Have you ever received a proposal rejection where the approach section was picked apart by your reviewers? It’s pretty common – but is it the real reason for your rejection? More often than not, it’s the story (or lack thereof) that leaves your reviewers with questions or concerns. 

You might be wondering what “story” has to do with a grant proposal, and if you are, you’re not alone. Most of us were trained to separate academic writing from other “creative” writing pursuits, such as story-telling. But even if you aren’t making up characters and plot lines, your ideas, facts, and data are put together in a framework that leads the reader from one point to the next – and this is what we mean by a “grant story”. Weave your facts, data, and projects into a clear and compelling story, and you’ll likely find that your reviewers are more engaged, interested, and ready to support you.

And that’s what brings us to the significance section today – this is one of the key parts of the proposal where you tell your story. The approach section covers details – technical details that don’t matter unless you’ve already got your reviewer on board with your story.

I was recently giving feedback to a client in our intensive Grant Foundry program, on their significance section. In the significance section, we like to see a story being told, following the framework previously set up in the specific aims. This is where we encourage clients to expand on ‘what’s missing in the paradigm’ or the gaps in the field- so that they’ve primed their audience for the introduction of the solution to those gaps!

When I was giving feedback to this client, their significance section looked great at first – they had clearly identified what was missing in the field while properly using subheadings to highlight the main takeaways from each part of their story. However, something still felt off. And it was hard to identify what was off, because on the surface, they had written a very compelling story based on their specific aims, which we had also worked on together. 

I read it over a few more times and started to wonder – was I missing something? Did I misinterpret a certain concept? Why wasn’t this sitting right with me when there was nothing obvious that I could point out as being “wrong”? 

I was starting to second-guess my feedback here – so I reached out to Morgan so we could discuss this significance section in more detail. Morgan agreed that it looked great after a first read-through, but when I started asking her more specific questions, we both began to identify what was going on. 

I asked if she thought that this clients’ personal and team qualifications were being woven throughout the story appropriately rather than just being touched on at the end. When reading a proposal, every reviewer, consciously or unconsciously,  is looking for evidence of whether the people proposing the work are likely to be able to complete it successfully. Are they competent authorities in their field? Do they have good support? And is this project worthy of the limited funding available? These are all issues of TRUST, and building trust in your personal and team qualifications is one of your critical jobs as a proposal writer. 

As soon as I asked this question, Morgan began to see where I was getting this “off” feeling from. This client was discussing the background information and story in a very detached fashion – almost as if they were giving a college lecture on the topic rather than describing what they’d been working on and their plans moving forward. On the surface, this made for an easy to follow story that addressed the gaps in the field – but this way of writing worked against trust building – trust that the team involved was the right team to do this work. And it left the reader with a detached sense of unexcitement about the significance of this work. 

This call with Morgan illustrated a very point that I mentioned at the start – many times, we’ll have clients come to us with a rejected proposal and the reviewers picked on all kinds of things in the approach section. Naturally, the client thinks it’s something in the approach that needs fixing. But more often than not, the reviewer might have been left with a somewhat vague feeling of distrust that they just couldn’t put their finger on, and then looked for reasons to reject the proposal – usually in the approach section (because it’s the easiest to pick on). 

So if you find yourself on the receiving end of a rejection and your reviewers seem to disagree with your approach, look towards the significance section and ask yourself what’s going on beneath the surface. Are you telling a compelling story that creates both desire and trust while addressing the gaps in the field? Or is your very story creating gaps for your reader? It’s probably the story, and not the science, that’s causing issues.

By Aubrey Phares

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