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Why proposal themes are not enough to win - the problem with proposal themes

Bad themes are worse than no themes at all...

Sometimes people think they are making more of a contribution by writing theme statements than they really are… Sometimes it goes a bit like this:

We wrote some themes. They make us sound really good. What else do you want from us?
It's not our fault they don't match what's in the RFP. You want a theme for everything in the outline? But that's so... artificial. And the outline, like the RFP, is redundant, has gaps, and isn't built around our "story." 
The reason our themes are so brilliant is that they tell our story . You're the proposal specialist. You can take our brilliant input and fit it into the outline. What? What we said doesn't match up to what the customer asked for in the RFP? You can reword them.
What? Our themes don't cover all of the evaluation criteria? Didn't we just say you can reword them?  Just adapt our brilliant story to their outline. Don't lecture us about scoring. You're the proposal specialist. You make it score well. We did our job and gave you some great input. Responding to the RFP is your job.

A theme that doesn’t matter to the customer gets in the way of the things you’ve said that do matter to the customer.

This is not only a recipe for a losing proposal, it's a sign of an organizational culture that is not built on winning proposals. In spite of what it says on the poster in the lobby, winning proposals is the real mission for a contractor.

But it’s also a problem with themes themselves. Having themes is not necessarily better than not having themes if your themes are bad. Consider:

See also:
  • They are easy to prepare as a list, in isolation from the RFP. And yet, the RFP defines the path to winning. 
  • It's very easy to have all of your themes reflect only one aspect of what the customer needs to see in your proposal. For example, themes often revolve around experience and staff. Those may be important, but they are not the only thing the evaluators will consider. If your themes only reflect part of what it will take to win you are vulnerable.
  • Because a theme is a statement, it's really easy to have themes end up being unsubstantiated claims. When themes are prepared in isolation, you can't assume that a theme statement will get substantiated in the proposal. It may not be possible to substantiate a poorly written theme statement.
  • Bad proposal writing does not get better because you label it a “theme.” A theme about your commitment is as bad as making your proposal about commitment instead of accomplishment.
  • Themes often end up being a collection of things that sound good but do not add up to anything. Like a top evaluation score. People like to talk about themselves and often do it in ways that don’t matter to the customer.
  • Poorly informed writers can't write great proposals. And poorly informed writers can't write great themes either.

Bad themes are worse than no themes at all. Actually it’s worse than that. Neutral or irrelevant themes are worse than no themes at all. Even a good theme is not good enough to be great. A theme that doesn’t matter to the customer gets in the way of the things you’ve said that do matter to the customer. 

The problem with themes is that nothing stops you from having bad themes. Except you.

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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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