Mastering proposal writing with the A3 format

Traditionally, the request for proposal (RFP) process has required countless hours of work to create comprehensive proposals that highlight an architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firm’s full range of capabilities. Unfortunately, most RFP responses contain hundreds of pages of boilerplate information that are ineffective at clearly communicating a firm’s value proposition and expertise. What if that information could be condensed into a one-page response that not only communicates expertise but also packs a punch?

Ann Leiner’s company, Stacey & Associates, helps clients achieve just that using the A3 format. Rooted in lean principles, the A3 format challenges proposal writers to eliminate jargon and summarize only the most important information on a single 11- by 17-inch page, instead of 20-plus pages.

In this episode of “Spill the Ink,” Ann and host Michelle Calcote King discuss how A3 proposal writing works, best practices and the challenges of adapting to the new process. They also delve into the ways the AEC industry is evolving and discuss what today's companies are looking for in exceptional RFP responses.

Here's a glimpse of what you'll learn

  • How the A3 format works and why it can help AEC firms shine among competitors

  • The vital role that great graphic design plays in A3 proposal success

  • Techniques for shifting your mindset to extract and integrate crucial project information into your A3 proposals

  • Insights into the current trends affecting proposal writing and business development strategies in the AEC industry

About our featured guest

Ann Leiner is the chief connection officer at Stacey & Associates, a consulting firm that assists architecture, engineering and construction professionals with their marketing and business development strategies. A seasoned professional with over 30 years working with design and construction firms, Ann has been recognized as one of the Top 50 Women in Business in Pennsylvania” and as a “Top 40 Under 40” professional.

Resources mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by Reputation Ink.

Founded by Michelle Calcote King, Reputation Ink is a public relations and content marketing agency that serves professional services firms of all shapes and sizes across the United States, including corporate law firms and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms. 

Reputation Ink understands how sophisticated corporate buyers find and select professional services firms. For more than a decade, they have helped firms grow through thought leadership-fueled strategies, including public relations, content marketing, video marketing, social media, podcasting, marketing strategy services and more.

To learn more, visit or email them at today.


[00:00:00] Ann Leiner: I think it's been really well received by design and construction professionals. Once they get one under their belt, they understand how, geez, this is nice. It really simplifies it. And owners love it. Once an owner has gone through the process, they're generally hooked.


[00:00:18]: Welcome to “Spill the Ink,” a podcast by Reputation Ink where we feature experts in growth and brand visibility for law firms and architecture, engineering, and construction firms. Now let's get started with the show.


[00:00:36] Michelle Calcote King: Hi, everyone. I'm Michelle Calcote King. I'm your host, and I'm the principal and president of Reputation Ink. We're a public relations and content marketing agency for professional services firms, including architecture, engineering and construction firms. To learn more, go to

Today we're going to talk about how a AEC marketing department spend a substantial amount of time writing proposals. In recent years, the lean management techniques that had taken over manufacturing and then entered into the construction world have started actually being incorporated into proposal writing. The goal is to make a firm's RFP responses concise and easy to understand without sacrificing value.

The leading thinker in this area is Ann Leiner. She's with Stacey & Associates, and she's joined me today to talk about her firm's A3 proposal format for a AEC firms. Her team leverages that to help clients gain a competitive advantage and win jobs. Ann's company also provides consulting services for design and construction firms to help them meet and exceed their sales and revenue goals. Welcome to the show.

[00:01:46] Ann: Thank you. Good to be here.

[00:01:48] Michelle: I'm excited to talk about this. When I first thought about the concept of applying lean management techniques to proposals, it was very interesting. 

I'd love to just first start and hear about you and how you ended up in the AEC world and doing what you're doing with your firm.

[00:02:06] Ann: Sure. Well, I did it a circuitous route, primarily through economic development channels. I actually was executive director of an organization that provided consulting services to municipalities and state government officials on public policy and economic development opportunities. I started to work with architects to take community visions, and draw them up in the form of renderings and building models. Then I helped communities find the funding for those capital projects. There's my dog. [laughs] Sorry!

[00:02:52] Michelle: Dogs are good. We welcome dogs on the show.

