Proposal Writing to Win Strategy: Reviewing for Win Themes and Proposal Themes

Quality proposals use Win Themes and Proposal Themes to capture the evaluator’s attention and imagination. Win Themes subtly remind evaluators of your proposition as they read your proposal. Proposal Themes on the other hand guide evaluators as they read a proposal section. Together, they boost comprehension and interpretation, and make your proposal easier to read, understand, absorb, and score.

Crafting Win Themes and Proposal Themes as part of your writing plan, or the Interplay phase of proposal development, makes your proposal easier to write. Making Win Theme(s) and Proposal Themes part of your reviewing plan, or Inspection phase of proposal development, ensures reviewers are on the same page and prepared to deliver impactful guidance on proposal Improvement.

How do you review for Win Themes and Proposal Themes? That’s what we’ll explore in the third Blog of this series on proposal writing.

Pre-Review Game Plan

It’s easy to assume your reviewers are all pulling in the same direction. Unfortunately, shifting priorities and conflicting deadlines may not provide for that level of unity and focus. When you begin each review cycle with a common understanding you eliminate confusion and doubts. For example:

  • Win Strategy. Invite reviewers to ask questions about the Win Strategy. When reviewers understand, and accept, your Win Strategy, their guidance will be more helpful and impactful.

  • Win Themes. These subtle messages are woven into your proposal narrative, reinforcing your Win Strategy. Knowing specifically what they are upfront will help reviewers know what to look for and identify how and where to improve them.

  • Proposal Themes. These explicit, section-specific statements are used to guide the evaluator as they read. Knowing specifically what they are upfront will help reviewers test how well they support your Win Theme(s) and identify how to improve them.

Be careful what you ask for. When you ask reviewers a generic question like “feedback,” you should expect a generic answer like, “this is weak.” Instead, ask reviewers a specific question like “how can I improve this section” or “how can I support this Win Theme”? This small adjustment in reviewer mind-set will transform a “this is weak” comment into an “add this proof point to strengthen the section” instruction. This is a best practice first brought to light by Carl Dickson over at PropLIBRARY, and further explored in David Seibert's insightful book, Proposal Best Practices: A Practical Guide to Improve Your Win Rate When Responding to RFPs.

Begin with a Cold Review

The goal of the Cold Review is to measure proposal comprehension. Is the proposal easy to read? Is it easy to follow? Will evaluators walk away with what you want them to know about you, your solution and your business?
Begin your Cold Review by reading the proposal section as if you’ve never seen it before. Then, ask yourself:

  • What is the Win Theme(s)? Is it the right Win Theme(s)? Is it clearly expressed in the narrative? Does the narrative read as if it was written from a single, authoritative source? Look for words or phrases that don’t express your Win Theme(s) accurately or in the best light.

  • Did you comprehend the section? Is it clear what the challenge is? The solution? Is there anything that may raise doubts in the evaluator’s mind? Look for items that don’t support your Win Theme(s).

  • How do you feel about what you just read? Do you feel positive and enthusiastic? Do you want to work with you? Look for areas that make you feel uncomfortable, or make you want to stop reading and start skimming.

Cold reading is a simple yet powerful technique for quickly assessing proposal readability and comprehension. Focus on areas that feel unclear. Look for areas that can better echo your Win Theme(s) through word choice or phrasing. Find areas where the narrative feels cobbled together and suggest how it can be smoothed. By mimicking the evaluator’s “cold read” experience, the reviewer identifies areas that might be unclear to the evaluator, raise doubts in their mind as they read, or leave doubts as to the viability of your proposition.

Close Review

The goal of a Close Review is to measure interpretation. Do you understand the section? Is it easy to understand? Will the evaluator understand, and follow, your line of reasoning? Begin your Close Review by reading the first paragraph and each paragraph after that, with this focus:

  • Setup. Is the current state clear? What does it look like to the evaluator? Look for a description that clearly lays the foundation for the Conflict in the evaluator’s current state.

  • Conflict. What is the evaluator experiencing in their current state? Is the challenge clear? Look for a description that connects the dots between the Setup and the Conflict and lays the groundwork for your Resolution.

  • Resolution. Is the description of your solution clear? Does it focus on how great you can make their business? Look for “how” your solution addresses the Setup and resolves the Conflict. Look for proof points and any unsupported statements. Look for Proposal Themes that focus the evaluator’s attention on important benefits and scoring criteria.

Close reading reminds reviewers to ask “why” the evaluator is reading the section, putting proposal interpretation to the test. Focus your instructions on areas where you can better use Proposal Themes to more clearly connect the dots between Setup, Conflict, and Resolution. Look for wordy blocks of text that are better highlighted using a Proposal Theme coupled with a call-out or graphic. By mimicking the evaluator’s “close read” experience, the reviewer ensures the content leaves the evaluator with no doubts as to how to score the section.

Wrap-Up your Review

Each proposal review may have a different focus (first draft, second draft, Pink Team, Red Team). Each reviewer may have a different mandate, (compliance, solution, strategy). However you conduct your proposal review cycles, the resulting instructions all have the same overarching goal; a team roadmap for honing proposal comprehension and interpretation.

Now that you’ve completed your Cold Review and Close Review, take a step back before you share and consider:

  • Are your instructions aligned with the Win Strategy? Or do they represent a course change?

  • Are your instructions specific? Or are they vague and open to misinterpretation?

  • Do your instructions improve the evaluator’s comprehension of the section?

  • Do your instructions improve the evaluator’s interpretation of the section?

It may take several review cycles to achieve the level of comprehension and interpretation you need to capture the evaluator’s attention and imagination, and persuade them to your line of reasoning. A clear Pre-Review Game Plan will ensure reviewers are on the same page and prepared to deliver the guidance your team needs to make your proposal easier to read, understand, absorb, and score.

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