Many of you have probably heard of speed dating, a relatively new (well, 10 years old now) phenomenon where a large group of singles go to meet potential mates. You get 3-5 minutes with each potential person to decide if you like them and want to give them your phone number for a future date. Put yourself at one of these events for a minute. Since you have such a short amount of time, what would you look for to decide if you want to give your phone number to this person?
First, you’d probably go with the “vibe”. Does the person seem interesting, funny, energetic or happy? Or are they sketchy and weird? This first impression is likely to last, and if you don’t get over this hurdle you’re probably sunk, right? In fact, a 2006 poll at a speed dating event in Edinburgh, Scotland showed that 45% of women and 22% of men at a speed-dating event decided in the first 30 seconds if they would give the person a thumbs up or down. Wow! Talk about pressure…
However, this is actually not that different from your proposal. When someone is reading your proposal, the first thing they’re looking for is the answer to “why should I sit up and take notice of this proposal rather than the other 20 in my stack”. It’s the same as the speed dating event – you’ve got 20 women or men to choose from. Is this person in front of you going to make the first cut?
In the case of your proposal, the reviewer is looking for something interesting, innovative, exciting, and most importantly, relevant. If they don’t find something in the first 30 seconds that piques their interest, they’re probably not going to give you their proverbial phone number to pursue potential future funding.
Probably the most interesting thing someone can hear about is a solution to a problem they care about. Let’s break this statement down. First of all, there needs to be problem they care about. This is not just any problem. It’s a problem your audience is actively searching a solution for. You might be a few pounds overweight and know it’s a problem, but if it’s not that big of a problem compared to the rest of your problems, you’re probably not going to get all that excited about a solution. However, if your doctor tells you that you’re going to get diabetes in the next year if you don’t get your weight under control, well then it becomes a big problem you care about and will be actively looking for a solution for.
When writing a proposal you need to know
1. who is your audience that will review your grant, and
2. what problems are they actively looking for solutions for
If you don’t know these things, it’s going to be hard to engage their interest.
Once you have that figured out, you need to propose a solution to the problem they care about. Now, be careful here. Many people propose a solution by delving into the details of HOW they are going to do something, or describing in detail their underlying model and why it is better than the existing model, or building themselves up to establish why they’re the best person to provide the solution. These things are important, but remember, you only have a short time to create that spark. First, you must answer the question of “why should I read more”.
Take your proposal and distill it down to the most basic “what is this about” sentence you can. In 2 sentences or less, describe what the problem is you are proposing to solve and provide one new, interesting or innovative angle on that problem. Sounds simple, but this is something we, as scientists, often struggle with. We’re very used to providing detail, qualifying answers, questioning approaches and results. We’re generally not good at distilling and making bold predictions. Remember, the point of this speed date is not to get the bird in the bag. The point is to sufficiently engage the interest of the reader to put them in a positive frame of mind and keep reading your proposal. You can provide all those details later, but you must set the Vibe right at the beginning.