When government agency personnel notify you that they would like your company to make an oral presentation, it’s a very good thing. It either means that you submitted a proposal in response to a request for proposal (negotiated procurement) and you are a finalist for the procurement, or you’re being asked for an oral proposal (no written proposal) under Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 15.102.
Some state and local governments also call for oral proposals but under much stricter circumstances than the federal government (refer to the procurement regulations of the target agency).
The Ground Rules
FAR 15.102 states that oral presentations may substitute for, or augment, written information. Taken to the extreme, this means that the government may not require a technical proposal and base their entire selection on an oral proposal supplemented by certifications, representations, and a signed offer sheet (including any exceptions to the government’s terms and conditions).
Although important, an oral presentation to supplement a written proposal is not as critical as a completely oral response to an RFP because most of the evaluation will already have taken place based on the written technical proposal.
An oral proposal in lieu of a written technical proposal is still in the minority at the federal level, but it is happening more frequently in certain situations to speed up the procurement process (e.g., to compete task orders under multi-vendor IDIQ contracts). The percentage of responses to RFPs that are oral likely will increase in the future.
Think of an oral proposal in the same way you would a written proposal.
The contracting officer must establish the ground rules for the presentation in writing, record the presentation, and score the orally- presented information according to the criteria stated in the solicitation document.
On this point, FAR 15.102(d) states: “When oral presentations are required, the solicitation shall provide offerors with sufficient information to prepare them. Accordingly, the solicitation may describe–
- The types of information to be presented orally and the associated evaluation factors that will be used;
- The qualifications for personnel that will be required to provide the oral presentation(s);
- The requirements for, and any limitations and/or prohibitions on, the use of written material or other media to supplement the oral presentations;
- The location, date, and time for the oral presentations;
- The restrictions governing the time permitted for each oral presentation; and
- The scope and content of exchanges that may occur between the Government’s participants and the offeror’s representatives as part of the oral presentations, including whether or not discussions (see 15.306(d)) will be permitted during oral presentations.”
Beyond the Written Rules
That’s what it says in the rules. But what about other important factors and issues, such as the following?
- They don’t like the way your presenter cuts his hair.
- Your project manager is the best in the world on the job, day to day, but stumbles in a public speaking role. The competitor’s presenter is a convincing, dynamic speaker but not a great project manager.
- Your competitor’s presenter is gifted at simplifying a complex solution and bringing forth the benefits of the solution even though in reality your solution is superior.
- Your competitor does a near movie quality production of his presentation (presuming this is allowed under the written solicitation),while you do a run-of-the-mill poster board presentation.
You get the point; oral presentations are a different ball game than written proposals. In an oral presentation your strengths can be amplified and weaknesses strengthened. Alternatively, strengths can be watered down and weaknesses amplified. The written word is safer. You do not have to think in real time, and you can leave less to chance.
You have time to think, strategize, write, evaluate, rethink, and rewrite.
In short, the oral evaluation process is full of subjectivity, even more so than the written evaluation process.
You’re Asked to Present: Now What?
Once you receive notification of an oral presentation you immediately smell the money and the corporate blood pressure rises, particularly for the person who is selected to give the presentation. This happens to everybody to varying degrees, and the pressure increases with the size of the contract at stake.
Now what do you do? Who gives the presentation and what does this person say? What should the context and content of the presentation be?
Selecting the Presenter
Usually the government will tell you whom they want as the primary presenter: usually it’s the key person on the contract, most often the proposed project manager.
If you have the latitude, consider public speaking skills in selecting whom you propose as the key person.
Presentation Length, Content, and Media
Develop a simple, executive summary-like presentation outlining your understanding of the customer’s needs, your solution, its benefits, and key features. The length and level of detail will of course vary depending on the amount of time allotted by the government and the size of the project. When in doubt about content, you should stress the creative aspects of your solution and its quantifiable benefits.
Use presentation media appropriate for the audience and length of time allotted for the presentation. High tech presentations can work well in certain situations and venues but don’t overdo it and try to dazzle them with technology if it isn’t appropriate. Frequently the government will dictate the media. When in doubt ask the contracting officer what would be appropriate.
Theme of Presentation
Most outstanding presentations rely on a single theme woven throughout the presentation. Although the theme of your presentation will vary depending on the customer’s requirements, consider designing your presentation around the theme of trust and customer service.
Government is becoming more like the commercial sector in realizing that people implement solutions and that people are the key to selecting the winning company. The government is now asking more than ever: “Are these the people we want to work with, and can we trust them to solve our problem?”
Weave the trust theme throughout the presentation by presenting everything from a customer’s perspective. Relate trust to customer service. Present your understanding of the customer’s needs, your solution, and the benefits of the solution from their prospective. Customers naturally trust people who work with them closely and understand their problems. Make the potential customer feel that your staff will be insiders, not outsiders.
Organizing the Presentation
- Follow the government’s format if it’s provided.
- Establish a single main theme and stick with it throughout the presentation.
- Present the benefits of your solution clearly and succinctly.
- Strive to have the presenter convince the audience that he/she understands the problem, knows the solution, knows the benefits, and is the person who can be their savior.
- When in doubt, simplify.
- Keep your graphics simple with as few words as possible. Make them large and easy to read for the members of the audience furthest from the presenter.
- Stick with the highlights of everything in the presentation and avoid boring details. (Save those for question and answer time.)
- Stress the customer’s hot buttons as determined by your sales staff.
Giving the Presentation
Dress and act like the customer as much as possible without looking like an act. This is not that hard; look clean and crisp and avoid extremes.
Take the highest-level corporate person in the company appropriate for the size of the opportunity and have this person make the introduction and begin the process of establishing trust. When in doubt, go with a higher-level person.
The corporate representative should state what the company will do to support the project manager, but make it real and believable. Too much corporate fluff will annoy more than impress.
The company person should sit near the primary presenter and support the presenter in every way possible. Help with questions if this is allowed, try to determine what the hot buttons are and direct the discussions in that direction if possible, stress corporate support whenever possible.
You may be forced to select a presenter who is not a confident public speaker. Let the presenter have a say in the media used for the presentation. A certain type of media may help make the presenter more comfortable.
Consider using a coach who is skilled in public speaking to assist the presenter during rehearsals.
Rehearse over and over and fine-tune the presentation well beyond the point where you think you are ready. Try to anticipate questions during rehearsals and fire them at the presenter endlessly, especially if the presenter is relatively inexperienced in the process. Replicate as best you can the tension and stress that’s about to come. This type of preparation can make an important day an enjoyable and (hopefully) successful one.
Finally, if your presenter has a funny-looking haircut, you know what to do: take him to the best barber you know.