid that showcases main points and benefits provides a complete impression to a time-poor decision maker, and reinforces the strength of your offer to a careful reader. Judicious use of these techniques will ensure that every reader gets the message: however long they spend reading it.

mattMatt Milgrom is a principal consultant for Tender Success and helps Australian organisations develop persuasive tender submissions that stop skim-readers in their tracks. Contact Matt to ensure your next response is a success.