How to make your grant proposal more persuasive (and more competitive)

Getting grant funding is harder than winning on Shark Tank.

I'll be honest with you: the only show I watch (ok, stream) religiously is The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. It's probably bad for my mental health to watch an hour of in-depth news analysis every day when the world is on fire, but I need to know when it's time to flee to my bunker to escape the apocalypse, ok?

But look: a lot of people are at least glancingly familiar with the concept of Shark Tank (or Dragon’s Den in Canada, where I’m from) :

"Budding entrepreneurs get the chance to bring their dreams to fruition in this reality show. They present their ideas to the sharks in the tank -- five titans of industry who made their own dreams a reality and turned their ideas into lucrative empires. The contestants try to convince any one of the sharks to invest money in their idea." 

Replace “entrepreneurs” with “researchers” and “titans of industry” with “titans of science” (or, more accurately, “exhausted and overworked volunteers”) and you’ve basically described any study section meeting to review a pile of R01s.

With one very important difference.

On Shark Tank you get to defend your ideas in person. You have a chance to answer questions from the sharks and clarify anything you might have skipped over in your pitch.

In a grant proposal? No way. You have to get it all down on paper. You get one shot.

Which means that convincing the panel of judges is way harder.

So how do you convince the judges when you can’t follow up to clarify?

How do you know what their questions will be?

You need to anticipate and address their questions in the written proposal.

That’s it. Easier said than done, but that’s what you need to do. Anticipating and addressing objections is one of the smartest things you can do when you're writing your grant application.

Here are three ways you can improve the persuasiveness of your proposal:

  1. Imagine that you're having a conversation with your reviewers

    Imagine that you’re presenting your proposal in person. Where would they find flaws in your proposal? What would they disagree with, and why? At what points would they interrupt you to ask for more information?

  2. Make your reviewers care about the problem you’re trying to solve

    A great grant proposal, just like a great idea on Shark Tank, solves a problem. So what's the problem you're trying to solve? Does it matter to the people who are reading your proposal? (The answer to that should be an emphatic YES, btw)

  3. Explain how things will improve once the problem is solved

    If you think about the problem as a barrier to progress, what happens when the barrier is removed? What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?

Give those a try on your next grant application and let me know how it goes!

Hey! writing your R01 application doesn't have to feel like such a slog.

I made you a 90-Day NIH R01 Planning Blueprint to take some of the stress out of writing your next R01 application. Sign up to map out exactly what to do to write an outstanding proposal—and when to do it.