[00:02:55] Ann: We basically found the funding for those projects and worked with the architects then to take it through the design and construction process. Ultimately, an architect said, "Geez, this is a great way to get ahead of the game and learn about projects before they actually are out on the street for an RFP. If we can find the money for a project, we're making our own work." That was my first gig with an architectural firm, and that was 1999.

[00:03:25] Michelle: Oh, wow. Fantastic. Congrats.

[00:03:28] Ann: I worked for a number of firms in the AEC industry, and basically came to the conclusion that when I was working for just one company, you have to have your blinders on and filter everything through just that one company. I felt as my professional network grew, I really wanted to be making connections between other firms and other individuals who quite frankly, might have been a better fit for whatever project I was chasing at the time for my employer.

That might be frowned upon by the person writing you your check every two weeks so I decided to break out on my own, and that was almost 14 years ago now I've been on my own and that's our tagline, “Making connections,” so we can connect architects, engineer, and construction professionals with owners, and have them achieve great results together.

[00:04:23] Michelle: Fantastic. It's a great business model. Tell me, let's talk about how you started thinking around lean design principles and applying those to proposals. How did that first start?

[00:04:36] Ann: Well, certainly, I managed and did my share of proposals when I was new in the industry. When I made a switch to Stacey & Associates, we had a client who was responding to a request for proposals from Penn State University. Penn State had been an early adopter of using lean practices in their construction processes.

They were really seeing great results by using various lean techniques, big rooms, conditions of satisfaction, target value design, and ultimately, using A3s as a tool for monitoring and reporting the progress of various capital projects. They thought, “Boy, this is great. If we could use an A3 to summarize the information that would generally be on several pages of, for example, a job conference report, instead of having highlights and sticky notes, and trying to figure out exactly what the most important pieces are.”

A3 really gave the opportunity to showcase just those elements that were necessary for everybody to be tracking and monitoring on one page. By having some success with that, it ultimately became, well, maybe we could do away with these god-awful voluminous proposals and have an opportunity to use an A3 to summarize that information in a concise way because if you can do it with a construction project, why not be able to do it with a professional selections process? That was really where I started doing those proposals for that client, probably over 10 years ago now.

[00:06:29] Michelle: Wow. One, is it something that is requested now from clients, or is this something that you are…because I can imagine it's a shift for clients thinking as well. They're used to getting these luminous things. What's been the reaction that you've seen?

[00:06:49] Ann: For the most part, the first time a client — and by client, if architect, engineer or construction professional — gets a request for qualifications or an RFP, they're sort of, "What? There's no way I can do this. It's too complex." They often will recoil at the thought of, “Well, that's not from my project.”I have project managers who, when I say, okay, listen, you are used to doing your project approach on three pages, but now you have an index card. You need to summarize the most important points about your approach to this project in the space of this index card and not over three pages where probably two and a third, two and a half of those pages are boilerplate that you're just carrying over.There's really probably the essence of the project approach is in a couple of key sentences that say what they really need to do to be effective in delivering that project, whether it's on the design or the construction side.

I think a lot of design and construction professionals really, it's so difficult because we have been doing these 20, 30, 50-page proposals for decades. I think there's some sense that this is the industry norm and that it's a standard, and God forbid that it's a best practice. Getting people to say, well, wait a minute. The only people who hate dealing with those proposals more than those of us who are writing them are the poor schmucks who have to read them.We're producing one, but a facility director trying to make a design or construction selection may be having to read 20 or 30 of these things, and they look like boilerplate, and they look alike, and we all look alike. There's so little differentiation. I think it's been really well received by design and construction professionals. Once they get one under their belt, they understand how, geez, this is nice. It really simplifies it. And owners love it. Once an owner has gone through the process, they're generally hooked.

[00:09:12] Michelle: I bet. My understanding of it is, because I think I looked at one of your examples on your site, it's not just a sea of text. It's a very visual document. Is that correct? Explain how graphic design plays a role in putting that information together.

[00:09:29] Ann: Sure. It's funny when firms first start to do the A3 sometimes they want to just shrink down the pages and line them up on the A3, and use very, very small font. But actually, the use of A3s for professional selections is 50% curated content and 50% great graphic design. That graphic design is important because if you think about the way we make decisions now, we're getting things at home, and we're getting things in the mail that we're making critical decisions about that basically could come into your mailbox in the form of a postcard.

