Proposal themes: the good, the bad, and five examples of ways to become exceptional

Proposal win themes are how you show that you are the customer's best alternative.

Proposal theme statements are how you articulate why the customer should select you. They may be incorporated into headings, tag lines, text boxes, or just be the main point of a paragraph. You need to be able to articulate your win themes so that you can build the proposal around them, substantiating the reasons why the customer should select you.

Proposal win themes work best when a few themes drive the points you make across the entire proposal. This helps the points you make add up to a message or story that the customer sees substantiated in every section.

Here is what separates good, bad, and exceptional proposal theme statements:

  • Good Proposal Themes. Most win themes make the points you want to make about yourself. They are positive and beneficial sounding, but self-descriptive and about you. They tend to sound like something out of a brochure. But they are better than nothing. They are based on the hope that the customer will see something they like.
  • Exceptional Proposal Themes. Exceptional win themes make the points that matter to the customer. They are written from the customer’s perspective. They help the customer see a future they want to be in that needs your help to realize it. They tell the customer what they are going to get and show why selecting you is the customer's best alternative.
  • Bad Proposal Themes. Bad win themes make points that don’t matter. These are often the same points that everyone else will be making, or things about you that you think are impressive but fail to pass the "So what?" test. To avoid bad proposal themes, you should only say things that matter to the customer and focus on themes that differentiate your proposal. Delete everything else. If it doesn’t matter, from the customer’s perspective, then at best it’s noise and extra work they have to do to read your proposal.  But if it doesn’t matter because it’s unsubstantiated claims and bravado, it can damage your credibility. If it matters, make sure it says why it matters. 

How do you go from writing good themes to writing exceptional themes?

For more information about proposal themes:

Most proposal theme statements make points, but they are not exceptional. They make your proposal look ordinary. The good news is that most of your competitors have the same problem. But you don’t want to count on being just a little better than ordinary competitors. You want to dominate the competitive field, by reaching beyond ordinary and submitting an exceptional proposal.

Here are five examples of things you can do to make your themes exceptional:

  1. Don’t talk about yourself
  2. Only say things that add value or substance
  3. Make every statement matter to the customer
  4. Focus on results, benefits, and what the customer can expect from you
  5. Make sure that your themes impact your score

A simple way to approach this is the “So What?” test. Read each theme statement while pretending to be the customer and ask, “so what?” If the theme statement says “We bring X years of experience in …” ask yourself, “so what?” What are the results that the customer can expect as a result of your experience? What will it do for them? It’s good to have experience, but what they really want are the results you can deliver because of that experience. That’s what separates a good theme from an exceptional theme.

Making themes matter to the customer is different than saying what you think matters.

Making themes matter to the customer is different than saying what you think matters. To make them matter to the customer, you have to understand how they make decisions, what they think is important, what their preferences are, and how they would make the inevitable trade-offs. This requires knowing the customer quite well and is a key part of why winning depends so heavily on relationship marketing and intelligence gathering. When you write themes for your proposals, make them matter from the buyer’s perspective instead of being what the seller wants to say.

If you are a government contractor, or if your proposal will be formally evaluated and point scored, the reasons you give for why the customer should select you also need to match up with the customer’s scoring system. A really good theme may have little or no impact if it doesn’t result in the evaluator matching it to a category in which they can give you points for it. Exceptional themes must be optimized to score well against the evaluation criteria.

Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of 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 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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