You and your reviewer have very different perspectives. If you don’t understand the difference and take great care to ameliorate it, you will have far less chance of success. You’ll likely go down like a bird in a hailstorm….

Your perspective

For our purposes, a perspective can be defined as a “set of beliefs or ‘truths'” that you have active at that specific time and place.

When you place yourself in a different context, generally, a different perspective takes over and replaces the previous one. While they may have some overlap, they generally have important differences.

One person, many perspectives

Each of us can and do hold many perspectives at different times and places. Many people associate different perspectives with different “moods.” However, a mood/feeling/emotion is a product of a series of thoughts that are being thought at that moment1. So if you’re feeling “blue” and you examine the series of thoughts and beliefs that are active, you’ll find that they are the source. They often become self-reinforcing, with a certain mood then prompting further thoughts that match the mood – and so the cycle persists.

If you take a different perspective, then it is possible that your mood may shift quite rapidly, because you emotions are a product of thoughts, and you’ve shifted the series of thoughts.

No bones about it: you’re dealing with mood in your reviewer!

When you are trying to persuade reviewers to support your proposal, the most important “readout” of whether you’ve done the job is the mood that you produce.

If you produce enthusiasm, you’re at least 80% of the way to success.

If you produce frustration, worry, concern, or doubt, you’re -80% of the way to success.

Most writers produce these emotions “by accident” or by very long-term trial and error experience. It often seems oh so mysterious. But it doesn’t have to be.

De-mystifying your reviewers’ emotions

As discussed, your reviewers emotions are a product of their perspective. In order to understand what emotions your proposal produces, we have to follow the chain of thinking from the starting point to the ending point.

In other words, your proposal takes the reviewer on a journey from perspective A to perspective B. Which journey you take her on will determine whether there’s the holy grail of excitement at the end, or its opposite.

Where Your Reviewers Journey Starts

While all reviewers are different to some extent, we know from experience that there are certain things in common with most of them. They are:

  • The reviewer is busy, and has more to do than they could possibly get done
  • The reviewer is skeptical/cynical, because that’s what reviewers are expected to do
  • The reviewer is often tired and/or overwhelmed
  • The reviewer is often bored after reading through a seemingly endless pile of proposals
  • The reviewer is often looking for the one “gem” in the pile that they can advocate for, while looking for good reasons to reject all the rest
  • The reviewer takes her responsibility to the funding institution seriously, and wants to give a good review
  • The reviewer doesn’t want to be embarrassed by “letting something slip by” that they should have caught, so their guard is up
  • The reviewer wants to look good in front of his peers on study section, rather than looking like a dufus (because those peers may be reviewing his proposal in the future!)

We can sum this up to your reviewer having a perspective that combines caution with boredom, skepticism, and a gnawing sense of overwhelm.

The Time Bomb of Your Reviewer

The essential thing we must ask is what happens when your reviewer’s perspective encounters your proposal? It can either diffuse the “ticking time bomb” that exists with the above set-up, or more often, it runs into one of the hidden “hair triggers” and causes the “bomb to explode:” in other words, causes the reviewer’s mood to sour and to have her looking for reasons to reject.

Once you’ve tripped that hair trigger, it’s game over. That’s because the journey for the reviewer becomes about getting to destination reject, even before she reads the rest of the proposal. The journey is about looking for reasons to justify the bad mood that’s been tripped by your proposal.

While a reviewer will almost never say that your proposal put her into a bad mood (because that might look bad in front of peers and funders), she will say the same thing in the “rational” critiques she makes of your proposal.

You started her journey off on the wrong foot, and she ended up at the worst possible destination for you.

Let’s avoid that, shall we?

This is Called the Frame Clash

A frame is a perspective. And the typical proposal provokes the short trip to destination reject, because its frame clashes with the reviewers frame – often at multiple points.

Therefore, one of the essences of being more successful with proposals is to ameliorate or avoid the frame clash that leads the reviewer to destination reject.

How can you do that? There are multiple layers to the problem, but let’s start by covering the first and foremost frame clash. To do that, let’s look at the typical proposal writer’s frame.

Your Frame: “gimme money, ’cause I need it real bad!”

These days, many writers are in a situation where they feel an almost desperate need/worry about the funding situation. Whether they’re writing a proposal to fix that situation, or because a supervisor/chair is admonishing to “submit more grants,” there is a strong sense of “I need this funding” that goes into the perspective of the writer. On top of that, there are these additional ones often present:

  • I don’t want rejection, because it can be embarrassing and/or painful
  • Grant writing is a pain in the ass, I wish I didn’t have to do it so much
  • I don’t know what my reviewer really wants, and this is frustrating
  • I am behind schedule on this, I have too much to do!
  • Grants are a lottery, so the quality doesn’t really matter
  • I have to prove that I’m smart and capable by using “science speak” (i.e. technical, dense, boring writing)
  • etc

What Happens When These Frames Collide?

