Inspiration for writing proposal themes
11 categories to focus on when you need inspiration
When you've been asked to help write themes and you're stuck, decide which of these types bests matches what you need and then formulate some themes based on that type.
- Strengths and advantages. This is particularly useful when the evaluation criteria are based on strengths and weaknesses. Pointing out your strengths and competitive advantages is good to do, but only if they pass the “So what?” test. Being merely compliant with the RFP is not a strength. Your strengths and advantages only matter if they impact your evaluation score.
- Proof statements. It can be difficult to prove something in a single statement. But it can be done if you can articulate a single reason why something is true. That reason can become a theme that establishes credibility. Proofs are much stronger than claims.
- How does one thing compare to another? How should you position what you have to say? How does your offering compare to the requirements? An approach to the evaluation criteria? Or your company to the competition, your solution to the future, your approach to the stakeholders, etc.? Comparisons can help the reader understand. They can also help the reader articulate and justify the score they give you.
- Claims. You should avoid getting into the habit of making claims in your theme statements. These can devolve into unsubstantiated claims that do more harm to your credibility than any help they might provide winning the proposal. If you must make a claim, then make sure it passes the “So what?” test and is credible. Better yet, make sure that the evaluator will find it helpful instead of treating it like noise.
- Differentiators. Advantages that are rare can help their customer make the vendor selection. They are worth pointing out. But it can be challenging to show that they are rare and special without making an unsubstantiated claim. Think of differentiators as the things that stand out and enable the customer to select one proposal over another. Use them as themes to help them stand out and then prove them in the narrative.
- Reasons to select your proposal. The whole purpose of the proposal is to explain why your proposal is the customer’s best alternative and motivate them to take action. Statements that highlight why you are the customer’s best alternative and why they should accept your proposal are the best kind of theme. But they can’t be unsubstantiated claims. A weak form of a reason to select your proposal is a simple benefits statement that highlights the good that will come to the customer by accepting your proposal. Good is better than neutral, but isn’t competitive against great. Themes like this can get watered down into statements that merely sound beneficial and have little or no impact on your score.
- Summary statements and conclusions. Summary statements should not be redundant with the text of the proposal. But saying what the text adds up to can be very effective. What conclusion do you want the reader to reach about your proposal? This can be a theme that your narrative supports.
- Insights. Revelations that point out things that are not obvious that help the evaluation score your proposal can be compelling. If you don’t have insights to offer, why are you bidding? Submitting a routine proposal is not a good way to be competitive.
- Ghosts. Ghosting is a way of informing the customer about your competitor’s weaknesses. Ghosting the competition is just plain fun. But what’s the point if it’s not going to increase your score? Don’t use ghosting just to try to hurt your competitors. Only use ghosting if it will help the customer realize why your proposal is better.
- Points. What points do you need to make in your proposal in order to win? Turning those points into themes can help drive your message to the customer as well as help the proposal writers substantiate them. Everything in your proposal should be making a point. Those points should add up to something. You could throw out this entire list and just focus on the points you need to make.
- Compliance. Compliance is not enough to win. Themes that focus on compliance do nothing to improve your competitiveness. The customer probably sees them as noise because compliance is found in the details and not in the claim. An affirmative statement of compliance can establish intent, but is that really the point that will win the proposal for you? You can make that statement in the narrative. Whenever you are tempted to write a theme about compliance, try thinking about the reasons why the customer should select you instead.
Anything in a proposal is better if it’s also a differentiator. Everything should add up to the reasons why the customer should select you. Use these categories as inspiration and not limitations. Experiment with different combinations of them.
For each section or place in the proposal where you’d like to add a theme, start by thinking about what the purpose of that theme should be. These categories can help you match the theme to what you are trying to accomplish. Themes are not an end in themselves. They are a means of achieving a specific objective related to what it will take to win your proposal.
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