How to Create Winning Proposal Themes
A winning proposal is all about standing out from the competition by capturing the attention and the imagination of proposal evaluators. Compliant and compelling proposal themes can make the difference between winning and losing your next bid by providing evaluators with the reasons to pick you.
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, proposal teams need a more efficient and effective approach to theme development. Find out how using proposal themes in your next proposal can help you win more and work less.
Are you ready to win more?
This article unlocks some of the mystery behind creating winning proposal themes.
What's a Theme and Why is it Important?
When you think about it, proposal writing is really about telling a story. A story about how your solutions to problems are better than your competitors' in ways that really matter to your customers.
All too often, the story is written by authors who are responsible for different chapters of the story. These authors have no clear idea of the setting (understanding the need), the characters (key personnel), the plot (solution), the ending (customer benefits), or the moral of the story (themes).
When the proposal manager puts all of the sections together for the first time, it's no wonder that the feedback is all too predictable: "solutions not clearly articulated", "claims are unsubstantiated", and "compelling themes and differentiators are missing".
Most proposal teams understand the value of developing themes as the basis for telling their story. However, very few teams take the time to develop the features, benefits, and supporting proof in sufficient detail to achieve the happy (winning) ending they seek.
A Theme or a Dream?
Many capture managers and sales executives are quick to claim how well they know their prospective customers, that they are uniquely positioned to win new business, and that they have defined the themes the proposal team needs to write a winner. More often than not, these so called win themes are nothing more than vague, generalized statements that hardly distinguish their company from any other bidder.
The following win themes were posted on the war room wall of one of my customers pursuing a $2 billion contract (code name: DreamThemes), and serve as a vivid example of what win themes are NOT.
In stark contrast, another one of my customers (code name: MeanThemes) insisted on spending over two weeks developing a 15-page theme document. The MeanThemes document included five high-level win themes with 4-6 proposal volume-specific sub-themes for each. The theme document included scores of section and requirement-level themes, with detailed features, benefits, and differentiating proof statements at each thematic level. The MeanThemes were shared across the entire proposal team. They provided high-level guidance to the writers, and served as basis for an Executive Summary that virtually wrote itself. We were all convinced that we had developed a very comprehensive set of proposal themes, and were confident we were on the path to a winning proposal.
See the author note on the next page to find out what happened to DreamThemes and MeanThemes. The result will surprise you.
What's a Theme?
Proposal experts define a theme as a "central idea (feature and benefit) that is supported or proved". Most of these experts agree that themes and supporting proof-points are the MOST EFFECTIVE way to distinguish your proposal from the competition (other than price).
Themes are really the fundamental building blocks for telling a compliant and compelling customer-focused story. They are not sales slogans. Most slogans are easy to remember catch phrases like the popular Washington Post slogan: "If you don't get it, you don't get it". This slogan is easy to remember, but lacks any real subscriber features, related benefits and supporting proof such as readability, cost, readership, breadth and depth of content, customized subscriber packages, and so on.
What's a Win Theme?
The term win theme is commonly used throughout the proposal industry. The use (or misuse) of this term contributes to the general confusion about themes. Win themes are higher-level (Meta theme) features and benefits that transcend the entire proposal. Effective proposals usually have no more than one or two win themes that are focused on what customers care about the most?things like increased efficiency (faster), increased effectiveness (better), lower cost (cheaper), and lower risk (safer). Win themes are relatively easy to develop but hard to differentiate you from the competition. The more difficult challenge is to develop a hierarchy of proposal, volume, and requirement-level themes (with increasing levels of detail) to support each high-level win theme.
What's a Proposal Theme?
When capture and proposal managers refer to win themes, chances are they really mean proposal themes. Most win themes are really proposal themes?feature and benefit statements with supporting proof points at the volume, section, sub-section, and even paragraph levels. Proposal themes are much more specific than win themes. They usually appear as a highlighted first sentence (in a proposal volume or section) and serve as a mini-summary of the subsequent narrative. Well-written proposals have themes at the beginning of every paragraph and in the action captions of all graphics.
Volume themes are proposal themes that typically focus on technical, management, past performance, cost, or other main proposal topic areas. Section themes are themes that focus on topics within each volume, for example, management approach, key personnel, quality, and risk, in the management volume. Requirement themes are themes focused on the most detailed requirements found in the RFP statement of work, performance work statement, or other detailed specification sections.
