How to Create Great Proposal Themes (Part 1)
By Chris Simmons, founder and principal member of Rainmakerz Consulting

This is the first in a multi-part series of articles on how to create great proposal themes. Part 1 explores the definition of a theme and the benefits of theme development in the proposal process.

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 with no clear idea of the setting, the characters, the ending, or even the moral of the story. When the proposal manager puts all of the chapters together for the first time (Pink Team) it's no wonder that the feedback is all too predictable – "solutions not clearly articulated", "claims are unsubstantiated", "compelling themes and discriminators are either hidden or missing".

Most proposal teams understand the value of developing themes as the basis for telling their story. But very few teams take the time to develop the central features, benefits and supporting proof in sufficient detail to achieve the happy (winning) ending they desire.

A Theme or a Dream?
Many capture managers and sales executives are quick to describe 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 then not, these win themes are nothing more than vague, generalized statements that hardly distinguish their well-positioned company from any other bidder.

The following win themes were actually posted on the war room wall of one of my customers (code name: DreamThemes), and serve as a vivid example of what win themes are NOT:

Proposal Win Themes...
• Best value
• No risk
• We understand you – better than anyone else
• CMMI Level 3 best practices
• Relevant past performances
• Superior technical solution

The DreamThemes were literally dreamt up by the capture team during lunch earlier in the week and lack the detailed features, benefits, and supporting discriminators required for a complete and compelling proposal. Posting them on the proposal room wall basically brainwashed the team into thinking that they had a winning approach and were ready to write.

In stark contrast, another one of my customers (code name: MeanThemes) spent 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, scores of section and requirement-level themes, with detailed features, benefits, and discriminating proof statements at each thematic level. The MeanTheme document was shared across the entire proposal team to provide high level writing guidance and served as basis for an Executive Summary that virtually wrote itself.

What is a Theme?
A proposal theme is most commonly defined as a "central idea (feature and benefit) that is supported or proved". Most proposal experts generally agree that themes and supporting discriminators are the MOST EFFECTIVE way to distinguish your proposal from the competition (other than price).

Themes are really the fundamental building blocks for telling your story. Themes are not sales slogans. Most slogans are easy to remember catch-phrases like the current 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 and related benefits 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 and only makes the subject of themes more confusing. 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 – typically low cost, low risk, proven solutions, innovation, or performance-based accountability. The trick is to develop a hierarchy of themes with increasing levels of detail that support each win theme.

What's a Proposal Theme?
Most themes are really proposal themes – feature and benefit statements 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 and serve as a mini-summary of the subsequent narrative. Well written proposals have themes in every paragraph and every graphic. Volume themes are proposal themes that typically focus on technical, management, past performance, cost, or other volume subjects. Section themes are proposal themes that focus on section topics within each volume (think RFP Section L for Federal procurements). Requirement themes are proposal themes focused on requirement level topics within sections and sub-sections (think RFP Section C).

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 even 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, tells a compelling story, and has clearly articulated themes that scores the most points.

Part 2 of this series takes a closer look at the components of winning proposal theme.

Author Note: Readers may be interested in knowing that despite their early win theme challenges, DreamThemes won their $2 billion-dollar multiple-award Blanket Purchase Agreement and the only new entrant bidder selected in a group previously dominated by incumbents. Ironically, MeanThemes lost their $40 million single award to the incumbent with a lower-risk technical solution despite a significantly higher price.

About the Author
Chris Simmons is the founder and principal member of Rainmakerz Consulting—a business development solutions company specializing in proposal management, writing, and review.

Still confused or looking for more detailed suggestions? Take time now to send feedback, comments, or questions about this or other challenging proposal issues to Chris at or 202-255-2355. Visit

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