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Winning in writing using proposal themes, differentiators, and strengths

Writing a proposal is very different from writing a brochure

Proposal themes are defined in many different and not very helpful ways. Try googling it. How does someone new to proposals write a “concept” that gets “woven throughout the proposal” to “call attention to the benefits” you offer? Definitions like that can't be acted upon. Because themes are defined in such a nebulous way, they often end up being overly-broad claims of greatness that do nothing to persuade the customer.

When I review proposals I often see unsubstantiated slogans that sound like what people have read in brochures. Writing proposals that sound like brochures is a big part of what makes customers distrust vendors. I also see proposal theme statements that have devolved into simply trying to sound beneficial. This often happens when the writer doesn’t have any insight into what the customer cares about and doesn't really have anything meaningful to say, but still wants to sound positive and somehow win.

Why should the customer select you?

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When the customer is reading your proposal, they are looking for reasons why they should accept your proposal over all their other alternatives, which may even include doing nothing. Unsubstantiated claims, pronouncements about things like how critical quality will be to this project, or beneficial sounding attributes without any significant impact do not give the customer anything to help them reach a decision. Proposals are not won by trying to hypnotize the customer with subliminal messages. Proposals are won by proving that what you propose is the customer's best alternative. 

The most effective way to achieve this is by pointing out things that are truly different in your proposal and explaining why those differences matter. A key way customers select between proposals is to consider the differences between them. If your proposal points out those differentiators while explaining why they matter and how they make your proposal the customer’s best alternative, you make the customer's decision much easier.

Differentiators are much easier to understand than themes. But sometimes people struggle to identify differentiators that really set them apart. A lot of the attempts at differentiators I see when I review proposals make the same claims that everyone else will make! You can expect every competitor to claim that:

  • We have the best experience
  • We have the best staff
  • We are extremely well qualified
  • We meet or exceed all RFP requirements
  • We are the lowest risk 
  • We deliver the highest levels of quality

Most of them are unsubstantiated claims and examples of bad proposal writing. But putting that aside, they are not really differentiators. Everyone bidding who has a shot at winning will be experienced, capable of staffing the project with impressive resumes, be well qualified, and will claim low risk and high quality. It does not matter how much you believe your claims to be true for you and better than everyone else’s claims. The customer will see them all as the same. Making claims similar to these puts you in the middle of the pack instead of making you a standout. 

A differentiator has to make you different. Ideally, a differentiator should make you unique (please don't claim that overused word), but you can sometimes settle for rare and valuable. If the customer reads about what you are offering and sees it as rare and valuable to them, that is a very good thing.

Strengths are not necessarily differentiators, but they are still good to have

While they are not differentiators, your experience, staffing, qualifications, risk management, and quality assurance are still good attributes to have. They are strengths and position you as a competent vendor. Competent is good. But it is not enough to be the best. 

It is theoretically possible to win without any differentiators if you have more strengths than your competitors. But proposing to be a little bit better than your competitors is not a way to achieve consistently high win rates. You want to be clearly superior, and that requires differentiators on top of your strengths. 

You can improve your proposal writing by skipping the themes and instead focusing on differentiators and strengths. If you’re astute, you’ll realize that your proposal writers probably can’t make up differentiators and strengths on their own. They’ll need technical and subject matter input. They’ll need experts to tell them what matters about what you’re offering. But proposal writers can help you articulate what matters as differentiators and strengths for the proposal. 

Then you can debate whether the differentiators are truly different and whether they are what the customer needs to reach a decision in your favor. This is a most important debate to have. Winning may depend on it. 

Make two lists: one for differentiators and one for strengths. Then ask yourself whether they add up to beating all possible competitors. Do this before you start proposal writing, and your proposal becomes a proof of your differentiators and strengths. That is exactly what the customer needs to make their decision.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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