Writing Format and Style

Trade Studies and Ghost Stories

Competition can be just as keen for grant money as it is for commercial contracts and government work. Sometimes you may know who your competition is and while you certainly don't want to "trash" them and appear impolite, you can still take the opportunity to emphasize your strengths and contrast them against those the competition lacks. For example, if you find out that they have been audited because of poor financial management or cited because of contract violations, wouldn't it be helpful to show that you have never had such problems? Trade studies and ghost stories offer a proper way to do this. Properly written, they can cause the reader to stop and think; properly placed within the proposal, they effectively wound the competition.

Trade Studies
A trade study lists and/or describes the reasonable approaches, including those you're sure your competition will use, and contrasts them to your approach. The trade study always proves that yours is the only rational approach and, if written properly, highlights the drawbacks to your competitor's methodology. In a trade study, you must show the advantages and disadvantages to each method. If you show disadvantages to yours, you must be able to explain how you're going to deal with them. And in a trade study, the disadvantages of the competition must be far more damaging than yours.

Here's an example. Let's say that you are looking to get a grant to design the Bald Mountain Wildlife Preserve and it requires that you determine the basic contours of the area prior to conducting a formal land survey. Now, you've got someone who's as good as anyone at reading contour maps, and you could put money in the budget for aerial surveys which would yield three dimensional photos, but that's expensive. Nonetheless, that's the technique you know your competitor will use. And you also know that another competitor will use the contour maps provided by the county or by the U.S. Geological Survey and determine the contours simply by sitting in their office and looking at the maps. Knowing this, you decide that the way you should do it is to load the Geological Survey maps in a jeep and drive the route, verifying the maps as you go, and marking any changes that occurred since the map was drawn in 1922. Here's how this information might have been use to write an effective trade story:

Ghost Stories
A ghost story is a subtle way of pointing out your competitor's shortcomings without actually pointing a finger directly at them. It's different from a trade story in that it raises questions in the reader's mind which, when answered, will not flatter the competition. In the ghost story, you make a veiled reference to something you know about the competitor's practices which may already be known by the reader or which may prompt the reader to find out.

Take for example, the previous information about the Bald Mountain Preserve. What if you knew that a competitor had been called on an audit because he or she "padded" the budget in order to buy some sophisticated computer software. You might include a ghost story like this:

The reader of such a story may look differently at the other proposals and study the techniques which your competitors might use. He or she will then be predisposed to choosing you because a comparison will show that the other techniques are costly or don't produce effective results.

Ghost stones and trade studies can be about anything that is relevant to the proposal. They are very useful tools because they nudge the reader's thinking in your direction. Without directly talking about your competition, you score points over them. You've promoted your experience and know-how, and you may have raised questions which your competitors may not even have the opportunity to answer. When you have a particular bit of intelligence about a competitor, ghost stories are very effective.

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