Eight Tips for Government to Improve the Oral Proposal Process

Our virtual work environment has significantly shifted oral proposals. No longer is industry memorizing sentences and traveling to a government conference room to deliver presentations. Industry now has the advantage of teleprompters and scripts on computer screens, retakes of video recordings, and the comfort of our familiar home or office surroundings in the pressure cooker that is orals.

As a “dual citizen” of the contractor community and the acquisition workforce, I am always happy to see the use of oral presentations. I have had the privilege of serving as an orals coach to industry, helping the federal government plan and execute orals as part of the procurement process, presenting for my company, and helping others in our company prepare for orals.

I recently had the pleasure of judging the college national finals in public speaking, something I try to do each year to give back to the community that, unbeknownst to me, would be my pathway into the acquisition workforce and contractor communities. In giving back to that speech community, it made me want to give back to my acquisition workforce community to improve the oral presentation process.

Based on multiple oral presentations since moving to a virtual environment, I wanted to share eight tips for my acquisition workforce colleagues that will help make orals more effective for both sides of the procurement.

1. Be Less Scripted and More Conversational – With industry sitting at their computers versus standing in front of you, the logical recommendation of an orals coach like me will be for presenters to be highly scripted, read from the script, but make it appear conversational and unrehearsed. No easy feat! Meanwhile, I know what it’s like being on the Government side and how bored they must be hearing such rehearsed presentations.

The Government can help reduce the boredom of watching someone read a script that you could read as a technical proposal by changing the orals presentation format. Rather than asking for offerors to discuss their technical and management approaches, separate the oral presentation into two segments: 1) industry’s answers to a set of published questions – this gives the company a chance to respond to the questions versus just the individual presenting; 2) and 3-5 “on-the-spot” technical and/or management questions to see how the Key Personnel/presenters respond and work together to answer the questions. This will give the Government a much better sense of who they will be working with in project execution versus listening to scripted technical and management responses. If the Government is using a two-phased approach of written proposals and then oral presentations, use this question or demonstration approach to receive new material instead of just having the written proposal summarized and presented to the evaluation team.

2. Keep the Questions Germane to the Scope and Roles and Responsibilities of the Presenters – On-the-spot questions and answers are great for seeing how the offeror’s team members react and work together, but the questions need to be germane to who is in the presentation and what the Government is specifying their role to be in the solicitation. Ensuring that the questions are germane will help limit protests later. In a procurement last year, the only Key Personnel position in the solicitation was an offsite manager whose focus for the work was recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retaining employees. No special technical knowledge was required and the position was not reviewing work products. We had the perfect candidate who had a background in Human Resources and had served as an offsite manager. Despite the solicitation not requiring that the offsite manager be an expert in the technical field of the agency, the Key Personnel was unfairly asked “What’s the current state of nanotechnology?” [Nanotechnology is fictitious to protect the identity of that agency.]

This is a perfect example of a protest-worthy question. If the Government didn’t require that person to be a nanotechnology expert and the person’s responsibilities were not technical, how is that a relevant question for purposes of the evaluation? In developing those on-the-spot questions, remember to think about who is presenting and what the Government is requiring of their role in the solicitation.

3. Allow for Presentation-Specific Questions between Written and Oral Submissions – If the Government is using a phased approach, industry will focus its questions on whatever is first, such as the written submission. Oftentimes, industry doesn’t know who they will have as presenters by the time that questions are due to the Government and those presenters will have questions. A company may not have engaged an orals coach by the time initial questions are due and the orals coach will most certainly have questions. Providing a window for questions on presentation-specific items that were not clear from the solicitation or the invitation to orals letter gives industry a chance to feel as comfortable as possible going into orals.

4. Specify the Platform Being Used – In the invitation letter to orals, specify what platform the Government will be using, such as Zoom, Teams, Google Meets, WebEx, etc. Each platform is a little different and knowing the platform in advance allows industry to practice using that platform, helping them be more comfortable during the orals session and hopefully reducing any technology challenges.

5. Be Gracious when Technology Mishaps Occur – We all know Murphy’s Law when it comes to these high-pressure moments. It’s not if, but when. The world’s transition to being virtual wasn’t without any technology mishaps along the way and it’s unrealistic to think they’re all behind us. I recently participated in two Government industry days where technology didn’t work in favor of the Government and the industry participants were waiting 10 minutes or longer for a return to normal. With presenters being at home, in offices, in different states, or even different countries, be as gracious as you are allowed to be in evaluating the oral presentation.

