Murder your darlings. How presentation coaching can lead to stronger RFPs

cartoon6039The client, a Fortune 500 healthcare company, had reversed a No-Bid decision and began to prepare a late bid for a highly contested Medicaid market.

I was hired to help the senior market executive manage the project: deliver a strong provider network, create a winning delivery model, support the RFP writers and editors, and prepare the team for oral presentations to the state.

Here’s a look at some of the project challenges.

  • Resources were tight for this bid. Corporate was undergoing an enterprise-wide IT project, as well as supporting a major implementation in another state. It was all hands on deck for those projects and very few resources left for this one.
  • There was less than eight weeks to build a provider network. Most of our competitors had been on the ground in the market for over a year.
  • There was initial confusion around who was leading the project. This resulted in delayed decisions and divided camps until it was finally squared away.

By the time I joined the first conference call, I could tell the project was headed for trouble. Several key invitees were not on the call. Subject matter experts who did join were unprepared to speak to their agenda items or give meaningful updates. Nobody seemed inclined to take on action items.

By the end of the next week the first draft of the RFP was circulated. It resembled the conference calls. The writing was careless with lots of cut and paste from previous RFPs. Whole sections were left empty with promises to address them “later.”  The provider network looked anemic.

We were in trouble.

After considering many options, I approached the market lead with the idea of moving the mock oral evaluations up to the following week. I thought we could use it as another diagnostic tool to gauge how prepared the team was to deliver and support a competitive bid. It would also be the first time that many of the team members were in the same room at the same time. He agreed.

As part of my preparation I selected a team of mock evaluators from the other consultants who were working on the bid. They too were concerned that the group was not working well together. We agreed to use the second draft of the RFP response as our interview guide.

On the morning of the mock evaluation, the senior market lead gathered his bid team and sat in the long table set up across from the panel of evaluators.

After laying the ground rules, I asked the evaluators to begin asking selected questions from a list that was distributed to the bid team in advance. In spite of the preparation time and having the questions ahead of time, the bid team responded poorly.

They read from their notes with no eye contact. The answers were not cohesive. Follow-up questions from evaluators left many of the bid team members stumped.

It was a hot mess.

After stumbling through the first practice session, we all agreed to take a break. My colleagues and I met briefly and were unanimous in our opinion that the team was in trouble. We made a decision to skip the next round of questions and instead ask the bid team to work through a case scenario.

The scenario we gave them was a member with severe physical, mental and emotional challenges. He lived in a rural area with little access to the specialty care. We wanted the bid team to describe for us, in detail, how they would handle outreach and create a care plan that worked for him and his family. They were given 30 minutes to create a solution and present it to us.

This should have been a cakewalk – Managed Care 101.

It was not. We sat on the outskirts of the meeting room and watched as half of the bid team actively worked on the solution. They were over in a corner working furiously over a flip board. The other half of the bid team was in various stages of disengagement: making calls, checking email, and wandering in and out of the meeting space.

When it came time for them to present, it was no surprise that the performance was plain awful.

Where a few folks shined, the majority did not. They stumbled through the solutions, the hand-offs were clumsy and their care plan was inadequate. Worse, a few folks even returned their attention to their phones before the presentation ended.

They weren’t getting the message.

I decided to change tactics. No more softball follow-up questions from the prepared list. No more gentle prodding about their case study.

It was time to unleash the murder board approach.

cartoon6781Murder boards, (a term first used in the U.S. military), refers to an intense question and answer session designed to help someone prepare for a difficult presentation. And clearly this group was headed to a very difficult presentation with the state if they continued down this path.

We reassembled the room and I called on my first bid team member — who appeared to be dozing at the table. (I’m not joking). I repeated her name, louder, to see if I could get her attention. When she came to I asked her if she was feeling unwell. A few awkward seconds passed before she barked back at me that she was just fine. Then she proceeded to mutter something unintelligible under her breath.

What a wonderful impression that would have made to the state.

After a bit, I focused my gaze on the bid team’s lead clinical care manager. I asked her how she would rate their case study performance. She mumbled something we could barely understand, but the gist of it was that she was confident in their “solution” and that it demonstrated best practices.

What? Was she even in the same room with the rest of us?

Suddenly, my colleague and fellow mock evaluator shot up and asked her incredulously: “Do you even hear yourself right now? Do you have any passion for the people you serve?”

You could have heard a pin drop.

She stammered and turned red. Her teammates looked up from their phones. Suddenly we had everybody’s attention. We continued to go down the line, firing questions at each bid team member until we were suddenly interrupted.

“Excuse me, I have something to say!”

The clinical case manager leaned into her microphone, and once she had everyone’s attention she began to tell us that she wanted another shot at her answer. She then gave an impassioned speech about why she went into nursing in the first place, why she chose to work for this company and defended how hard she and her colleagues worked on a daily basis to get their members the right care. She cited several examples of where she and her team went above and beyond what was expected. She paused before closing with words to the effect of: “I will not have any of you question my passion or my professionalism!”

We were all stunned.

Within seconds everyone in the room stood up and applauded her. FINALLY we got what we wanted. It was a moving moment and a tipping point for the team. Gone were the passive-aggressive email-checking, eye-rollers that slumped at the table earlier that morning. In their place was a team of professionals who were inspired to be more engaged, more connected and more committed to each other and to the project.

The next practice round went much better. For the next two weeks I worked individually and with the larger group to refine their presentation skills and sharpen their responses.

Results and Impact

The state agency awarded my client maximum points for their orals presentation, and where they ultimately lost the bid, there was no question that presentation coaching made a lasting impact.

Comments, questions and constructive criticisms are tough to hear at times, but the work helped my client:

  • Connect more deeply and authentically to the needs of their audience
  • Improve their ability to think clearly under pressure, and
  • Gain confidence in their persuasive speaking skills