teaching, tips, and other sundry things I've learned along the way
I am often struck by the similarities between selling methods and grant writing. Of course, grant writing is selling, but scientists don’t usually think of themselves as salesmen. I recently read a blog post about the PASTOR method, which was conceived by a well-known copywriter named Ray Edwards. This framework is used to write better specific aims, I mean sales copy. Besides being an acronym, Edwards says that the word should engender a loving, caring, protective attitude towards your customer/reviewer. Now that you’ve picked yourself off the floor following your laughing fit, give that attitude some thought as we go through the acronym.
P is for problem
All grants have a problem they are trying to solve. However, the problem must be one the reviewer cares about. For example, you could be selling the best tennis shoes in the world, but if the customer is looking for loafers you’re barking up the wrong study section. Excuse me for mixing metaphors, but you need to make sure that your problem is of interest to the study section you’ve picked. If you’re not sure, use NIHReporter to see what grants your target study section has funded. If you’re in the right study section, make sure that your problem is of interest to the field. Edwards quotes another copywriter Robert Collier who said that you have to “join the conversation that is already taking place in the reader’s mind.” Get reviewers engaged by agreeing that your problem is one of urgency that needs solving.
A is for amplify
Next, Edwards advises that we amplify the consequences of not solving the problem. Here’s where you create urgency through information such as cost, lives lost, etc. Even though a reviewer will likely be aware of the problem in general terms, he/she may not be aware of details that make this problem compelling. Urgency also addresses the questions “why this grant, why now?” Each field has lots of problems. Show your reviewer why your problem needs solved now.
S is for story and solution
You’ve described the problem, brought the reviewer to the brink of despair with the urgency of the situation, and now it’s time for you to swoop in like Luke Skywalker and blow up the Death Star. While your solution may not be as dramatic, now is the time for you to present your solution to the problem. Edwards advises us to explain the solution as a story, like how Uncle Joe, while desperately trying to stop his early onset alopecia, mixed plant food and mayonnaise to generate world’s best hair tonic. Of course, space is limited on the aims page so we need to be strategic about the story. In my opinion, your story should introduce the key preliminary data that supports your hypothesis and that makes the aims understandable. Although space is limited, make sure that you introduce all “characters” needed to make your aims understandable. Avoid rogue characters! (for those that missed my blog on this, see resources)
T is for transformation and testimony (and trust)
People usually buy things because they think the item in question will make them happy at some level – whether it is a brief escape with a good novel or movie, or a fitness program that will help them look and feel better. For example, I recently purchased driving lessons for my son. The “happiness” I’m seeking is that my son be a safe driver and not kill himself or anyone else. In considering this program, I noted that the lessons are given by former police officers, which I felt gave the program credibility. When I stumbled across a review from a friend of mine who used this school for all 3 of his kids, I was sold. In the world of grantsmanship, these “T”s are scored as environment, investigator, and significance - none of which actually start with T. Supported by resources, biosketch, co-investigators/collaborators, letter of support, and the rigor of your preliminary data (NIH emphasis), this information builds trust that you can get the job done.
O is for offer
In the world of sales, O is the offer of what you are selling. In the world of grants, you are selling your aims or approach. Edwards advises that 80% of the copy be spent on transformation and 20% on the deliverable. In the world of grants, you want to be sure to spend sufficient time on the problem. Defining a clear solution is, of course, important but a common mistake is to jump to the solution (everyone loves their own work, right?) before the problem is sufficiently developed. Make sure to take the time/space to create that sense of priority and urgency.
R is for response
Here’s where you ask the customer to buy. In the world of grants, you’re asking the reviewer to fund your grant. Of course, in the world of grants direct pleas to reviewers are a no no. However, part of his advice is applicable when he says we should not shy away from strong language when outlining the options of buying vs remaining stagnant. In writing your “copy”, your word choice will determine whether you come across as apologetic, uncertain, or overly confident. Words like perhaps, maybe, hopefully, probably, can come across as weak if used too often or in the wrong place. For example, the last paragraph of the specific aims page typically describes the pay off, or what the government will get for its money, if your hypothesis is true and your aims are completed successfully. This is not a time to be wishy washy or vague.
What not to say…
This proposal, if completed successfully, may lead to the development of new therapeutics in the field of cardiovascular disease.
Successful completion of this proposal will result in defining how protein X alters metabolism of lipids, which contributes to cardiovascular disease. Determining protein X’s mechanism of action is the next step in developing novel approaches to treating atherosclerosis.
Taking out the word “if”, using “will” instead of “may” and being more specific about the successful outcome of the proposal leads to a stronger impact statement.
One way to write in a more confident tone is to “get in the mood” before you write. What I mean by this is get excited about your work. Think about what’s cool about your project, the novel things you’re finding out that no one knows (yet) and how your work might have an impact. Put on some inspiring music. Pump your fists. Get fired up! Getting in a confident, excited mood will make subtle shifts in your word choices that will come across on the page. If you’re not excited about your work, no one else will be.
Did you see yourself lovingly caring for your reviewer? Probably not. However, if you care for your reviewer by writing with clarity and breaking up rows of text with an occasional space or two, your reviewer just might buy what you’re selling.