Killed it! The role of high-quality prose in grant and awards applications

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

It can be challenging to bring your work to life with words. If your work is technical in nature, or you provide an ancillary service that works behind the scenes to keep businesses running smoothly, this is especially true. Your impact can also be hard to measure when you deal in ideas rather than products. As far as my own work goes, content marketing is often about getting a conversation started rather than closing a deal. And how do you measure value when you help an executive graciously break off a business relationship while preserving a friendship?

As challenging as it may be, people in academia and technical fields benefit greatly when they’re able to bring their work to life for a broader audience. But the use of stories and clear, relatable language also works wonders with those technical audiences.

Yesterday was one of those days when I really witnessed the tangible impact of my work. It was the culmination of a two-month application process I helped a client with, and it lead immediately to a follow-up assignment. (Stoked!)

Yeah I’m wearing a laurel wreath on my victorious head. So what?

I’m not here just to brag, although pretending this isn’t a bit of a brag would be inauthentic. I’m here to share some thoughts on how to make yourself memorable and successful in a competitive environment.

Here’s the rundown.

Good prose can be the secret sauce where few people think to use it.

A development consultant I know contacted me months ago about two Department of Energy (DOE) awards she was applying to. I ended up writing about 40 percent of these long and detailed award applications on behalf of her firm. I extensively copyedited, fact-checked and line-edited the other 60 percent. I inserted hyperlinks and references and used writing techniques to make it as engaging and clear as possible.

None of these things, however, would likely have made a difference between earning the reward and an honorable mention. The secret sauce was something beyond the requirements, but within the scope of, the application:

STORIES

By stories I’m not talking about anything epic. I’m talking about relaying real-life conversations with people about their experiences, their aspirations, things which please and displease them. I’m also talking about using flair (not gimmicks, mind you) to differentiate my clients.

Key point #1:

In a pile of impressive yet dry applications, a little flair goes a long way. Give the reviewers a break. Tell them a story or two. They’ll remember you better.

For this project I had several conversations with stakeholders and used them to help the reader visualize and internalize the project. For instance, I interviewed a couple from Nebraska who are avid gardeners. They’re residents of the housing development that was the focus of the DOE application. They spoke of the joy of returning home after a day at work, of the daylighting, the vaulted ceilings, openness and warmth of a well-designed house.

The couple generates more electricity from their rooftop solar than they use each month. In fact, the check they get from the electrical utility (which pays them for the power they contribute to the grid while everyone else is burning it) is usually greater than their water bill.

I also interviewed the builder about his background and vision, about the challenges and surprises he’s faced along the way. In many ways, the project had been an uphill battle. The previous developer had gone bankrupt and there were both technical challenges and negative public perceptions to tackle. It’s impressive in light of that how coveted and admired these properties are today.

Stories are nice, but shouldn’t the facts speak for themselves?

Ultimately, impact is what matters. You can’t just be a great communicator and expect to win recognition you don’t deserve. My client deserved it. However proud I am of my role in the success of this project I can only claim a small part in it.

The hard facts were impressive. The housing development, through a combination of energy-efficient design and on-site energy-generating technology, is almost carbon-neutral. But talking about BTUs and rooftop solar capacity, while interesting, isn’t memorable. Hearing people talk about their backgrounds and values and experiences—what lights them up (not just their homes)—is memorable.

“That story got me rollin’ man!”

Key point #2:

However impressive it may be, data is difficult to remember. A good story, however, is difficult to forget. Lead with a story describing what you do at a micro scale where people can imagine themselves standing next to the main characters. Then zoom out to discuss the big picture.

Do I believe that an exceptionally well-written application made the difference between my client receiving the awards and merely an honorable mention? While I have no way of knowing, consider this:

  • The DOE noted that “this year was competitive with stronger applications and more limited number of awards than any prior year.”
  • The sector that this reward pertains to—high-performance buildings—is growing exponentially.
  • The application requires attention to dry, technical information. While the reviewers are well-versed on the topics, they’re human and need to switch gears mentally.

Key point #3:

Even the most technically-minded people are humans. They value clarity, relate to other people and often make decisions based on emotion.

People dealing with a large influx of information (e.g., award or grand applications) aren’t automatons. They don’t like having to re-read complex or unclear sentences. They appreciate having hyperlinks in the text for ease of reference, and they appreciate details that make things tangible and interesting. And however we revere objectivity in certain contexts, we make decisions based on emotion. We like to think we lead with intellect and maybe emotion is a tie breaker. Nope. That’s not what the science says and the notion is also contradicted by almost every successful business pitch presentation.

That’s why storytelling is an effective tool, not only in marketing, but in things like grant applications where people tend to default to technically detailed or dry modes of communication.

  • If your application is difficult to comprehend (it’s too complex, too choppy or has other syntax- and grammar-related quirks), it will probably fall directly into the trash.
  • If your writing is objectively good but isn’t subjectively memorable, you risk being forgotten amidst a tide of impressive applicants.
  • If, on the other hand, your writing is memorable, concise and polished, you stand out even in the company of more qualified candidates.

I feel ambivalent about the latter point because as an American I have this ideal that everything should be merit based. That’s not real life, though. The greatest ideas will fail if people can’t be persuaded to implement them. While I stress that being a skilled communicator is no substitute for things like reliability, honesty and customer service, it is kind of a lynch pin for everything else.

For businesses, nonprofits and civic organizations, impact matters above all, but you need other ways of differentiating yourself in a competitive market. However impressive, data is difficult to remember; a good story is difficult to forget.


Does this bring to mind examples in your own life? I’d love to hear about them! If you have writing-intensive projects that need flair and attention to detail, contact me at Garvington Creative for a free consultation.

Posted on: August 2, 2018