A few days ago, I got this email:
The very same day, I got an email from someone else, which I’ve excerpted parts of here
“I been a virtual attendee for a number of your past webinars, and have appreciated the insights you’ve shared. I have been looking for success in a new research area, and it has been elusive because it is novel, innovative and pushes the envelope…
“So, I did the best I could to incorporate your themes and messages and recently was awarded pilot study money for 2 years to pursue the idea and data to use for a larger RO1. It hit on the first review …
“This time, I decided to do as you suggest and tell a story, sell the idea, and give just enough details to support the story. With only 6 pages there is room for little more. I left most of the technical details out …
“There was a lot of focus on feasibility and proof that the study could be conducted….
“I tried to speak to the needs that would likely resonate with the council deciding on which submissions to fund.
“I wanted to tell you about this success and my believe[sic] that all of the above made a difference in getting a good score. Thank you for the imparted wisdom. I had to argue with co-investigators who really wanted to include a lot of details (weeds) like in prior submissions that had not been funded. Why sing the same song that people didn’t like before? I plan to use this same approach the next time as well.
“Again, I appreciate your mentorship”
Getting emails like that makes my day, and two in one day was fantastic! So, apart from celebrating and congratulating these two, I want to dive into two of the most essential things that made these successes possible – so that next time it’s you writing me with your success.
Rule #1: Be the kind of person who deserves the success you are seeking.
I know it sounds like some kind of easy platitude that could be served up by any number of self-help books, but it applies directly to what the client above did to get funding. When she came to me, she was not mentally ready to have a big grant like this. She did not believe in herself to the degree that she was compatible with a 3 million dollar grant.
I’ll admit something I don’t think I’ve ever shared before. I got my first NIH R01 grant funded because when I wrote that grant, I felt like I (and the work) deserved the funding. I felt that to my core. With all my previous rejected grants, I hadn’t felt it. I wasn’t ready up until then. When I was ready, the grant money came, but not a moment sooner.
Perhaps a metaphor will help. Think of yourself as a one gallon container. Now, if you want water to fill you up, that’s great. You can handle up to one gallon at a time. Now let’s say you open up the “floodgates of the Nile” and try to fit them all into that one gallon capacity that you have. What’s going to happen? A lot of spillover – or worse – a rupture. If you want to capture the Nile river – or even a minor stream – you’ll need much more than a one gallon container. You have to expand the container first, otherwise all your water-seeking efforts will be in vain as soon as you’ve exceeded your current capacity.
Money is like water. It flows incessantly from place to place, and it resists being bottled up. So, in order to capture some of it, you have to have a very good container (and even then, it leaks out, no matter what you do). Most people seeking grant money have insufficient containers. This is why so many people struggle in ever getting those bigger grants. They focus all their time and energy on writing more grants – or, one step better, writing better grants – but almost never on the best step of all: being a better receptacle for the grant money.
With the client who sent the first email, we’ve only spent about 15% of our time working together on looking at her actual grants (and I didn’t even see this grant she got funded, even once). No, we spent the other 85% of the time and effort focusing on making her a better container for the grant money that would eventually come. And with just six months of dedicated focus on that, she now finds her whole career turned around as a result of becoming a person worthy of funding.
If you focus on the internal game of making yourself ready – being the best, most deserving, most capable recipient of funding (and I’m not talking about inflated ego here) – then the rest of the “grant getting game” becomes easy. If instead you focus only on the external game of writing more and/or better grants, your progress will be very limited.
Rule #2: By God, tell a story!
I can’t seem to say that enough times, because people may nod their heads in agreement at seminars, and yet when it comes to actually doing it, only a fraction of people actually end up telling a good story in their grant. (And those are the ones who are usually at the top of the funding priority list).
This was illustrated clearly in the second email I received. This fellow had finally eradicated the old way of doing things – which was to dive deep into factual detail – and had instead tried what I recommended: write a good story.
Now, if you’re thinking: “hey, this is a grant, it’s not a SciFi novel, so I can’t be telling stories!” I’ve got some feedback for you. That feedback is this: “Your grant is science fiction because it’s about something that hasn’t happened yet! So, given that it’s SciFi, it better be damned good Sci Fi, rather than boring Sci Fi.”
Of course, when it comes to providing details about what you’ve done or what you plan to do, you need to be transparent and truthful. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell that truth with the utmost intrigue and flourish – rather than the way most people do it, which is telling the story in terms of the boring minutiae.
Think about this: have you ever had a friend or relative tell you an entertaining and true story of some event that happened? Or a stand-up comedian? Do they give you lots and lots (and lots) of detail about every little thing that happened before and during the event in question? Or did they make it entertaining by highlighting the things they knew would be most interesting and entertaining to the audience?
Aha, so there you have it… if you’ve ever listened to someone tell a tedious story that went on and on and on until you were ready to find an excuse for a medical emergency to get away … well, that’s what you’re doing to your reviewer if you are feeling that you need to cover all the gory details with no attention to what’s actually interesting to your reader, or how that flows as a story. Our second success story “got this” – and that’s why his grant was funded.
If you do these two things – work on becoming a better container, and doing a better job of telling your story – there is nothing that can stop you from getting grants funded – not even in this tough funding climate.