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Why Proposal Theme Statements Are Not Enough to Win

People are always looking for the magic words they can use to win their proposals. Maybe that's why "themes" are such a hot topic. They promise to be both the magic words and a tool that simplifies writing the content. But do they deliver?

When a proposal effort gets started by focusing on theme statements, it can be a potential proposal process failure about to happen. Theme statements articulate why the customer should select you. You want them in your proposal. They are vital. But they are also a crutch. They can be a way for a Proposal Manager to put a fake veneer on top of poorly written narrative, in the hope of catching just enough points to squeeze out a win. It is so much easier to plug a few well-worded theme statements into your document than it is to create a fully integrated and effective narrative. Theme statements easily turn into an attempt to salvage a process that has failed to produce a winning narrative.

The theory is that you use the theme statements to “drive” the writing of the narrative. By writing to your list of themes, you are supposed to achieve an integrated narrative. This only has a chance of working if your theme statements are integrated in the first place. Even then it may not be enough.

What happens in reality is that people start their proposal efforts by trying to come up with a “list of themes.” Since people aren’t used to thinking in those terms, the list is usually bland, generic, and just plain bad. Usually they end up with multiple themes where the company is strong, big gaps where it is weak, and no relationship to the structure of the RFP. You end up with some sections that have multiple themes and some that have none. You start making things up to fill the gap (usually based on nothing more than what was already in the RFP) and now you’ve a got a “theme” for every section. Never mind if there’s no credibility to them when you read them the way the customer will.

The problem is that individual themes, no matter how brilliant, do not matter. What does matter is what your themes add up to. Do they amount to something compelling? Do they tell a story? Do they matter? What matters is whether the themes address what it will take to win. When the customer reads them, will they motivate and persuade the customer to choose your proposal over that of your competition?

You don’t simply want an integrated narrative; you want a narrative that is compelling, tells a story, and matters. You don’t achieve that by starting with a list of themes. You do it by figuring out what it will take to win and building your proposal around that.

If it’s daunting to consider getting people to figure out what it will take to win and building a proposal around it, it’s because your process fails in practice. It’s much easier to focus on themes, which you can write yourself and have some control over and tack them on at the end. It makes your contribution to the proposal stand out and it looks like you’re in control. But it doesn’t add up to anything.

If you want it to add up to something, you need to focus on what it will take to win. This means you need the process to deliver the information you need to figure it out. Once you have that information, you need the process to guide you through how to articulate your story and get it into the document. This means you need a way to plan the content so you can build the proposal around what it will take to win. Then you need some way to make sure that your contributors stay on message. You need a way to validate that the narrative that gets written does in fact reflect what you decided it would take to win.

Take another look at that last paragraph, because it describes the foundation of a process that can survive in practice. We often give away the theory behind our techniques in our article so that the do-it-yourself types can build their own. You can use this foundation and complete the process on your own, or you can use our off-the-shelf proposal process documentation to guide your through it. At the minimum, you should stop focusing on preparing a list of themes, and instead start focusing on what they add up to.



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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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