Christine Black goes back to the fundamentals, finding grantwriting tips from ancient Greece
For any competitive grant proposal, there are always lots of ingredients. These include brilliant ideas, timely need for the work, a tight match with the funder’s priorities, experienced personnel and the right plans to achieve the outcomes.
But all these factors are at the mercy of a clear, succinct and compelling writing style. It is tempting to think of grant proposals as mainly descriptive, but they are in essence examples of persuasive writing, focused on convincing a specific audience to support a new and unproven idea.
Accordingly, any proposal writer looking for guidance might want to look back to the earliest days of academia and muse on Aristotle’s three pillars of persuasion: logos, ethos and pathos.
Logos means appealing to your reviewers’ rationality. Logic is at the heart of persuading reviewers that, of all the applications vying for funding, your proposal will fill a critical gap in knowledge that will lead to significant impact. Data, evidence and previous work must underpin your arguments.
For example, in the health sciences you might argue for the imminent need for a project within its broader field by pointing out how little research has been done on a topic with a high burden of disease. Or you might make the case for using methods that are unusual, untested or innovative by showing how they have been used in another setting.
All the citations in your proposal should be recent and relevant. It is easy to make a proposal too data-heavy, so you need to be selective. Use the friendly eyes of other experts to identify places in the proposal where the reviewers may misunderstand, misconstrue, doubt or (heaven forbid) laugh at aspects of your proposal. Outcomes, impacts, methods and assumptions are all places where you need more logos.
Ethos is the element of persuasion that convinces reviewers of your character and credibility—the art of gaining their confidence that your team can do the work. You can do this in various ways by pointing towards your experience, training and skills. Clearly, your publication record is important, but so is evidence of relationships with collaborators, your familiarity with the methods, and the institutional resources you have available.
Some of this information will be included in your CV and the description of key roles in the research project. But it can be woven into almost every part of the application. For instance, you can point to previous work where you perfected a particular process, or results that have been incorporated in the work of specialists. There is no such thing as humility in a grant application.
For human interventions, use language to show how important your outcomes, treatment or training have been in the past. A testimonial from a client or a shortened anonymous case history can highlight the need for the work. Here are a couple of examples from successful proposals:
- “The school principal ranked the mathematics programme as the most successful he had seen: ‘I was convinced this group of students would never be able to apply or complete the calculations, and I was amazed when I witnessed their progress.’”
- “A 33-year-old patient was the first to use the procedure, and she attested that she slept through the night for the first time in 10 years.”
Emotional appeal—pathos—is the most sparsely used of the three pillars of persuasion in grant applications. But a degree of salesmanship and passion for the work is crucial. Reviewers like to get excited about what they are reading, so the goal is to transfer your conviction and enthusiasm to them.
One of the ways you can use emotive language is to help underpin the need for your work. You might use a testimonial from a stakeholder or a participant of the intended population speaking in emotional terms. For example, if you were demonstrating the lack of trust some residents have in the health system, you could include a quote from an elderly participant:
- “We worry about what those research folks at the top of the hill are up to now.”
Additionally, emotive language can excite the reader about the future application of your work. For instance:
- “The adoption of our simple technology will speed up the process significantly, perhaps as much as 100 per cent.”
Similarly, you can help the reviewer visualise the future:
- “Someday all citizens will be able to securely vote from their personal devices.”
Use wording such as ‘innovative’, ‘impact’, ‘great potential’, ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘transformative’ to excite the reader, so long as you avoid outlandish claims and back everything up. But be sure to use emotional language in a research proposal like red chillies—enough to get the reviewers’ attention, but not enough be repellent. The purpose is to spark their compassion or imagination.
In summary, while you want to keep the emphasis on logos (this makes sense!) and well-substantiated arguments, to really make an application sparkle you also need to use some marketing strategies based on both ethos (we are great at this work!) and pathos (we will make the world a better place!)
Christine Black is a grant-proposal writing specialist at the University of Michigan in the United States.