Asking the Right Clarifying Questions During the Vendor Oral Presentations

In preparing to interview your narrowed-down list of vendors for oral presentations, your evaluation team members might be nervous about what questions they should ask. It becomes even more nerve-wracking when you think about the fact that once you ask a basic set of general questions (questions not specifically related to each vendor’s solution) to the first presenters, you are often required to ask the exact same set of general questions to each subsequent vendor. Talk about pressure to get it right the first time! 

In order to properly prepare for presentations, let’s look at what some historical figures have said about the art of asking questions. 

According to Albert Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem…I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask, for once I know the proper question, I can solve the problem in less than five minutes.” For an evaluator at orals, this advice is particularly useful but often not realistic in today’s communication-overloaded environment. Who has time to ponder the meaning of life at an oral presentation? But, if you want to get it right like ol’ Albert, you’d better heed his advice and think these important questions through. After all, the questions you ask — or don’t — could result in choosing the wrong vendor for your project. 

Larry King is known to a generation of TV watchers as one of the modern era’s preeminent interviewers. His probing questions elicited either fear or thought-provoking responses from his famous guests. When asked for the key to his success in getting the most of out of his guests, he said: “I often ask my favorite question: “Why?” Could it really be that simple? Why, yes! Think about the claims that vendors often make like “We are the leader in the industry”. Ok, why? Or “No one delivers better results than us!” Really? Why? “We are simply your best choice for completing this project”. Hmmmmm…why? You get the idea. 

In asking the right questions at orals, we can look back as far as some of the greatest philosophers. Socrates famously said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.“ While you, as an evaluator, know a lot about your agency’s needs and problems, I always recommend that you go into orals with an open mind. Each vendor is unique and brings a set of benefits and challenges to the table. Go into oral presentations assuming you know nothing about them and give each vendor the opportunity to make their case without bias or picking your favorite before everyone has a chance to present.  Will you resolve the meaning and impact of celestial black holes? Probably not. But you just might learn a lot more about your potential vendors when evaluating each one on their merits. 

So, while we recommend our agency clients to keep it simple like Larry did, don’t hesitate to get a little brainier and more philosophical when taking the time to properly prepare for your vendors’ presentations. You might just get the answer you’ve been looking for.

Ted Koval, PMP is a Proposal Manager and Writer for The RFP Success Company and has served as a senior government and communications leader with nearly 30 years of proposal management, government, communications, change, and project management experience. Ted has led the full cycle proposal process, designed, and developed policy, communications, and outreach programs at all levels of state government and the private sector. Holding a Master of Public Administration Degree, he has extensive experience advising leaders on complex policy and proposal initiatives impacting millions of citizens across several states, counties, and industries. Ted is a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and has Fortune 50 consulting experience writing and managing government and corporate communications and change and programs. He is a frequent speaker on designing and executing project management, communications, and change initiatives.

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