Why are Themes Important?
Proposal themes answer the evaluator's most important question: "Why should we select you?" Volume, section, and requirement themes support the win themes by sending an explicit message to evaluators that is repeated over and over in subtle and not so subtle ways throughout the proposal. Well-written themes provide clear and convincing reasons for capturing the attention (and the imagination) of evaluators.
When evaluators finish reading their assigned sections, the alignment of solution features with customer benefits and supporting proof points leave no room for doubt, confusion, or skepticism. The bottom line?your proposal is easier to evaluate and tells a compelling story using clearly articulated themes that score the most points.
Author Note: Remember the DreamThemes and MeanThemes examples? Despite their early win theme challenges, DreamThemes (2-day theme rush job) won the $2 billion dollar multiple-award Blanket Purchase Agreement and was the only new bidder selected from a group previously dominated by incumbents. Ironically, MeanThemes (comprehensive multi-week theme development effort) lost their $40 million single award to a lower-risk technical solution with a significantly higher price. The winner was the incumbent. What's the ironic moral of the story? Sometimes even the best proposals, with compliant and compelling themes can't overcome some overriding factors like incumbency and price.
Features and Benefits
The development of proposal features and benefits is a key part of solution development and the critical first step in developing proposal themes. Most proposal teams use established methods and templates including storyboards, module plans, work packages, or some other form of pre-draft deliverable to provide a process and structure for feature and benefit development.
However, despite providing proposal teams with what might appear to be clear feature and benefit definitions, directions, and examples, many writers and subject matter experts ignore them completely or simply don't understand what is required. At best, features are listed as benefits (and vice versa). Or worse, the features and benefits are so vague and generalized that they fail to achieve the desired result – to provide evaluators with compelling reasons to select your company. What happens next is predictable. Time pressures force the team to start writing before themes are sufficiently developed and the entire proposal process begins to unravel. Understanding proposal themes and the features and benefits that comprise them –is a big step toward efficient and effective proposal development.
Features Highlight What's Important to You
Features are easier for proposal teams to identify because they are all about their product or service. Proposals can go on and on about features with little or no knowledge of the customer. One of the most vivid everyday feature examples is the window sticker commonly displayed on a new car. Window stickers highlight the most important characteristics of the vehicle such as equipment (ABS brakes, air bags, traction control, OnStar); specifications (4 cylinders, 2-wheel drive); the EPA city/highway gas mileage; and the price.
This simple sticker saves consumers significant time and effort otherwise required to read the owner's manual, or perform their own inspections/tests to determine how this car compares to other cars. Can you imagine having to drive the car on the highway and in the city making detailed notes and calculations in order to calculate gas mileage?
The features you develop for your proposal serve the same basic function as the window sticker. Proposal features describe the characteristics of your solution such as type of technology/tools, methodologies, processes, performance levels, key personnel, and a host of other management, technical, past performance, and cost characteristics. Whereas features are all about what's important to you (car window sticker), benefits are all about what's important to your customer.
Benefits Highlight What's Important to Your Customer
Most proposal teams forget that although features are important, what customers really care about are benefits. Benefits are aspects or advantages of the feature that typically solve customer problems in some way. For most proposals, this means increased efficiency, reduced cost, reduced risk, higher performance levels, or some variants of these. The most effective benefits address specific evaluation criteria (in the RFP) and customer problems, issues, and concerns (in other RFP sections or unwritten customer hot buttons that didn't make it into the RFP).
Most car salespersons are generally good at sizing up their customers as soon as they walk in the door and know which car features align best with customer benefits to make the sale. A stereotypical example using a car dealership analogy best illustrates this point.
A single, well-dressed man drives into a Chevrolet showroom in a 10-year old Corvette. The salesperson spots him and immediately ponders a short-list of likely customer benefits (power, speed, design/sex appeal). In his mind, the salesperson starts linking features of the new Corvette models he has on the lot (horsepower, 0-60 mph statistics, vibrant colors, and motor trend design awards) to the benefits he thinks the customer wants. Sounds like a done deal, right?
But what if the salesperson knew that the man was a stay-at-home dad and was borrowing his wife's car to drive to the dealership? What the stay-at-home dad wants safety, comfort, storage, and security. You can almost picture the salesperson's head begin to swirl as suddenly a new set of features (airbags, reinforced impact bars, OnStar, and adjustable seat belts) are required to address safety benefits that are quite different from the 'need for speed'.