You're making decisions about who to vote for or who to have replace your windows at home, and it's not in 20 and 30, and 50-page documents. When's the last time you read a 20 or 30-page document to do anything? Personally or professionally? Everything's done in small bits of information.You're gathering information through social media. It's very concise, very small bits of text and content, paired generally with really good images and really good graphic design, and the images back up the content so that at a glance you can skim it and get a sense of, is this the window replacement company for me, or is this the superior court judge I want to vote for? It's not in volume. It's in well-curated content and well-designed images.

[00:11:11] Michelle: Yes. It's that process of simplification and really getting to the heart of the message, which is the challenging part of any kind of communication. When you're walking them through how to select and curate that information, what are some guiding principles that you're giving them?

[00:11:33] Ann: Certainly, skim-ability is one of them. You want to make sure that you put yourself in the position of the person who's reading these, knowing they're probably looking at multiple submissions. You want to make sure that there's some good graphic design standards that are in place for wayfinding in a document. That there's steak and sizzle. There's some content, but then it's also laid out in a way that's visually appealing, but not being too cutesy. You want to make sure that you're still getting your content across, and it's not so jazzy with cutesy graphics that it's difficult to read.

I think the other thing that I will always say is to edit with your eraser. I've challenged clients to say, pretend I'm giving you a dollar for every word that you erase from this A3.You go through and you make sure that every single word earns its keep. Is it the very best word you can use? Use your thesaurus. Is the word you're choosing to describe something the best word that conjures up the best imagery? Is it the most illustrative word, so that it catches the eye and elicits an emotional and a cerebral response? Because it paints an image without having it be a sentence. Does that make sense?

[00:13:10] Michelle: Oh, yes. I would do the same with our content writing. I'm a big fan of editing with an eraser. It's hard work, but once you get used to it, you realize how much crisper and just understandable, how much more impact you make with your words when you choose them carefully. I'm a big believer that writing has become even more important. As people say, we don't read as much anymore, but writing has become more important because you have to write effectively to get the attention of people who aren't–

[00:13:50] Ann: Absolutely.

[00:13:51] Michelle: –paying as much attention, so 100%. Once you've done that once with clients, do they feel empowered then to replicate it? Is there a system or process then set in a place where they can replicate it over and over again pretty easily? Or do they tend to struggle after they've done one? How does that work? 

[00:14:16] Ann: Selfishly, I wish they all struggled and came back [laughs]. To some extent, clients will hire us to do their first one, and they'll get a lay of the land. Then there's always this inclination in our industry to create a boilerplate or a template. The problem is the A3 doesn't really lend itself to that. If you really are doing it properly, there's just not enough real estate to have boilerplate language. You really have to be very specific about the project or the boilerplate sticks out like a sore thumb.

We've done a number of A3s for clients, and even sometimes clients who will take on their own designs, and maybe they'll just send it to us for a critical review. They'll just hire us to do a collegial review. "Here's the RFP. Take a look at what we've done. Is this coming across?" Sometimes, as with any kind of a design piece, just stepping away from it and having a fresh eye. You see architects do that all the time with design charettes. We say sometimes a design charette for an A3 is the best thing that can happen because we might say, "Geez, we see Josh's resume, and we think that one of the differentiators in Josh is this project or this aspect of his professional development, and you didn't lift it up as a bullet. Why is that?" People say, "Oh yeah, I guess we forgot about that because that was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

Sometimes that dialogue helps them refine their thinking by simply being a fresh eye and a fresh perspective. There are some firms, some large national firms, who are cranking out so many proposals, and their proposal teams are so rigorous in their proposal development that the A3 comes through, and it's like a pig and a python, and it takes too much of their marketing coordinator's time and effort. Maybe they don't have a strong graphic design group. Maybe they're accustomed to just compiling their marketing collateral as it is that the proposal coordinators are more compilers than designers.Sometimes we'll get pulled in to just do A3 proposals. 

