3 Reasons Why Proposal Themes Are the Worst

1/27/17 12:51 PM Anna Duin RFP Responding

Proposal themes are a controversial topic. Some claim they're essential for a winning proposal. Others loathe them with a special hatred. 

Wherever you land, it's important to know the risks of any method. So, before invest your time developing themes for the sake of themes, read this post from Proposal expert Cindy Weinmann of Strategy Horizon Consulting. She explains the three big problems proposal themes frequently cause, why they can divert your attention from what Buyers really care about, and how to dig down past theme standards into your true differentiators so your content is always compelling. 

(Looking for an overview of how to write a persuasive proposal? Learn how here.)

The theme regime

If you’re a Business Development Professional and you've never struggled with the concept of proposal “themes,” you’re extremely lucky. Themes – good and bad – are the darlings of articles, webinars, and conference sessions everywhere.

Our field is laden with stories about proposals that failed because they didn’t have a theme, had the wrong theme, or had the right theme for the wrong audience, and so on.

There was even a story about a team that developed an entire volume devoted to the proposal themes. But they weren't the team that won the bid. The winning proposal came from another incumbent who simply had a good track record, compliant proposal and a realistic price. Contrary to popular belief, making the theme your top priority doesn't necessarily increase your chances of winning. Imagine that.

Which leads us to today's discussion, the top three reasons why proposal themes are the absolute worst. Or at least, why they're often not worth your time. 

Reason 1: if it’s targeted enough to be a differentiator, it’s too small to be a theme

Target.pngThe general definition of a “theme” is a common thread that organizes a set of things – features, activities, events – into a coherent and compelling story. At the level of an entire proposal, the theme ties individual elements of the response to a cogent solution.

For example, I Googled "proposal theme" and found the following statement: 

Our software reduces staff training time from 4 hours to 1 hour with an intuitive graphical user interface implemented on 20 similar projects.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this phrasing, but if we look at common definitions of “theme,” this statement seems quite narrow – specific to the time it takes to train individuals to use software.

The theme is that the software is so easy to use, and it only takes an hour to train individuals to use it.

But, is the only differentiator for the product the ease of use as measured by the number of hours it takes to learn? Do we need a specific statement for each product feature?

You can see why writing a proposal according to certain theme(s) would be difficult.  

The example above focuses on a single feature of software – training time. But what about accuracy, flexibility,
access, user experience, or cost? What if the buyer looks at that statement and thinks, “If it’s that easy to learn, how functional can it be?”

In other words, generalized themes aren't all that helpful, because if it’s targeted enough to be a distinctive factor, it’s too small to be a theme. And what Buyers really want to know is what specifically sets you apart from the competition?

Reason 2: if it’s big enough to be a theme, it’s too broad to be a differentiator


In literature, themes are BIG – man’s alienation in post-industrial society, for example. They're impressive and overarching. If we were to re-frame our initial example as a true theme it would read something like this: 

“We liberate your staff from the de-humanizing struggle to learn that’s doomed to fail after hours of fruitless labor.”      

Now that’s a theme! An impressive one! Just not a theme you'd likely to see in a real proposal.
In other words, the problem with themes is they're inherently very broad. They come off as meaningless marketing jargon like "best in class" because they're so broad.

Because it's the specifics that sell. Why what you're providing matters, why it's different from everyone else, and precisely how it will make their jobs easier. (Learn more about how to give great specific examples in your proposal here.) 

It's why we all love percentages and testimonials. We don't really want hype or buzzwords, we don't want to take the seller's word for it, we want to know exactly what you're delivering. 

Reason 3: you're focused on the theme, not the proposal 


The biggest problem with proposal themes is they can actually distract us from what Buyers really want -- a well written proposal. It's easy to get so wrapped up in the small objective of making sure you're hitting the theme, that you actually lose sight of your larger objectives. 

It happened to me recently. I was in a meeting with a proposal team where we ended up jumping right into themes without any consideration of how the company could position itself towards the overall goals, or favorably differentiate from competitors.

In this RFP, the State used a common expression for their objectives that’s known in the public sector healthcare business as the triple aim: improve population health, improve patient experience, reduce cost. Understandably, most respondents would position their proposals around that statement. 

But for an opportunity where 3 out of 4 companies have the same background, staffing, and capabilities, how can making a theme about the triple aim distinguish a bid from its competitors? 

As it turns out, this particular opportunity was the third attempt to try to automate health assessments of Medicaid recipients, with the first 2 having failed in the software stage, notably around mobile devices and syncing offline content.

So in this case, the best theme (or proposal thesis) wasn't the tired "industry standard theme" that everyone and their cousin was using, but rather addressing how we would successfully overcome the common point of failure. 

But we almost missed it because we were so focused on following a theme. Our meeting was a prime example of how the effort to develop theme statements can come at the cost of the actual solution. 

Because ultimately, theme-based effort takes away from the real work of proposals –  that is reviewing the Request for Proposal, researching the prospective client and their needs/issues, and designing a solution which delivers functionality, excellent customer service, and a reasonable price.

Solutions are all about the client; themes are all about the vendor. 

If you must have a theme, I suggest you develop an over-arching theme about your company that presents your products in customer-focused language. You can then articulate the specific features, benefits, and proof points throughout the proposal. 

Ex. RFP365 streamlines the RFP process for both Buyers and Vendors. For Vendors, that means #1 a powerful search engine that helps you find, edit, and reuse past proposals & responses in seconds. #2 Keeping your whole team on the same page with centralized, real-time collaboration. #3 Clean dashboards that visualize progress, showing who is working on what, and what needs to be done. In other words, the "process" managed, so you can focus on content.


Big thank you to Cindy Weinmann, of Strategy Horizon Consulting for her insightful guest post! 

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