The same stereotypical story could be told about a woman driving up to the dealership in a minivan looking for a new car. But what if the woman was Danica Patrick?a famous NASCAR driver? Would the features of a new Chevy minivan be compelling to someone looking for horsepower, speed, and award-winning design?
Themes Link Benefits with Features to Communicate Solutions
Proposal professionals aren't in the business of selling cars, but the underlying principals of features, benefits, and the relationship between these two is the same in our profession. The proposal theme provides the connection between what's important to a customer (benefit) and what's important to you (feature). The proposal team's challenge is to devise an effective and efficient way to identify customer benefits (explicit and implicit), to link these benefits to quantifiable features, and to communicate compliant and compelling solutions to customers in a way that is easy to evaluate.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Great proposal themes highlight the important and relevant elements of your solution. They are found throughout proposals—most notably in theme statements, action captions, and feature/benefit tables.
Highlighting themes in high-profile locations is the most effective way to avoid the common practice of burying important golden nuggets in proposal nooks and crannies where they are sure to be overlooked. Well-placed themes make the evaluator's job easier by providing clear and compelling reasons to select your company and eliminate the need to read the proposal from cover to cover (most evaluators don't do this anyway).
Use Proof to Substantiate Your Claims
Although theme placement is important, most proposal teams fail to develop compelling themes with sufficient proof points to support their claims. This typically happens for a number of reasons:
Proposal themes without sufficient proof are risky, and can even jeopardize your ability to win. For example, overused catch phrases such as mission-critical, leading edge, and best-in-class become meaningless clich's and lose credibility with evaluators when not substantiated. Differentiators provide the undeniable proof that demonstrates your understanding of the customer, and your solutions to customer needs and wants. Customer benefits and solution features alone are not sufficient to create winning proposal themes. Supporting proof points are essential to provide evaluators with reasons to believe (and select) you.
Is the Proof Really in the Pudding?
When it comes to great proposal themes, it's important to remember that the proof is in the pudding. This well-known and commonly used proverb is a great metaphor for proposal themes and differentiators. Most of us have heard this phrase so many times that we believe we know what it means. But take a closer look. The literal translation of the proof is in the pudding does not make sense. The proverb has evolved over time from the original Don Quixote quote: "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" which means that you won't know whether food has been cooked properly until you try it. In proposal terms, evaluators will not believe your themes unless you use sufficient, quantifiable, and verifiable proof (differentiators and substantiating metrics) to comply, persuade, and convince.
The Evolution of a Theme
The most effective themes include three simple components—benefits, features, and proof points. The following Department of Justice (DoJ) example of an automated coding software requirement helps to illustrate the power of compliant and compelling theme statements. This same example is used later in this article to describe a 3-step theme development methodology.
The theme example follows an evolutionary path of a technical proposal theme starting with a poorly written theme statement (Theme 1), and ending with a compelling and convincing theme statement (Theme 4). Theme 4 includes all the basic elements of a great theme (benefit, feature, and differentiating proof). Each evolutionary step includes a high-level analysis of the theme and the score that evaluators would likely assign based on a commonly used color scale.
The Evolution of a Theme
A theme without proof points is like a court case without sufficient evidence. The result? The case is thrown out of court by the judge before the trial. Proof points provide a quantifiable way to substantiate your claims and give prospective customers tangible reasons to believe you are different (and better) than the competition. The strongest proof points are unique discriminators that you have vetted with your customer in advance. Ideally, these selling points are true for you and not true for at least one of your competitors. Be careful!!! Many companies do not really know their competitors offer or rely on old (or incomplete) information. When you claim to have a unique approach (that really isn't), you run the risk of losing significant customer credibility.
The capture plan and other pursuit deliverables are designed to document and communicate customer hot buttons, selling points, and competitive information that are important for theme development. This information is essential if you truly want to stand out from the competition. If you don't have this information, it will be extremely difficult to develop proposal themes that differentiate in a way that persuades evaluators to pick you.