I think it maybe pays to be a little mean. I'm sassy and mean sometimes. I might be able to say to that project manager, "This is all boilerplate junk. There's nothing good in here. You're not telling me anything. Tell me the three key things you are going to have to control for during the course of this project that will make or break the project." If you don't have the confidence, and maybe the seasoned experience to know to push back, you're going to get these gobbledygook answers from some of the technical folks.You have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, and say, “No, no, you really need to think about this. You need to tell me very specifically what are the three things that are going to make or break this project. You don't have to say the other 75. You just have to tell me these three, and that will differentiate you from somebody else who puts in something that's very generic.” We work with teams in that regard. Many firms have turned their A3s into a marketing piece.

[00:17:59] Michelle: I can imagine. I was just thinking that, yes.

[00:18:01] Ann: Yes, so we've helped them to do that to convert it to a marketing piece. We've helped them even convert it into a piece that could be used in A3, in the 11-by-17 format, or maybe designed to be split down the middle. If they were doing a proposal for a Neanderthal knuckle dragger, and they needed it to be that 8.5-by-11, 30-page document, they could at least use the graphics and the layout, as a way to maybe summarize something like a firm profile, or maybe they do an executive summary that's on an A3, and it's something that's on an 11-by-17 paper that they Z-fold in.Because then when the Neanderthal knuckle dragger facility owner is looking at it, their thumb will catch on that Z-fold and they'll pull it open, maybe expecting it to be just a boring org chart or a boring Microsoft project schedule. In fact, it could be the whole proposal at a glance on one sheet of paper. Maybe their wheels will start to turn and they'll say, "This is really cool. I don't even have to read anymore. They're on the shortlist."

[00:19:11] Michelle: I was wondering if that was a way to try to advance how you're doing things while still placating some of those older thinking-type clients. Do you see that where they're using the A3 as almost like a summary, a high level, and then they're still providing all the stuff because they feel like they have to provide all the boilerplate crap. Do you see that a lot?

[00:19:35] Ann: I don't see it a lot. I do see it with AEC professionals who get the value of the A3. I'll always get that question, should you use an A3 if it's not specifically asked for? I generally say, unless you really know that the audience you are submitting the information to will be receptive, or unless you ask if that's an acceptable format, I wouldn't do it. Because in professional selections, if they're looking for something to toss a firm, it may be viewed as non-compliant, it may be just too funky. I always say don't do it in replacement of whatever's been asked for, but if you can do it and you can highlight it and do a firm profile, or do an executive summary, do it.

I don't know that I would say I'm seeing it a lot. I do know there are some firms who perhaps have done like, "Here's our higher education portfolio, A3." They're putting that into a higher education proposal, maybe in a Z-fold, because they're saying, we just want to show at a glance what this is."

We, in particular, at Stacy & Associates, are now targeting owners to try to expose them and get them thinking about whether or not this is something they should be looking at.

[00:21:04] Michelle: Oh, that's great. Getting them to start asking–

[00:21:08] Ann: Asking for it.

[00:21:08] Michelle: –because that's when real change happens in any industry, is when the clients push it forward.

[00:21:13] Ann: Absolutely. When there's demand.

[00:21:15] Michelle: Yes, absolutely.

[00:21:16] Ann: Exactly.

[00:21:17] Michelle: Well, let's talk just AEC business development as a whole. I'd love to hear your take on any other trends you're seeing in the market right now. Are our firms doing anything else different in their business development or proposal strategies that you're seeing?

[00:21:37] Ann: Well, we're definitely seeing that the role of the business developer is oftentimes more recruiter than developer. If you're not busy right now, you must be under a rock, because everybody I'm talking with has their pipelines filled. They are tremendously busy. They can't find enough staff. They're overloaded. I'm hearing a lot of conversations about, is it time to start saying no?

Of course, for any of us who've been in this industry for any length of time, the thought of doing that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand. It isn't just because you're saying, "Well, don't take work from a lousy client or one that doesn't pay well." It's having to be faced with potentially turning down work or pushing work off from good clients who are paying well and who are desperate to have work done, and people just can't find the staff to deliver it.I know in our business, representing a number of firms, some of the most important things that we're doing are recruiting and helping to identify candidates who are a good cultural fit and getting that staffing up. 

We're still seeing a lot of conversations in the merger and acquisition realm. We helped a few clients go through that process and say, "Well, if we can't recruit them one at a time, let's just start picking up some firms so that now we're picking up five architects at a time, or 10 engineers at a time."We're seeing some of that. That's an interesting phenomenon because firms are getting larger and larger, and from a marketing perspective, brands are getting more and more diluted.

