Proposal Theme Statements

A theme statement tells readers why they should select you. It links the most important customer needs to the discriminating features and quantified benefits of your offer.

Introduction

Win themes and major themes should be applied to the entire proposal and should be reinforced throughout the document. They are not sales slogans or catchy phrases used by marketing. Instead, they are specific statements that tie a unique discriminator to a critical customer need.

Unlike strategies, which describe the things you will do, a theme statement dictates things you will say. The following is an example theme statement: Eliminate development risk and cost by selecting the only transport aircraft in this class that is currently in production.

Theme statements should be reinforced and placed in sections, paragraphs, and headings. They are often highlighted or incorporated into callout boxes because they describe the key points you want the assessor to remember.

Best Practices

1. Develop powerful, compelling theme statements.

Proposal themes should flow from the opportunity/capture strategy and address win themes, customer hot buttons, and your features, benefits, and discriminators. Using either a draft solicitation or a previous similar solicitation from the customer, create a top-level outline of your proposal.

Develop feature/benefit pairs that reflect the executed opportunity/capture strategy and align them with the outline. Start with the highest level of the outline (company qualifications, technical approach, past performance, etc.) and create a statement that achieves the following:

  • Identifies a benefit to the customer linked to a feature you offer
  • Ties that benefit to a customer issue
  • Quantifies benefits whenever possible
  • Highlights your previous success with that feature, benefit, or customer issue

2. Quantify the benefits of your offer.

Theme statements that include quantified benefits tend to be more credible and compelling. Consider the difference between these two statements:

Reduce order entry costs by installing e-entry software.
Theme statement. The benefit is not quantified.

Versus

Reduce order-handling costs by 30 percent by installing e-entry software.
Theme statement. The benefit is quantified.

Quantified benefits must be supportable, and you should provide evidence soon after in the proposal. If you cannot support your claims, change your theme statement.

Whenever possible, quantify benefits collaboratively with the customer. Customers who help determine the benefits of your solution will have more confidence in the calculation.

State the benefits in realistic terms rather than as broad generalizations or ultra-specific results. For example, the 30 percent savings mentioned in the previous theme statement could be interpreted as “around 30 percent,” with a deviation of plus or minus 5 percent to 10 percent. A more specific figure like 33 percent seems more credible.

Here are two additional examples to illustrate that point:

Reduce order-handling costs by 33 percent by installing e-entry software.
Theme statement. The benefit is precisely quantified.

Versus

Reduce order-handling costs by 33.4 percent by installing e-entry software.
Theme statement. The benefit is quantified, but too precisely; this may call into question how the calculations were completed.

3. Draft concise theme statements, preferably in a single complete sentence.

High-impact theme statements are like sound bites. If evaluators had to sum up their decision, what would they say?

The longer the theme statement, the more likely the evaluator will not read it. Writing concise discriminating theme statements is difficult work. To start, remove any words in your theme statement that you can without changing the meaning. If you can use a shorter (but still accurate) word, do it. If you can eliminate jargon, do it.

See how these recommendations improve the following theme statement:

Our integrated design process, incorporating the lessons learned on all earlier generation aircraft engines, has resulted in an engine that uses four common fastening systems for engine assembly offering maximum maintainability.

Too many features confuse the reader. Which ones are the most unique? Most bidders will claim to have an integrated design process and to incorporate lessons learned. Improve the statement by dialing in on a single high-impact benefit.

Our engine uses four common fastening systems for maximum maintainability.

Next, cut out the jargon:

With only four common bolts used for assembly, our engine is easy to fix.

Then, put the benefit to the customer first:

Our engine is easy to fix because only four common bolts are used for assembly.

To develop compelling theme statements, you can use a template. Fill in the blanks:

(Customer) will have the ability to (improve what) (by when/how much) as a result of (discriminating feature) (proof of claim).

Sometimes it’s easier to brainstorm the elements of the theme statement first. Figure 1 shows another method that can be used.

Customer Issue or Hot Button Feature Benefit Proof
Describe the issue or hot button in the customer’s words Which features of your solution will fix the problem? What is the high-level benefit? This may include quantifiable results. Back it up. Name and date a success story.

Figure 1. Brainstorming the Theme Statement. Use a template to create the elements of the theme statement before writing it out.

Do not provide details in the feature column; consolidate the benefits into one high-level, quantified benefit. Then turn the elements into a grammatically correct sentence that clearly links the solution to the stated benefit.

4. Read your theme statements out loud.

After you’ve written a theme statement, read it out loud, keeping in mind the following tips:

  • Did you need to take a breath to finish it? If so, it’s too long. Try cutting unnecessary words.
  • Did it make sense, or did you stop yourself and start over? Try again with fewer or simpler words. If the benefit-before-feature format confuses you, write what you need to say and then ask someone to help.
  • Does it sound like something a normal person would say? Use simple, jargon-free language and short, declarative sentences.
  • Does it sound believable? If you resorted to statements such as “unique ability,” “greatest depth and breadth,” “world-class experts,” and so on, you’ll need to prove those claims in your theme statement. If the quantifying numbers are “too round,” you may also need to show your work. For example, 27 percent is more believable than 30 percent.