A Method for the Madness
It seems ironic that a group of engineers from Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon) formalized proposal theme statements. These proposal pioneers were tired of a highly inefficient proposal development process, low win rates, and frustrated subject matter experts who were pressed into proposal writing duty. After some period of trial and error, they developed an appropriately named methodology called STOP. The Sequential Thematic Organization of Proposals (STOP Methodology) was released as a formal company manual in 1965 and ushered in the standardized use of what is commonly referred to as storyboarding.
The thesis statement (modern-day theme statement), the proposal outline, graphic concepts, and review sessions were the pillars of the STOP methodology. The idea worked. Proposal development time was dramatically reduced. Subject matter experts were much more efficient. Win rates increased significantly. STOP was a success.
Over 40 years later, the original storyboarding pillars have been repackaged and rebranded but essentially remain the same. The Proposal Development Worksheet (ShipleyAssociates), the Module Specification, Storymap, and Annotated Mock-Up (SM&A), the Content Plan (CapturePlanning), work packages, and other proposal planning documents are all descendants of the original STOP storyboard concept. These modern-day proposal development tools all have the four STOP pillars in one form or another and emphasize the importance of thinking about (and writing down) proposal themes BEFORE proposal writing begins. Failing to follow this simple idea of developing these before you write causes teams to fall into a number of common proposal development traps.
What can proposal teams do to avoid these common pitfalls?
The Recipe for Success
There are a number of established ways to develop proposal themes and differentiators. The best recipes for theme development have the same simple ingredients from similar sources (the RFP, the capture plan, and the collective intelligence of your capture and business development teams). Exact measurements may vary depending on the type and quality of the RFP.
Use a Method—Any Method
Although the proposal theme recipe sounds simple, most proposal themes end up being, well, half-baked. The problem is many proposal teams fail to invest the appropriate time and resources to develop proposal solutions and themes. Many proposal teams bolt for the boilerplate and forget about themes altogether?hoping that they will miraculously emerge in the Executive Summary the night before the proposal is due.
There are scores of proposal development methodologies that include some form of theme development process. I recommend a simple 3-step process that starts with the RFP and applies basic capture information including customer hot buttons and competitive intelligence.
Example: A Department of Justice (DoJ) request for proposal and capture plan contains the following information.
Step 1: Use a simple three-column table to identify major customer benefits (column 1) and your related solution features (column 2). Keep is simple by starting with 3-4 major customer benefits and 1-2 solution features for each benefit.
Step 2: Once the high-level features and benefits are developed, list the proof points (column 3) for each feature. Be creative and define as many proof points for each feature as you can, using quantifiable metrics. A good starting point is a total of 4-6 proof points for each theme. Use the capture plan as the basis for integrating customer hot buttons and competitive information into the themes and proof points to create powerful differentiators that truly discriminate.
Step 3: Use a proposal theme template that highlights the theme statement (feature and benefit) using color, bolding, italics, or a combination of these to make the theme statement stand out. Pair up the supporting proof points in a focus box with each theme statement as shown in the below.
Our EZ-Code auto-coding software reduces staff training time from 4 hours to 1 hour with an intuitive graphical user interface implemented on 20 DoJ projects.
Incorporate theme statements and focus boxes into the storyboard, module plan, content plan, or whatever pre-proposal planning deliverable you use. Develop a complete and sufficiently detailed compliant outline with proposal themes for each major section. Sketch out graphics concepts to illustrate the major features, benefits, and proof points that are consistent with your theme statements using graphic action captions to re-iterate the themes. Review the themes, outline, graphics, and action captions with your management team for validation, enhancement, and approval. Then, and only then, are you really ready to start writing the proposal.
Who You Gonna Call?
This article began with the definition of proposal themes and a description of the benefits of proposal theme development. We looked at the primary components of winning proposal themes (features, benefits, and proof). We described how to get the most out of proposal themes by providing discriminating proof to set you apart from the competition. We tied all the concepts together with a recipe for success?a proven methodology for developing winning proposal themes. It all sounded pretty simple, didn't it? Then why do many organizations continue to fail to apply these concepts consistently?
Theme Development Challenges
Most companies have established proposal processes in place that include some form of proposal theme development. However, many companies fail to either standardize these processes or lack the sufficient resources to follow them efficiently and effectively.
Unless the capture or proposal manager tackles the theme development task alone (not recommended), some type of working sessions are required to:
However, getting the right people in the same room to discuss proposal themes, features, benefits, proof, and differentiators requires significant planning and meticulous execution. Without the appropriate focus, a common understanding of terms, and the right meeting facilitator, theme development working sessions can be a monumental flop.
