Proposal Win Themes

Ultimate Guide to Proposal Win Themes

(The Why, What, How, When, Where and Who of Rising Above Your Competition)

Consider this. You can submit one thousand and three proposals to the same agency or organization; however, there are only two ways you’ll ever win a bid.

1. Offer the best price.

2. Offer the best value.

This post is a long one, but we think you’ll find it worthwhile. It includes everything you need to know about bidding value. In it, you’ll also find a free win theme development worksheet. The worksheet captures the information here and offers a step-by-step approach to writing compelling proposal win themes.


Why Are Proposal Win Themes Important?

If you’re tired of losing, or worse yet, you’re tired of winning with low pricing, it’s time to broaden your understanding of proposal win themes. Win themes are the messengers that promote the value of your solution.

Because win themes speak to the value of your solution, they turn compliant proposals into compelling ones. They make it easy for evaluators to express why they prefer your company and your solution.

Win themes benefit the proposal team, too. During proposal development, they help establish vision. They allow everyone to clearly see how they’ll win. When this happens, people begin to rally. Win themes can be powerful morale boosters.


What’s a Win Theme?

Don’t confuse a theme with a proposal win theme. Although they both represent an underlying message that runs throughout the story, the similarity ends there. In proposal development, a compelling win theme is much more than a central message. (This next part is crucial.)

A proposal win theme sets forth a customer-focused solution.

Effective win themes address something the customer really cares about. That “something” may or may not be mentioned in the RFP. For example, in an RFP concerning the development of an enterprise software application, the required functionality is probably stated. What the RFP might not state; however, is that Debbie Decision-Maker is concerned about the unwillingness of those in remote offices to accept the new application. She’s concerned that negative stakeholders will place the project at risk.

Debbie’s concern might not find its way to the RFP. To identify her concern, we’d need knowledge of Debbie and her thoughts regarding the project. When we understanding that, this next point become obvious.

Compelling win themes are not recyclable.

What’s Not a Win Theme?

It should be clear by now that neither your slogan nor your tagline is a win theme. Guess what else isn’t a win theme?

Your incumbency is not a win theme.

“We’re the most experienced.” or “No one knows you better.” These are “whaa, whaaa, whaaa” themes; not win themes. Even if they do address the customers’ largest concern, they’re still not win themes.

There’s More to It

The Association of Proposal Management Professionals publishes a Body of Knowledge (APMP BOK) that provides a definition of a win theme. They explain, in part, that a win theme should be reinforced throughout a proposal and that it “…must contain a feature, a benefit, and a corresponding proof point.”

We’ve reviewed what a proposal win theme is. Let’s examine how to create one.


How Are Win Themes Developed?

Compelling proposal win themes are customer-focused. This means first drafts are often developed in strategy sessions by those who know the customer. The team also includes anyone with knowledge of the opportunity and the competitors.

The objectives of the session include: 1. evaluating the customer, 2. evaluating your solution, 3. proving your ability and 4. differentiating your solution.

1. Evaluate the Customer

Identify the evaluators. Name the decision-makers. Who on your team knows them?

Next, identify their concerns. Discuss their environment and document everything. What’s their strategic mission? Do they have specific concerns regarding this project? Do they face known obstacles or risks? What do they fear? Are they biased for or against something?

(psst… If the RFP is already released and you have little or no knowledge of the customer, it might be time to reconsider your bid decision.)

If you do have good information, try to generate about five or so concerns and objectives. Once this list is complete, prioritize them and select the one most significant to the customer.

2. Evaluate Your Solution

A compelling win theme lists the features of your solution that address the customer’s concern. It explains what benefits those features provide and it points to proof that you can deliver the solution and proof that the solution will provide the benefits.

The Features

List the features of your solution that address the customers concern. For win theme development, don’t include a laundry-list of all the features. Only include those that tie to the concern. For example, in the large software project where Debbie is concerned with lack of user acceptance, a feature of your solution might include work performed by a Prosci® certified change manager. Another feature might include a period of company-wide engagement while designing the user interface. The most important thing about a feature is this:


The feature must always benefit the customer.


The Benefits

How do the features benefit the customer? Let’s examine the feature of including a period of company-wide engagement while designing the user interface. When there is early user engagement, users have a voice in the design. When people participate in the design process, they’re more likelihood to accept the change. A benefit of early user engagement is increased user acceptance. Let’s push this a little further. If we know the software has a projected three year ROI, we know the value of it sitting for one month without being used.