I know our teams try to prepare for those mishaps by having back-up presenters ready should someone lose connectivity. If someone’s connection falters and the Government is not able to hear them, stop the time and the presentation so that the offeror is aware and can correct it. Remember that as the Government, you are in control and industry is at your mercy in this moment. By the Government stopping the presentation, if the team is prepared, their back-up will be able to step in and take over if that issue can’t be resolved quickly. Whether time is given back to the Offeror or if that counts again them is the big concern to be prepared to address. Ensure that your structure gives you the flexibility to extend that grace when it is necessary for reasons outside of the control of the presenter.

6. Be Less Prescriptive in Setting Time Limits within the Presentation: In recognizing that the Government is squarely in control of the event, also remember where giving up some control is beneficial. Specifying how time should be allotted is one area where the Government can be less prescriptive. For example, the solicitation will say that the offeror has 10 minutes for introductions, 40 minutes for the presentation, and then 10 minutes for follow-up questions and answer. Reduce that guidance to the offeror has 50 minutes for introductions and its presentation and 10 minutes for questions and answers. In a virtual environment, segmenting industry’s presentation time creates uncertainty and complications. Who from the Government is timing the first 10 minutes? Will that Government person come off mute and come on camera to stop the offeror if time exceeds 10 minutes? Does the offeror have to tell the Government when they’re done if they don’t take the full 10 minutes? If the offeror doesn’t use all 10 minutes, can they carry over that time into the presentation time allotment? Does the offeror start its presentation segment as soon as it finishes introductions or does the Offeror need to ask if the Government needs to reset its timer and then the Offeror begins with the presentation segment? I’m sure there are even more questions that others from industry have when time is artificially segmented. Bottom line, avoid it and just dictate to industry their presentation time and then the time for follow-up questions from the Government.

7. Allow Up Front Time for “Roll Call” Introductions – Speaking of introductions, this is likely the first thing that happens once everyone is in the meeting and is one of the most confusing moments. We all log into the meeting and it’s only natural that we all want to introduce ourselves and know who is in the meeting. Because introductions are often built into the presentation time and are more detailed than just name and title, clarify that you’re starting off with a roll call instead of calling it an introduction. The roll call then is name, title, and organization for government and industry. Using “roll call” instead of “introductions” will be clear that time has not begun and that industry does not need to give detailed information on each person, but just state who is in attendance for everyone’s knowledge and for the procurement record.

8. Be on Camera During Dialogue – In judging the college national finals in public speaking, it’s always interesting to see the difference in speeches when the room is empty versus when the room is full. During preliminaries, the campus has about 80 classrooms of speeches occurring at the same time, so the audience is few. In the “out rounds”, quarterfinals only have 16 classrooms of simultaneous competitions and that number continues to go down for semifinals and then finals. With the reduced number of simultaneous rooms of competitors, comes increased audiences. The energy exchange that occurs with a live audience creates a remarkable difference for the competitors.

Although energy exchange is limited in an online platform, it is much more rewarding to deliver remarks to other humans than a screen of black boxes with initials. In keeping the technical evaluators secret from the presenters, one agency I saw remained off camera and used “TEC Member 1” as their name instead. While I appreciate the effort to keep the technical evaluators secret, the purpose of oral presentations is to be able to interact, even if just online. If slides are being shared, keep your camera off, but if dialogue is occurring, turn the camera on and be part of the meeting. That doesn’t mean that the Contracting Officer loses control of the questions and answers, it just makes it feel a bit more natural for everyone involved.

Oral presentations are the best way for the Government to hear and interact with the people who may be supporting them. Continue to hold virtual oral presentations and make the most of these tips. I hope to be part of many more as a coach to the Government, a coach to our team, and as a participant. And finally, while Contracting Officers will encourage you as an evaluator to have no reactions and no emotions so as to not show preference to any offeror, flash your offerors a smile when you can. Just make sure everyone gets a smile from you so that you’re not showing a preference. The offerors on camera are the ones stressed; a smile might be what they need to feel a bit more at ease in the orals presentation pressure cooker.

Jeremy Arensdorf is an Executive Vice President with Jefferson Consulting Group. He leads Jefferson’s growth efforts and also provides federal acquisition expertise to agencies.