Preparing grant applications can be a daunting task requiring a lot of time and effort on the writer’s part.
Having come out of three major funding applications prepared and submitted to government in the past three months (Regional Research Institute proposal, Research Partnerships proposal and Endeavour Research Programmes proposal), it’s safe to say – HERA should know!
So why put ourselves through it? Well of course, behind every good R&D program is the need for investment, and put simply – government funding is a means to secure this, while simultaneously injecting confidence in stakeholders to take on associated risks.
Often viewed as nightmare process – it has to be said that there is a flip side to it all! I’ve found it can also be quite rewarding, and a sense of accomplishment after making a major effort to submit a funding application,particularly when you learn you’ve made the first-cut selection as we recently did for the Regional Institute model!
For many of our membership, they will be involved in writing in one form or another for their businesses, whether it be for a grant submission, contract tender bid, report or maybe just an insight piece like this one! The frustrations and challenges while varied in intensity are inevitably just the same for everyone – and knowing the loop holes to avoid and the triggers of interest for readers is key.
That’s why we’re sharing what we’ve learned from our experiences over the past few months, so you can hit the ground running.
What’s your story?
Remember how you used to love it when your parents read you bed time stories when you were little? Well, turns out so do adults! ‘Once upon a time…’ and before you know it, the reader has drifted into a mystical land of fairies and ogres.
Coming closer to land and our reality, we are all fascinated by a motive, a plot, an outcome and how it is all interwoven together. Weave your story for your reader! Where are the opportunities? Where are the benefits? Who will benefit and when?
As engineers we often have a nasty habit of being distracted by the technical detail, speaking a lot of what we do, but not to the why or value of our actions. For assessment panels who know nothing about our programs this should be our opportunity to capture their imagination and make them want to find out more… not squander the chance away with lists of tests, fancy equations and words they don’t understand.
In the case of our Endeavour application, we moved away from a complicated looking science programme in Above Ground Geothermal and Allied Technologies (AGGAT), instead choosing to focus on how our heavy engineering industry needs and the future of clean energy fit together – connecting them in the context of emerging energy technologies which our programme centres around.
Know your audience.
I kind of just touched upon this – but put simply, there’s no point talking numbers to an artist with an imagination, or dreaming up a vision to a realist without acknowledging what is at hand.
It always pays to know who you are writing to and addressing their point of view through your argument. Government applications are often supplemented with application guidelines which can be quite insightful about reviewer expectations. In our recent funding applications this was exactly who our audience was, so striking a balance between technical knowledge within the context of application and impact was important if we wanted to successfully engage with them.
Ensuring this messaging stays strong throughout your document and isn’t lost between waffle is important, and the sooner you’re able to grasp that the reader may not know everything on what you’re writing about, means you can more effectively reach them by learning to keep it simple for anyone to understand.
Know your objective.
If you can’t explain it in simple terms, you don’t understand it well enough yourself.
Nothing captures attention more than certainty in knowing what you’re doing – and the more in tune you are with your motivation and purpose for doing what you’re doing, the stronger that confidence will project in your writing. A clear ‘line of sight’ from objective to accomplishment is always well appreciated, and in our case, was a key requirement in the proposals we recently prepared as well.
Leverage your capabilities.
If you don’t talk yourself up, who will? You owe it to your readers (and yourself) to give them a clear understanding (note: not an exaggerated one!) on what you can do – it is near fatal to assume that the reader knows what your capabilities are.
In this context, we make every effort to maintain an up to date capability register for our member companies, showcasing these at every opportunity we have and marketing our member capabilities for their worth, and within our applications we ensured we honed in to our in-house research engineer expertise – capabilities we know are most likely not available elsewhere!
In other words, leverage your ‘unique selling proposition’ and stamp it with your signature!
Word it well.
This is similar to building your reader up to your story plot, and can probably be the most challenging part of any writing – requiring you to hold a number of your story characters and line developments in your head at the same time to create a meaningful plot. We get you, been there!
This is where the number of drafts and revisions can quickly escalate, and in some cases you may be going back to one of your previous drafts to recover information which suddenly has become valuable.
In this case, positive language should always be encouraged, as should simple structuring of content – and when all else fails, nothing beats having a fresh set of eyes to look over it. You’d be surprised what improvement can come your way to word it better when you ask your colleague (or your partner) for their feedback.
Put a number on it.
Facts and figures make you sound believable. Numbers are good like that – provided they are real or as close to real estimates as possible!
For us quantifying benefits by forecasting into the future was not an easy task, as we’d got into a comfortable habit of selling the dream, rather than the potential reality. However, a concerted effort to carefully back up statements with calculations and common sense checks helped us put a lot of confidence into our claims and our key stakeholders as well – something we are now starting to see the benefits of.
Can you picture this?
Two words: visual animals. For our readers while plain text was the stay of the day, increasingly we are seeing that a carefully planned info-graphic can help not only provide a meaningful break in black and white text patterns, but overcome word count limitations by putting a lot of the information into a picture as well.
The old adage is true – a picture is indeed worth if not a thousand, definitely plenty of words, and conveys a message more clearly and directly than words ever will.
This is the truest sign to indicate that you mean what you are saying, and the surest way to build trust and loyalty with your reader.
In a complex application scenario it can be very easy to lose focus and digress into trivial explanations and a loop hole that you would do well to avoid. Bringing it back and all together while keeping a holistic view at all times was one of our key challenges to overcome in this process, but we found that having multiple reviewers (including professional ones) significantly helped keep our proposal story ‘tight’.
Lastly, and most importantly… take a break, and celebrate!
If you’ve just finished a mammoth writing task which likely required your undue focus for days, weeks, or even months, it’s important you acknowledge your accomplishment and take a break to recover well.
Regardless of the outcome, completing an application to a standard and tight deadline is an achievement which you should celebrate with your friends and colleagues while you play the waiting game on whether you were successful or not.
Funding applications got you flustered?
The above points from our Industry Development Manager Dr. Boaz Habib may not be a silver bullet for success in writing winning funding proposals or a best-selling script, but are important learnings he thinks will help a writer become more substantiated in his or her thinking.
Because in our domain, this means that the more well-founded you are, the greater is your likelihood of being well-funded!