One of the first things students in journalism school learn is that the “lede” (first paragraph) of every news article must address a few simple questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? The answers to these questions give readers the essential information up front. Subsequent paragraphs of the story flesh out the story, providing additional details, quotes, etc.
Proposal writing is different. Although a proposal must answer those questions as well, another question is even more fundamental to winning: “Why?” Virtually every paragraph of a proposal, not just the first one, should give the reader–the customer–a reason to select you rather than a competitor. Every reason is an answer to the question, Why?
Ultimately, the customer wants to know: What’s in it for me? Why should I care? Why does it matter to me?
Answering this question drives capture and proposal strategy, planning, and execution. Before you can start writing a proposal–before you can even start planning the proposal–you need to address this fundamental question: Why should your prospective customer award this contract to you, among all the competitors out there? This question should drive your capture and proposal strategy, planning, and execution. It entails identifying what’s important to the customer (what we in the proposal business call issues and “hot buttons“) as well as what distinguishes you, in a positive way, from your competitors–what we call discriminators. The latter requires an assessment of strengths and weaknesses–your own, and your competitors’.
That analysis should lead to an overall strategy for winning the contract, which then leads to proposal strategies–as embodied in what we call “win themes.” These win themes should be woven throughout your proposal, reminding the readers/evaluators why they should select you for the contract.
As should be evident, Why? is more than a mere question. It’s a process. This process begins well before you begin writing the proposal, and continues throughout the capture and proposal life cycle. If you can’t provide an answer to this question, the who-what-when-where-how of your proposal probably won’t matter. If you want to win, you need to begin with WHY.