5. Test the impact of your theme statements and improve them accordingly.

The litmus test for a good theme statement is twofold:

  1. Could a competitor believably make the same claim?
  2. Could an evaluator cut and paste the theme statement into an evaluation form to justify giving you the highest rating?

If you can answer “no” and “yes” to these two questions, respectively, you have likely chosen strong proposal theme statements.

If a competitor could easily make the same claim, see what details you can add to set your solution apart. While the second question is more subjective, you should make every attempt to ensure that your theme will resonate with evaluators.

6. Build a proposal theme outline against the structure of the response. Then flow themes into content plans.

When you have completed the top levels of your response outline, flow related themes into the intended sections of the outline to ensure a consistent message and linkage of benefits throughout each major section of your response.

This exercise will identify areas needing further information to showcase benefits. Additional trade studies, test results from SMEs, demographics from human resources, or information from teammates, vendors, or subcontractors may be required. To best manage your workflow, begin collecting data before the solicitation arrives.

When the theme structure has been aligned, insert a suggested theme statement into each section of the content plan to help the writer organize ideas around the larger strategies.

7. Use theme statements consistently.

As evaluators read your proposal, they will come to expect theme statements at whatever level you have decided to use them. If they are good theme statements, an efficient evaluator will even look for them before reading the rest of a section.

If you place themes inconsistently, evaluators may become confused or annoyed. Be sure to format all theme statements in the same way. If themes do not have the same font, color, size, and design, evaluators may miss them—and you may miss an opportunity to score points.

8. Maintain customer focus.

Companies are focused on their discriminators, and rightly so. However, evaluators are more concerned about how those discriminators and other features will satisfy their own organization’s needs. Customer-focused writing is key in developing proposal themes. Placing benefits before features, tying them to customer issues, and naming the customer first (and more often than you name yourself) will sustain the attention of evaluators and communicate a reduced sense of risk.

9. Tailor your theme statement development and placement approach to the evaluation process.

Proposal professionals advocate distinctly different standards for theme statements, usually because a particular approach has worked well in a specific market. All of the following approaches are used:

  1. Place a single theme statement at the beginning of sections, typically at a uniform indenture level
  2. Place a theme statement anywhere you discuss a significant discriminator
  3. Place a series of theme statements at the beginning of major sections in a single box
  4. Place a single theme statement at the top of every page

The first two approaches are more effective in less-disciplined, more casual approaches to evaluation, which are common in many nongovernment market sectors. Short, concise theme statements are more likely to be read and remembered when the winner is being selected in a group discussion.

The first three approaches capture the attention of skim readers. Skim readers are usually senior managers who play a major role in the selection decision but are not assigned a formal evaluation role.

Option 2, placing theme statements anywhere you discuss a significant discriminator, suggests that the bidder has numerous discriminators. If a theme statement directly answers a specific question or requirement, then the highly visible theme statement makes evaluation easy.

The risk in requiring theme statements at set points in a proposal is that writers might lack a discriminating feature. It forces writers to draft more theme statements, which may not be as focused or persuasive. Evaluators who have to read numerous theme statements are less likely to remember your major discriminators.

Option 3, placing a single theme statement at the beginning of the section, requires the writer to identify the single most important discriminator in the section and incorporate it into the theme statement. The concept is correct, but the implementation is more difficult.

This approach has advantages in complex and formally solicited proposals with a detailed, disciplined evaluation process. Summarizing your response to the compliance requirements, for example, in a single place makes evaluation easy, potentially increasing your score. However, individual evaluators at the item level have minimal influence over the final selection. Evaluators with decisionmaking power tend to skim proposals and are less likely to remember anything said in a collection of themes. They are more likely to remember a single, concise statement.

Finally, placing themes at the top of every page (option 4) is the least-effective choice. Evaluators tend to perceive themes at the top of the page as headers and ignore them. Writers forced to draft a theme for every page tend to draft ineffective, general, and less-persuasive theme statements.

Each approach has potential advantages and disadvantages, depending on how the proposal will be evaluated. Remember: focused, persuasive content is much more important than the number of theme statements or the placement of those theme statements in your proposal.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Writing proposal sections before themes are identified and reviewed

This can lead to a lack of alignment between themes and proposal content.

Failing to provide adequate proof

Evaluators will not believe your proposal themes unless you use sufficient, quantifiable, and verifiable proof (differentiators and substantiating metrics) to persuade them.

Focusing on features over benefits

For theme statements to be effective, you must clearly and quantifiably show customers how they will benefit.

Summary

  • Theme statements address customer issues by tying benefits to features. They should be woven throughout your proposal
  • Build an outline for the proposal and place draft theme statements consistently within each section to help focus the writing
  • Ensure that theme statements focus on the customer, not on your organization
  • Evaluate your proposal theme statements before moving forward. Ask yourself: Could a competitor believably make the same claim? Could an evaluator cut and paste the statement into an evaluation form to justify your high score?

Terms to Know

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