Which comes first, the message or the offering?

Like the chicken and the egg, proposals suffer from a “which came first” problem. Does the story come first so you can build the proposal around your story and then you develop the offering and work it into the story, or do develop the offering first so you know what your story should be?

Just like with the chicken and the egg, there’s no right answer and you’re left with the paradox.

We were looking at a couple of proposals that are in progress and stumbled right into an approach that mitigates the problem:

  1. Start by developing themes based on what the customer wants. This assumes that you know what the customer wants. If you don’t, then you should consider not bidding. If you still must bid, then fake it by asking what a customer in their position would probably want. Just remember that what the customer wants and what you want are two different things. Articulating the customer’s desired results, goals, and/or outcomes before you have defined your offering will help you design that offering. By starting with themes based on what the customer wants, you define what your offering should do or deliver.
  2. Plan your offering separately from how you plan the writing. They are two different things. You don’t want to conceptualize, plan, or engineer what you are going to do or deliver in the form of a narrative. Let your technical, operations, or fulfillment staff determine how they are going to fulfill the requirements the way they normally would. Validate the offering to ensure that it is the best price/value trade-off to fulfill the customer’s requirements. Simultaneously and in parallel, define the structure and plan the content for the proposal. Then combine the two by summarizing the offering design within the content plan for the proposal.
  3. Now you are positioned to develop themes based on your offering. These include themes based on things like features/benefits and value proposition. Your offering is also the main reason why the customer should select you and therefore a key part of your overall message. You are now in a position to say why your offering is superior and the best way of delivering what the customer wants.

Because this approach falls into a sequence, you can build it into your proposal process. The MustWin Process that is available on PropLIBRARY has an iterative approach to planning the content of your proposals that can be used to quickly implement it. The MustWin Process already provides the sequence, calls for separating the design of your offering from the design of the proposal, provides for validation, and gives you a means to integrate the two into a single content plan to guide the writing. Splitting the themes into those that are based on what the customer wants and those that are based on the offering is a new twist that we will be adding back into our Knowledgebase.

When you build these three things into your process, the flow of information builds naturally and reinforces the outcomes. You get the messages and information you need to develop your offering, and then you tie the offering right back into those messages to expand and improve them. This also mitigates the risks of proposal failure by preventing changes in the offering from spawning endless cycles of rewrites.

When you have planned and validated your themes, offering, and the rest of your content, you are not just ready to start writing, you are ready to start writing a proposal that is based on the results the customer wants and provides the reasons why the customer should select you. You have overcome the problem of which should come first, the offering or the story. And you are ready to write the winning proposal.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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