In the 1984 comedy classic film Ghostbusters, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis play three eccentric New York City parapsychologists-turned-ghost exterminators. They set out to rid the city of annoying, frightening, and illusive ghosts that wreak havoc on the city using plasma blasters.
Proposal themes have many of the same scary characteristics as the ghosts in the Ghostbusters film. Many companies don't have the internal wherewithal to plan and execute theme development processes. Instead, they hire consulting companies (theme busters) to assist. These companies range from well-known organizations with international reach to one-person local consulting firms. The following well-known companies provide methods, processes, tools (aka plasma blasters), and people you can call for help.
Shipley Associates (www.shipleywins.com) is probably the most widely recognized name in the proposal industry. Shipley has contributed to the proposal industry since the early 1970's, and literally wrote the book on proposal management and proposal writing. Their Proposal Guide includes a topic-oriented approach that includes everything from Abbreviations to Virtual Team Management, with sections on features, benefits, discriminators, and theme statements. Shipley Associates provides training (instructor-led and e-Learning) and consulting services to help you with your specific proposal theme challenges. For more information, call Kelson Forsgren at 888-772-9467 or 801-593-7114.
SM&A (www.smawins.com) has been in business since the early 1980's. They use a systematic process that can help you identify the required theme development steps to win competitive procurements. The SM&A methods, tools, and templates are generally bundled with SM&A-provided proposal and capture management services. For more information, call Amy Knoechel at 949-975-1550, or email email@example.com.
CapturePlanning.com (www.captureplanning.com) is one of the relatively newer entrants (2001) into the proposal development arena. They have a large following that includes over 65,000 opt-in newsletter subscribers and more than a million website visitors a year. CapturePanning does not provide consulting services per se. However, their website includes a number of "Free Articles" and features an off-the-shelf reusable library of MustWin Process—forms, and checklists on win strategies and theme-related topics such as Win Strategies and Themes, and 101 Win Themes for all Occasions. In 2011, CapturePlanning.com turned their content into a subscription-based interactive, searchable tool called PropLIBRARY (www.proplibrary.com). For more information, contact Carl Dickson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The APMP Body of Knowledge (www.apmp.org). The Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) website includes a number of articles on theme-related topics (52 by my count) originally published in the Journal of the Association of Proposal Management Professional, conference presentations, workshops, and other sources. The website has a basic search feature, but can only be accessed by APMP members. If you are an APMP member in good standing, select the "Resources" drop down menu and "APMP Body of Knowledge". The Body of Knowledge also includes a number of Wiki's (APMP, Resources, Work Life Balance), chapter newsletters, templates and tools. If you are not an APMP member consider making the $125 investment. It's well worth it. For more information call Rick Harris at 202-450-2549 or send an email to email@example.com.
Who's the Best Company to Call?
Despite the longevity and name recognition of Shipley Associates, SM&A, CapturePlanning.com, and APMP, no one organization has established itself as the ultimate theme buster. There are literally hundreds of reputable proposal consulting companies (including Rainmakerz Consulting). Many of these firms have proven methods, techniques, and experienced consultants to help you.
Who's the best company to call? The first place to start is with a company (or consultant) you know and trust. Call someone with a proven track record of success creating great proposal themes for a broad range of customers. If you find yourself singing the following lyrics (to the Ghostbusters theme song) it's time to pick up the phone and call a local Theme Buster.
Win More and Work Less?
Winning proposals start with compelling and compliant proposal themes that can make the difference between winning and losing your next bid. Here are a few tips to help you work less on your next winning proposal.
Let's Share Ideas. What are your thoughts and tips on creating great proposal themes? Do you disagree with any of my suggestions? What recommendations resonate with you the most? Let's continue the dialogue one-on-one, on a LinkedIn discussion, or at the next APMP event.
40 Must Read Articles, The Best Articles Published by CapturePlanning.com, 2007
Chris Simmons is a thought leader, public speaker, published author, and the founder and principal member of Rainmakerz Consulting—a business development company focused on helping customers win more and work less. He is the former vice president of the National Capital Area (NCA) chapter of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) and regular contributor to APMP publications, presentations, and educational events. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-255-2355, or visit www.rainmakerz.biz.
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