Know Your Audience

Mary W. Walters considers two key ways to improve your odds of winning the favor of grant review committees.

January 29, 2010

Whether we are attempting to explain a technical concept to a group of students, convince our colleagues of a way to simplify departmental procedures, or persuade our spouses to take out the garbage, most of us instinctively adjust the language and content of our messages to our audiences.

Often without being aware of it, before we begin to speak we will try to evaluate the current mental and emotional positions of our listeners and, on that basis, decide how most effectively to convey the messages we want them to receive. In the case of the students, we will consider what they should already know, and start building scaffolds to new knowledge from the existing base. With our colleagues, we will try to anticipate objections that are likely to be raised, and address them before we can be criticized for overlooking them. And so on.

In writing, it is easy to overlook the principles we are able to put to use so effectively in our daily lives. When we are developing a funding application — or working on a journal article or a textbook chapter for that matter — our audiences can seem invisible to us. We may become so involved in explaining what detailed convolutions brought us to our current research crossroads that we fail to take our prospective readers into consideration. What do they already know about this subject? What is it possible that they do not know? How can we make the information we are trying to convey more useful — and relevant, and interesting — to them?

As most of us know (from reading other people’s writing), scholars who ignore their readers are at risk of using language that no one outside their research niche can understand. They may forget to state a basic principle that informs their entire program (e.g., pine beetles turn conifers to tinder) because they have been working in the area so long they can’t see the forest for the denuded trees. They can drone on and on about specifics without ever showing us the larger picture. They can be boring.

In writing a funding proposal, we are usually competing with other highly qualified applicants for the attention and approbation of a small, select number of readers. There are two general ways in which we can improve the effectiveness of our proposals by considering our audiences.

Consider the Reviewers

Imagine the reviewing process from the reviewers’ point of view. They get a big box or an inbox full of applications — let us say 200 — six to eight weeks before they are scheduled to meet to discuss them. Given all the other commitments such individuals have as academics and as human beings, this means they may need to review between 10 and 20 submissions at a sitting over the next few weeks. These people are likely reading applications during their evenings and on weekends when they would rather be doing something else, and under less than ideal conditions – on airplanes, for example, or while burping babies. They may even (perish the thought) be tired and irritable.

Reviewers can tell within the first couple of paragraphs whether yours is a solid, viable application or not. Given the realities of their lives and the number of other applications demanding their attention, they are likely to set your application aside if it does not catch their interest immediately. While most reviewers will give most applicants at least a page, the better presented, better prepared and more clearly written your proposal is — the more compelling it is from the first word — the more closely it will be read.

In addition to their personal situations, you need to consider reviewers’ areas of research knowledge before you start to write. Funding-agency review panels cover a range of specific areas within a field or a discipline; some are even interdisciplinary. In the case of an application relating to cosmic magnetism, for example, depending on the agency or funding program, the panel that considers your proposal may be made up exclusively of astrophysicists, or include researchers from a range of fields relating to physics, or even be comprised of experts from all areas of the natural sciences and engineering. Review panels are made up of intelligent people who are highly regarded for their scientific or scholarly expertise, but some or all of them are likely to be working in slightly different specific areas than you are.

It is often possible to find online a list of former, or even current, reviewers for the funding round for which you are applying. Get a feel for their disciplinary diversity and then ask yourself, “What it is likely that these reviewers will know about my field? What do I likely need to tell them before they will see the significance of my proposed work?” No one wants to be spoken to as though he or she is stupid, but it is also true that no one minds being oriented with a very clear and succinct statement of the basic context and need for research at the start of a project description.

Consider the Funder

Also before you start writing, consider the agency to which you are applying, then consider the project for which you are applying in the context of the funder. To whom is the board of this funding institution accountable — both in the short term (the government? a private philanthropist, perhaps?), and the long term (the public?). Read the funding guidelines carefully, and note any emphases specific to the agency (it may stress the importance of extending knowledge to educators, for example, or the translation of research findings into practice) so that you are able to show how your project fits within its mandate.

Particularly in the case of smaller funding organizations, you should think about specific ways in which your project will appeal to the agency, or even contribute to its public profile. If, for example, you are applying for an award named in honor of an individual whose life was devoted to the contribution of civil engineering to international relations, point out how your work supports that vision. A bit of fine-tuning and adjustment to a grant proposal can sometimes illuminate (or even create) a fit where none was apparent before.

The job of the reviewers is not to reject as many applications as they can. Their job is to make sure that good research and strong scholarly projects are funded. They want to see great proposals that fit with the mandates they’ve been given. By understanding who they are and what they know — and then demonstrating perfectly how your work fits with what they want — you will not only be helping yourself, you will also be helping them.


Mary W. Walters is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with academics for more than 20 years. She is the author of Write an Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). The former awards facilitator at the University of Saskatchewan, she now lives in Toronto, where she consults and gives workshops on effective grant-writing.


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