This is true whether you’re pitching features of your solution or strengths of your organization. If the features don’t tie to an identified need, concern, or objective; don’t include them in the win theme. Features that don’t tie to benefits are called “so whats.” Don’t make the customer say “so what.”

3. Prove Your Ability

Saying you can do something the customer wants is a good start, but it’s not enough. Turn up the effectiveness of your win theme by proving you can do what you say. Support your claims by pointing to things like: customer surveys, industry ratings, performance reports, quality inspection reports and recommendations.

4. Distinguish Your Offer

Sift through the information collected during the black hat review. This review examines the likely competitors and the probable solutions and strategies they’ll use.

Look for information that will help you identify discriminators. Discriminators are features of your solution that differ from what the competition offers. Don’t forget that the customer must also believe these features provide a benefit.

Discriminators are about the customer.

Let’s Review Where We Are

If we began documenting the win theme, this is what we’d have.

Acknowledge the Concern “It’s well-documented that resistance to change exposes software development projects to risk. (Don’t forget to cite sources where appropriate.) Some of the more common risks include schedule and cost overruns.”

State the Solution “To mitigate these risks, we integrate change management in our approach to project management. Change management concerns itself with managing the people side of change. It helps individuals make successful personal transitions resulting in adoption of the change.”

Set Forth a Feature of the Solution “Our change manager is a Prosci® certified change management professional.”

Relate the Customer Benefit “Prosci is the world leader in benchmarking research and change management products. Their methodology is based on research with over 3,400 organizations and relied upon by 75% of Fortune 100 companies. Prosci certified practitioners are equipped with a proven body of knowledge for implementing effective change management solutions.”

Provide Some Proof “After the completion of every one of our software development projects, Acme conducts surveys to measure customer satisfaction. We’ve conducted these surveys for over 12 years. After we began including a Prosci certified change manager on our projects, we found an 82% increase in the number of users who accept the new applications immediately after rollout.”

(psst..If you’re stretching to find proof points, you may have identified gaps or weaknesses. If so, decide how they will be filled. A teaming agreement might be desirable.)

Distinguish Your Offer “Although other organizations are capable of procuring change management support, ACME is the only software development company that retains two, full-time Prosci certified change managers on staff. For seven years, they’ve worked with our project managers to increase the percentage of users that accept our solutions at rollout.”

Refining Win Themes

The first draft of a win theme is typically long and a bit awkward. The goal is to maintain the message but reduce the length to a sentence or two. The end result should be clear, succinct and notable.

Typically, it takes numerous revisions to get this right. While your polishing the win theme, remember to save each iteration. Sometimes, it’s necessary to review an earlier version.

Free Win Theme Development Worksheet

When it’s time to develop a proposal win theme, consider using a methodical approach like the one captured in this worksheet. It prompts the user for all of the information that’s needed.

Download in Excel

Download the win theme development worksheet in Excel format.

Download in PDF

Download the win theme development worksheet in PDF format.


When Are Win Themes Identified?

Ideally, win themes are identified before the RFP is ever released. Consider the software development project described above. A member of the sales team might over hear Debbie Decision-Maker say, “Just because we get new software, doesn’t mean everyone will use it. In fact, I think some people will make this change rather difficult.”

Her concern might be one of several that are gathered in advance of the RFP release. Working before release provides time to identify gaps in knowledge and go back to the customer for missing information.


Where Does the Win Theme Appear

The win theme is first included in the compliant proposal outline. Next, it’s presented to the section managers during the kick off meeting. The section managers ensure the win theme, or elements thereof, become woven throughout the sections they lead. The win theme might also appear in the:

  • transmittal letter
  • proposal cover
  • executive summary


  • features/benefits table
  • focus boxes
  • graphics
  • introductory sections
  • headings
  • conclusion


By weaving the message throughout the proposal, we receive opportunities to communicate it in a variety of ways. This repetition helps drive the message home; making it clear and memorable.


Above, you examined the “Why, What, How, When and Where” of proposal win theme development. By now, the “Who” should be obvious.

The “Who” is always the customer.

How well do you know your customer? Your ability to draft a compelling win theme is entirely dependent upon that knowledge. With it, you can craft a solution that offers real value. That, by the way, is what causes you to rise above the competition.

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About the Author
Kimberlin R. Wildman, JD, PMP is a former attorney, a PMP certified project manager, a federal proposal manager, and the founder of MyPM. She has two decades of experience interviewing subject matter experts, spotting opportunities, and leading projects to successful closures. Author Bio