When trying to be brief and to the point, yet still assure the buying organisation that you can do what they are asking for, it’s easy to fall into a trap of being too brief and accidentally not really giving an answer at all. Here’s an example:
Please detail your experience of delivering similar services to similar organisations. Explain how you will use this experience to ensure the successful delivery of this contract. [Word limit: 300 words]
Yes. We can confirm that we have delivered similar services over the last 3 years and would be able to carry out this contract.
Six Honest Serving Men
In this situation, the buying organisation really wants to know a number of things beyond the barest of facts: ‘We have done this before’ and your (unsubstantiated) opinion: ‘we will be able to do this again’.
They want to know:
The example answer above has used 24 words to effectively say nothing at all, throwing away 276 valuable words worth of provable facts and evidence of capability that would demonstrate how the buying organisation could benefit from your previous experience. They want to know who you have worked for before, what you did and how that equates to this contract, why that experience will be beneficial to them, where and when that experience will most likely come into play on this contract.
So, a better answer for the question would be:
Over the last 3 years, we have delivered similar contracts for organisations such as Company 1, Company2 and Company3.
For Company1 and Company2, we delivered services that very closely resemble this contract, including [details of services delivered].
For Company3, the service specification differed in several ways, including [list those ways], however the company itself is very similar in terms of size, customer type [and other ways they are similar]. Our approach to service delivery for this contract was based on our knowledge of the [industry company3 is in] and included [specific methods of service delivery].
We would therefore liaise with [buying organisation] prior to contract start to ensure that our approach to delivery of this contract incorporates [specific methods of delivery as per previous experience], as well as any further requirements specific to [buying organisation].
The above answer is still only 135 words. When the specific information about the three different contracts is put in, it would probably be getting on for 250-300 words.
This level of detail helps assure the buying organisation that you have the capability and experience to do what they need. It also gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how you might tailor your delivery model to suit a particular industry or business type. In three paragraphs, you have answered their question in full, with verifiable facts, and given them reasons to trust your company with their requirements.
Knowing when to stop
As noted in ‘Part 1: Understanding word limits’, a good gauge for how much information the buyer is expecting is the word limit they set: the higher the word limit, the more information you should give.
But what do you do if you’ve got down all the salient points and you’re still nowhere near the word limit? Add more? Make stuff up? Rewrite it all in iambic pentameter? (Please don’t do that.)
The first thing you should do is re-read the question. Make absolutely certain that you haven’t missed anything and that you have, in fact, answered all aspects of the question fully.
Next, see if you can improve your wording or add to any area to make your points clearer. Look for areas where you may have assumed knowledge on the part of the assessor, e.g. using industry acronyms or referring to manufacturing methods, technology or internal processes without explanation. Add those in.
If you have a ton of excess words to ‘use up’, consider whether a brief example or mini case study might be appropriate. This could demonstrate how you have in the past, or would in the future, undertake a task or resolve a potential issue related to the question.
Then move on. If you are lucky/talented enough to be able to fully cover all the necessary points, in a clear and understandable way, without using up your entire word limit, then you are a rare creature indeed and you should reward yourself by doing a victory lap around the car park and then getting on with the next question.
Assessors will not mind if you give them clear, concise answers that address all the details required; they will only mind if a) you ‘waste’ your word limit by not giving enough information for them to reasonably score your response or b) befuddle and obscure the relevant information by adding extra padding to meet a word limit.
More in this series
If you haven’t already, pop over to ‘Part 1: Understanding word limits’ for an overview of why they are used and what you can expect, or have a look at ‘Part 3: Why brevity is your friend’ for tips on how not to accidentally submit War and Peace instead of a bid.
What’s your experience with word limits?
If you have any thoughts or experiences (good or bad) with writing to word limits, let me know in the comments.