What is one of the key secrets that a great grant writer knows, but that most other people don’t?

In middle school I was a very disengaged student. I struggled and even dropped out for a while (funny, isn’t it, that I later became a successful professor! More on that later.)

One of the reasons I struggled was the BORING teachers.

I remember the most boring one of all. I won’t name him because I’m sure he was a well meaning guy – he just had no clue how to engage his audience, a bunch of 8th and 9th graders, to learn history.

Each day, we would go into class. He would turn off the lights and turn on the overhead projector. I remember the dusty smell of that thing, and the hum of its fan.

He would proceed to place a pre-written overhead with a litany of history facts. And then another. And then another.

He would read each one. There were no pictures. There were no illustrations. Nothing but his droning voice, the droning fan, and an endless stream of names, places, events, dates.

He required that we copy down the information on the overheads. He wanted to make sure we didn’t just sleep through it, so we had to turn in our notes for a grade.

Talk about torture!

I don’t want to make light of the cruel things that people can do to each other in the name of “torture,” but this is one of the closest experiences I’ve had.

It made me hate history. I thought history was the absolutely most awful subject on the planet. (I’ve gotten over it, and enjoy history now).

Here’s and exercise: close your eyes for a minute, and imagine yourself as a restless middle schooler, forced to sit day after day copying, as fast as you could write, one after another overhead full of “facts” about history. Maybe it’s not so hard for you to imagine if you had a teacher like that. But even if you didn’t, think about how agitated about the whole affair you might be, and how turned off to the subject it would make you. “Bored to tears” is an apt description of the experience.

Now that you’ve taken a moment to imagine that, let’s do one more exercise that applies this same torturous boredom concept to grants.

Imagine that you are a grant reviewer. You open up a grant to see an endless stream of “facts” that the writer has presented to impress you. Since you’re not an expert in the exact field of the proposers, the “facts” mean nothing to you. Yet you feel obligated to read the grant carefully, because you’ve been assigned to do so by the funding agency.

So you sit there and suffer through it, trying to absorb those facts, one after another. You look up the many buzzwords and technical terms on Wikipedia. You try to cut through the litany to figure out what the writers are proposing to do, and why they want to do it. That’s what you really want to know. But the what and why is covered up by facts and more facts.

Now imagine a contrasting grant reviewing experience. You open up a proposal to review, and it is written in smoothly flowing english without buzzwords or facts to decipher. You quickly grasp why the proposers want to do what they are proposing to do, you understand what problem it will solve, and when you get into the body of the proposal, there is an interesting, readable story.  Each time they use a buzzword, they explain its meaning, so there is no hunting around on the internet.  There are great illustrations to help you figure out the concepts that you’re unfamiliar with.

You get through the grant in a short time, excited and feeling like you didn’t waste your time.

Now think about this one final thing. After reading all the proposals, you go to a grant review meeting.  You are sitting in a room full of other grant reviewers. It is your turn to rate these two grants we just discussed, and try to convince that roomful of people to vote either for or against funding for one of these proposals. Only a few proposals (or maybe only one) out of the whole group of proposals considered by the group will get funding.

Any grant that gets funding will need someone to say some great things about it. To be really enthusiastic about it.

Are you going to be enthusiastic about the fact-laden, boring proposal? Maybe they are doing great work.

But here’s the secret: many (usually at least half) of the proposals considered that day will have “great work” in them.  You’ve seen several that contained “great work”!

What makes one or two stand out from that crowd, enough to receive the coveted funding?  Enough to receive your enthusiastic praise that is strong enough to convince everyone else in the room?

The ones that not only do “great work” but also convey that great work in a reader friendly way.

It is never reader friendly to be like my history teacher was. Ever!

Don’t once think that because you can name a large array of facts about your field that people will be impressed.

If I start blathering on about “electrospray ionization coupled to a triple quadropole and an orbitrap analyzer” – do you get impressed?  Or do you just get the sense that I’m a blowhard?  Nearly anyone can learn obscure facts!  It is not going to impress anyone!

Even if you are in my field and understand these facts, you are likely to be unswayed by my use of these “facts” unless I have tied them into an engaging story that makes it clear why they are relevant to what I’m proposing to do.

A successful grant proposal is every bit as much about what you leave out as what you include!

The bottom line

Do not bore your readers with endless facts. Know when to leave them out. If you have an essential fact that you must convey, make it obvious why you have included it.

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