Put Your Thinking CAP On

Proposal writing has been a challenging subject for many people, for many years. Books have been written about it; workshops have been developed; indeed, an entire industry has sprung up around this topic. There’s a lot of information out there about the best way to go about it—maybe too much!

Let’s see if we can’t simplify this, shall we? Here’s a suggestion: Put your thinking CAP on!

Cutting through the clutter, there really are only three key elements of good proposal writing:

  • Context
  • Approach
  • Proof

Let’s look at what each of these elements entails.


Context is the framework and foundation for everything in the proposal. Essentially, it is the answer to the question: What matters to the Customer?

Of course, there are questions within this question: What are the key challenges the customer faces? What opportunities does the customer envision? What are the customer’s Pain Points, Hot Buttons, Hearts’ Desires?

All of these questions can be addressed both at a high level (for example, in an Executive Summary), and at the ground level, in the detailed technical section of the proposal. Throughout the proposal, each section/subsection should begin with a statement of Context.


The Approach is, essentially, your Answer to the question: Why us? Why should the customer select our company for this work? In short, it’s your solution to the customer’s challenges, your plan to make their dreams a reality.

Your approach should not simply be “look at how great we are!” however. Everything in your approach should tie back to the Context—what matters to the Customer. If your approach doesn’t address that, you’re wasting your time.

In describing your approach, you will need to incorporate two key sub-elements:

  • Benefits: This is not merely about what you do; it’s about what the customer will GET—that is, the specific outcomes or results your approach will deliver. Moreover, those benefits should be something the customer actually wants—in other words, the Context you have identified.
  • Strengths/Discriminators: This element of your proposal describes what you will do, how you will do it, and what makes your Approach different/better than your competitors. Again, however, it must be based on the Context—that is, what matters to the Customer. After all, you may make the world’s best widgets, but that won’t matter if the Customer wants bananas.

Truthfully, that’s all you really need in terms of Approach: Benefits and strengths/discriminators, placed in Context. Anything else is fluff. And every section/sub-section should include this element.


The third element of effective proposal writing is Proof. Proof Points are just that: tangible evidence that demonstrates that you CAN DO what you say you WILL DO. Proof Points can consist of any of the following:

  • Metrics (e.g., “We improved system uptime by XX%”)
  • CPAR scores (e.g., “We have received scores of Excellent or better throughout the life of our contracts”)
  • Customer testimonials (e.g., “Acme Inc. is the best thing since sliced bread—we couldn’t accomplish our goals without them!”—Customer Program Manager)
  • Past Performance/Case Studies (e.g., “We did this successfully on contracts X, Y, and Z”)

Proof Points are what take your proposal from compliant to Persuasive. They provide the customer with a level of confidence that they can believe what you say. Trust is an essential aspect of decision making, particularly in buying decisions. So, every claim you make in your proposal should be backed up with Proof.

So, there you have it: To create a compelling proposal, all you need to do is to put your thinking CAP on!

If you’d like me to show you and your staff how to do this in practice, contact me at dstearman@proposal-strategy-consulting.com.

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