[00:23:32] Michelle: Right. Absolutely.

[00:21:33] Ann: Where you could say like, "Oh, you know, XYZ firm is known for this." Well, maybe they are, maybe they're not, because maybe they've gone in a different direction where they're picking up other firms, and now that brand is much more general cut across multiple industries.

[00:23:52] Michelle: Which makes branding and marketing and positioning a lot tougher the more they're varied services become. Absolutely. It is interesting the whole recruiting — we're seeing that focus with the marketing. Do you have any best practices that you're advising your clients on there in terms of their business development when looking at with the focus on attracting the right people?

[00:24:27] Ann: I think one thing that we're seeing a lot, and it's from recruits throughout the age spectrum, whether it's young, out of school, or even more seasoned, is that culture is very important. For the firms who are showing one random picture from a holiday party, like three or five years ago, that isn't culture. I think really the firms that are being most effective are demonstrating in a very real and very tangible way what their culture is and what their values are.

We're still seeing a lot of conversation as companies are going back in the office, there's still a great divide and doesn't appear to be any consensus on what the best practice is for that. Each individual, you can't make sort of blanket assumptions anymore. Every person you're recruiting, and every person you're touching has a different story. It used to be like, "Well, you're going to figure out your story after 5:00 PM and before 8:00 AM, Monday through Friday, and you go ahead and have your own story."

Now I'm seeing a lot of firms are connecting with recruits on a very personal level and trying to figure out what is going to make that person get out of bed in the morning and want to do the work of this firm and connecting on what their priorities are, relative to pay, vacation, benefits, the work environment. It isn't just a matter of, "Here's the package." It's a matter of matching and maybe even customizing.I think for some key hires, when you're looking at a, I'd say middle- to high-level, any of the senior level project managers and practice leads and high-level construction professionals, they can get 10 offers. You better figure out what it is about them— It's almost like doing business development for a new client. You better do research. And through conversations with them or social media or Googling them or really scouring their resumes for clues, you better understand what makes them tick and what is going to resonate with them when they're making the selection, because we're now selling to potential candidates, just like we're selling a firm to a potential owner, or a potential prime, if you're a sub-consultant.

[00:27:16] Michelle: We're facing the same thing. What I'm seeing is it's such a shift. 10 years ago when I would talk to clients about, "Let's do an employee profile, or submit an employee for an award." It was always like, "Well, no, somebody will come poach them." I would always inform them of LinkedIn and the internet and how that exists.

Our clients are much more open to that now. They understand that people want to see who the people are in the company and what they're like and hear from employees about what it's like to work there, and diversity has become more of an open topic that we can talk about on social, and submit awards for. It's a real shift, but they understand that. And really marketing and recruiting are just becoming a combined discipline with a lot of firms. A great take away.

[00:28:15] Ann: Agreed.

[00:28:16] Michelle: Thank you so much. This has been really valuable. For our listeners, Ann on her website, Stacey & Associates, has a downloadable A3 example you can download. If people want to learn more, is that the best place for them to go to your website?

[00:28:34] Ann: It is. We are literally probably days away from launching a refresh to the website.

[00:28:43] Michelle: Oh, exciting.

[00:28:43] Ann: I was half tempted to take it down for a couple of days, and put a little cloth on it or something.

[00:28:50] Michelle: Coming soon.

[00:28:51] Ann: Coming soon. I know that if it's up and it's not right, I think we feel more guilt and pressure. We are getting ready to launch. There are still downloadable samples. We have improved some of the samples and created a more robust A3 landing page that has resources for both owners and then resources for AEC professionals. I think the next phase of that redo will be to actually have some downloadable webinars because we do an A3 101 and an A3 2.0 session that does a deeper dive into what an A3 is, and then the 2.0 really does a much deeper dive into the graphic design samples, and we show how the sausage is made.

[00:29:45] Michelle: Love it. Fantastic stuff. Well, thank you so much for joining me.

[00:29:49] Ann: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

[00:29:53] Michelle: Thanks for listening to “Spill the Ink,” a podcast by Reputation Ink. We'll see you again next time, and be sure to click “Subscribe” to get future episodes.


Featured Guest

Ann Leiner

Stacey & Associates


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