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Why proposal win themes are so hard to write (and what to do about it)

When you have trouble thinking about proposal themes, it's a sign of a bigger problem

When you bid an opportunity simply because you discover that the client is accepting proposals from anyone and you decide to give it a shot, you start from zero when trying to articulate why the customer should select you.

It is even more difficult when the RFP tells you what to propose. When everyone is bidding the same thing, it becomes more price sensitive and people are afraid to go beyond the minimum needed to fulfill the requirements. You are left with no clear way to differentiate yourself from the competition and no competitive advantage.

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Sometimes this doesn’t show up until people try to write their proposal themes. When you decide to bid before you can articulate what it will take to win, it’s hard to figure out what to say in order to win. All you can say that you can deliver what the customer has asked for and that you have experience. But your competitors will say the same things, and will say better if they are better informed.

When you lack bid strategies, positioning, differentiation, and customer insight, all you can really do is talk about yourself and hope no one is better. Your themes will tend to be claims, usually unsubstantiated. They will be about you instead of being about the customer or written from the customer’s perspective. They won’t help the customer determine that you are the best alternative, no matter how much you want or claim that to be the case.

It will feel like you’re struggling with writing the proposal, and you may conclude that proposal writing is hard or that you need to find better proposal writers. But the problem is not with proposal writing at all.

A good bid/no bid decision reflects your win strategies. A bad bid/no bid decision leads to bidding without a competitive advantage. If you are:

  • Struggling to identify your win strategies
  • Having trouble identifying themes to emphasize in your proposal
  • Unable to differentiate yourself from the competition
  • Hopeful instead of confident

The real problem may be what you are bidding instead of how you are bidding it. You should examine your bid/no bid system instead of just treating the symptoms.


When you sit down to write a proposal aligns with your strengths and your company's strategic plans, then your value proposition and competitive positioning flow naturally. Instead of discovering your proposal win themes, you just have to articulate the alignment that’s already there. That’s a much more solvable problem, and the themes that result are more effective and authentic.

This is how a good bid/no bid system results in a higher win rate. It's not simply that being more selective means you only bid opportunities that you have a better shot at winning. It's that the selection process points you to the win strategies that will enable you to write winning proposals.

Winning proposals consistently isn't about somehow finding a clever way to present yourself so that you stand out. Consistently winning proposals comes from having a story to tell that the customer wants to be a part of. That story will position you against your competition, include your win strategies, be insightful, and make clear why you are the customer’s best alternative.

When you only bid opportunities that relate to your corporate strategies and where you have a competitive advantage, you start the proposal already knowing what story you need to tell. Then the proposal effort becomes about making your story stronger and not about trying to figure out a story to tell.

The most common approaches to making bid/no bid decisions include gate reviews and point scoring. But there is another, more simple approach: Do you have a story to tell and is it compelling? If you can't articulate a good story, you can’t write a winning proposal and therefore you shouldn’t bid. But more importantly, if you don’t have a story it’s probably because you have no positioning or differentiation, and are probably bidding because you can and not because you know how to win. You shouldn’t bid if your only bid strategy is figuring out a clever way to make you sound like you’re not ordinary or hoping you'll get lucky and win on price.

Themes should be easy. If they aren’t, it’s a no bid indicator.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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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