It’s not pretty. Take a bored, skeptical reviewer who wants to look good, and give them a proposal that starts out boring, technical, and with a hint of “needy,” and you have the perfect recipe for leading to destination reject.

In other words, when frames collide, you the proposal writer, loses. Every. Single. Time.

Multiple Layers of Frame Clash

This is just the most obvious and top-level of the possible frame-clashes you may have with your reviewer. There are further clashes that generally arise over your choice of technology, approach, the importance of the problem, and more.

Any time you produce a clash, it’s like putting a big boulder on train tracks. You are likely to cause an ugly derailment. Now, the further you get into your proposal without producing such a clash, the more momentum you get going in your favor. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still derail things into destination reject, it just means that it’s harder to do.

That’s why I de-emphasize the importance of an Approach section compared to the Significance section of an NIH proposal. By the time your reviewer gets to the Approach section, you’ve already generated lots of momentum one way or the other. And so what you write there is less likely to have a major effect than what you write near the beginning of the journey.

Five tips to avoid the first-layer frame clash

This first-layer clash is generally the biggest and most deadly to your chances. The good news is that it’s also one of the easiest ones to fix. Here are five things you can do, starting right away, to reduce the chances of a top-level frame clash from occurring:

  1. Tell an interesting story. Great science is not enough when many of the other proposals in the stack also have great science. There must be a great story behind that great science. A great story has a “villain” (the problem) and the “hero” (your approach), and illustrates the clash between the two that necessitates the hero. Think about it this way: would anyone know the name “Luke Skywalker” (hero) from the movie Star Wars, if there hadn’t been a Darth Vader (villain)? Without the villain, Luke would have been just an annoying young man working on a farm on a remote planet. A great story always has one or more great villains. In the case of science, the villains are generally the gaps, problems, and frustrations of your field, rather than specific people.
  2. Make it relevant to your community. Most writers start from the perspective that “my approach is exciting and my research is important!” Your reviewer starts from the perspective that “my approach is exciting and my research is important! (but not so much for most of my colleagues). The only way to avoid this clash is by you shifting around your perspective to that of your reviewer, and making your story interesting to him! To do this, you must learn what interests your community, and tell your story from that perspective.
  3. Show don’t tell. Many writers hear that they’ve got to be “innovative” and so they plaster the word “innovative” (often with underlines or boldface) all over their proposal. That is called the “tell” approach. From the naive writer’s perspective, if you tell the reviewer something like this, they will accept it at face value. But in reality, they never do, and that’s because of the frame clash. Their dominant frame is one of skepticism. When a skeptical frame meets adjectives like “innovative, better, great, powerful…” such words are dismissed outright. And worse, often it just increases the skepticism in the process. The only way to avoid this is by flying under the radar. You have to show the reviewer that you are innovative in subtle but clear ways, without telling her directly. Think about it this way: if I tell you I can levitate, the likelihood that you’ll believe me is almost zero. But if I show you that I can levitate, the likelihood of belief is much higher.
  4. Keep it simple but not boring. You’re used to being an expert in the work that you do. Nobody else has precisely that same expertise, yet the typical writer’s frame is one of assuming that others have the same set of knowledge already. This leads to writing in a way that is overly technical and dense from the start, overwhelming your reviewer with terms and increasing their sense of frustration. On top of this, most writers are trying to “prove” that they’re smart – because our training system expects us to “prove” it with experiences like PhD dissertation defenses. So the typical writer thinks they must do the same. However, in a grant proposal, this just leads to a furtherance of the momentum towards destination reject, because it causes too-technical writing, sometimes along with some chest-pounding self congratulations too.
  5. Problem before solution. Most writers are excited to share their “great ideas” and so rush into the description (sometimes after a short, boring literature review). However, nobody wants your solution. Your reviewer certainly doesn’t… at least not from their initial perspective of skepticism and boredom. No, as the writer, it is your responsibility to first build the desire for your solution, before you present your whizbang solution. If you present a solution before desire has been built, you are sending the train towards destination reject. To build desire, you have to figure out what problems plague your community, and to tell your story about those, leading step-by-step to the desire for a solution, and only then presenting yours.

While those steps may sound simple, in practice there are many nuances that make their implementation often quite difficult in practice. If you want more information on framing and other help with grant writing, email us at [email protected].

  1. except when a biochemical issue is involved

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