How plain language won a multi-billion-dollar competition

Josh Wilson | May 10, 2020

One of the things I’ve found most interesting about working with plain language is learning about the impact it can have in any industry.

I was flicking through Instagram the other day and came across a post from Jason McDowell’s account, which focuses on aviation. The post told a story about the development of two fighter planes in the 1980s: the Northrop F-23 and the Lockheed Martin F-22.

Image, the Lockheed-Martin F22 fighter jet and Northrop F23

The competing planes: Northrop’s F-23 (top) and Lockheed Martin’s F-22 (bottom). Image by National Museum of the United States Air Force / CC BY-4.0

To the casual observer, they might be hard to tell apart. And that’s exactly the problem that faced the US Government, which had to choose between them. Plain language proved to be vital in helping with that choice.

Tailor your writing to your reader

In the late 1980s, the US Air Force organised a request for proposal (RFP) competition to design the most advanced fighter plane in the world. This plane would be crammed with cutting-edge stealth technology, using exotic materials and new techniques. Two companies progressed to the final round of the competition, when they built prototypes of their designs — Northrop offered the F-23, and Lockheed Martin the F-22.

Because this was a complex, long-term programme worth US$87 billion, the competing companies needed to prove to the Air Force that they could meet the exacting requirements. However, in their proposals they would need to consider another vital element: the Air Force was under pressure from the Government to ensure the programme was delivered on budget, with low risk.

Designing the planes would need input from hundreds of experts, but many of those helping to choose the winner weren’t themselves aerospace experts. They needed someone to ‘translate’ what the experts were saying into plain language, so they could understand the benefits on offer and tell the closely matched planes apart.

Even complex concepts can be communicated simply

As often happens with proposals, the customer knew that both competitors were capable of meeting the requirements — they wouldn’t have been asked to compete otherwise. The competitors needed to find something to differentiate themselves: that ‘something’ was plain language.

In his Instagram post, McDowell highlights a vital point from Paul Metz, the test pilot who flew both prototype planes. Metz had an excellent understanding of what the planes could do, and believed that the way each company ‘presented their jet’ decided the outcome:

‘Although Northrop’s engineers were some of the best in the world, Metz claimed they spoke almost exclusively in engineering terms, and did a poor job of translating the technical language into terms … that could be easily grasped … by the non-technical individuals tasked with making the decision.’

While Northrop’s design was ‘equal if not superior to its competition’, the company’s failure to communicate clearly cost it the contract. Lockheed Martin won because they recognised that ‘leaving “lasting impressions” … even if they don’t tell the whole story technically, can give one side an advantage over the other’. They spelled out the benefits of their approach, and responded to the customer’s ‘unspoken need’ for reassurance that they could deliver the project with the least risk.

The moral of the story — explain the benefits of your product clearly

You might not be selling high-tech jet fighters to the US Government, but the principles to follow are the same. The benefits of your product or service won’t sell themselves — it’s your job to explain them in language the customer can understand.

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