A simple technique for improving proposal storytelling, messages, themes, and positioning

All the cool cats know that the best proposals tell a story. But no one can really explain how to do that, let alone actually consistently achieve it when working with a group of proposal contributors who aren't specialists. Usually they just emphasize that your proposal should have a message. But what message and how do you construct it and put it in writing? So the next thing they try is proposal themes. But while everyone says they know what themes are, everyone defines them differently. And being able to define them doesn't tell you how to construct them. Sometimes proposal managers put a placeholder for a theme statement at the top of each section because they doubt their proposal contributors will write thematically, but hope they can get at least one good positioning sentence out of them.

People working on the proposal just want to know what to write, what words to put on paper. Most of the time they give up and just try to make positive sounding points. They don’t realize that approach is not competitive and just assume that if they stack up enough positives, they have a shot at winning. Unfortunately, the customer needs more than just positive sounding points to make their decision.

Fortunately there is something that’s easier to understand than stories, messages, or even themes.

One of the key questions a customer has when evaluating a proposal is, “What makes this proposal different from all the others?” They want to know, “What makes it best?” You don’t get there by stacking up positives when your competitors are stacking up the same positives. You win by:

See also:
Makin proposals simple
  1. Being different
  2. Explaining why those differences matter
  3. Showing the customer what they will get out of them

If you skip all that storytelling and messaging stuff and just focus on having differentiators in every section, every paragraph, and even every sentence, the strengths in your proposal will be clear. Why the customer should select you will be clear. But the best part is that without doing anything special, your story and messages can emerge on their own.

It happens because your proposal story should be about what makes you special, why that matters, and how the customer will benefit from it. When you focus on what differentiates your offering, even without thinking about your story, you complete the elements necessary to have one. It takes a lot of training to get your technical proposal contributors to be able to understand proposal storytelling and know what words to put on paper to make it happen. It takes little or no training to get them to understand differentiators.

There is one big challenge when trying to implement extensive differentiation. Actually, it just seems like a big challenge. Really all that is needed is a little creativity. Sometimes it seems hard to find ways in which your offering is different. Sometimes that’s because the RFP says exactly what the customer wants you to do, so you assume that every proposal will contain the same approaches. Sometimes it’s because there are standard ways of doing things in your industry. Sometimes it’s because you are afraid of anything that might increase the cost of your offering.

However, you can always find differentiators, if you know where to look. It may be that instead of differentiating what you offer, you need to differentiate how you design, create, or deliver it. Even when everything else is exactly the same, you can differentiate by focusing on what you think matters, or on how what you offer better aligns with the customer’s goals. If you explain what the customer will get out of your offering, and your competitors don’t, that alone can be enough of a differentiator to increase the perceived value in what you offer.

When proposal contributors learn that if they can’t differentiate on the specs, they can instead differentiate on what matters about them and what the customer will get out of your approach to fulfilling them, they start writing proposal text that positions your company as offering something better. That is how the message can emerge, without anyone even focusing on it.

If you really want to drive your message home, start discussing your differentiators before you start writing. Bring consistency and harmony to your differentiators across the proposal, by standardizing them so that everyone talks about the same or similar differences, why they matter, and what the customer will get out of them.

If you are able to train your technical proposal contributors to become gifted storytellers, that’s great. But if you are like most people, and struggle to get what you need out of those contributing to the proposal, instead of confusing them with all that talk about storytelling, messages, positioning, and themes, try just focusing on differentiators.


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Carl Dickson

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

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

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