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Proposal win themes: the good, the bad, and six examples of how to make your themes 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 deliver your message, tell your story, and flow through the proposal document. 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 proposal 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.

Unfortunately, none of that helps you write them, let alone write good ones.

Here are some win theme examples that show what separates good, bad, and exceptional proposal theme statements:

For more information about proposal themes:
  • Examples of Good Proposal Themes. Most proposal 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, focused on claims about how wonderful you are. Good proposal themes are based on the hope that the customer will see something they like. A good proposal theme might be "We bring [number] years of experience to this this project," "Our approach mitigates the risks of [insert type of risk here]," "By selecting us, you will receive [insert benefit here]" or "We deliver the best quality."  Statements like these are intended to make you stand out from the pack, but in reality everybody makes claims and customers don't really pay much attention to them in a proposal. But they are better than nothing. At least they show that you aspire to be wonderful, even if they don't prove that you really are.
  • Examples of Exceptional Proposal Themes. Exceptional proposal win themes make and prove 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. Great proposal themes might be "We will enable you to overcome the challenge of [identify trade-off] by [insert differentiated approach]," "By [insert what you'll do] we mitigate the risk of [identify risk] in such a way that [insert differentiated outcome]," "By anticipating [insert something insightful] we are able to [prevent|mitigate] [identify problem] resulting in improved [quality|outcome] that delivers [identify benefits]." The effectiveness of your proposal theme statements will directly depend on how much what you say matters to the customer.
  • Examples of Bad Proposal Themes. Bad proposal 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. Even though you might think they sound good to you, bad proposal themes are either ignored or fail to help the customer make their decision. To avoid bad proposal themes, you should only say things that matter to the customer and focus on proposal themes that differentiate your proposal. Delete everything else. Bad proposal themes are worse than nothing because they hurt your credibility and inadvertently position your company as not mattering. If it does not matter to the customer, then at best it’s noise, a possible eye-roll, and extra work they have to do to read your proposal.  If it doesn’t matter because it’s just an unsubstantiated claim or full of bravado, it can do real damage. Examples of bad proposal themes include "We are the industry-leading provider of [insert claim here]," "We were founded in [insert year here]," or "We are fully committed to [insert promise here]."

If it matters, make sure it says why it matters. 

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

Most proposal theme statements make points, but they are not exceptional. In spite of how you might feel about them, they make your proposal look ordinary, just like all the others. 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 the ordinary and submitting an exceptional proposal.

Here are six examples of things you can do to write exceptional proposal win themes:

  1. Don’t talk about yourself. Don't make claims. Put everything about you into the context of how it impacts them.
  2. Say the things that will help them justify their decision. Imagine the evaluator explaining the selection to The Powers That Be. What words would they take from your proposal? It won't be your bragging about how special you are. It will be your proof points.
  3. Make every statement matter to the customer. 
  4. Focus on results, benefits, and what the customer will get or can expect from you.
  5. Make sure that your themes impact your evaluation score. A theme that won't end up on an evaluation justification decision is a waste of everyone's time and potentially does more harm than good.
  6. Differentiate. The proposal that wins will have differences from all the others. Don't leave that to luck or load your proposal up with beneficial stuff hoping they'll stumble across something they like. Differentiate on purpose. Differentiate based on the things that will demonstrate you are their best alternative.

A simple way to approach this is the “So What?” test. Read each proposal 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. Throw out everything in your proposal that does not pass the "So What?" test.

Making win themes matter to the customer is different than saying what you think matters. To make your themes 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 the odds of winning improve so much when you practice relationship marketing and only bid when you have an information advantage. 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 an evaluation criterium in which they can give you points for it. Exceptional themes must be optimized to score well against the evaluation criteria.

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

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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