While I was doing my PhD, under the supervision of Prof. J.E. Smith at the University of the West of England, I had a hero: Prof. David E. Goldberg (David for short). David was a prolific and successful engineer and one of the founding fathers of the machine intelligence field called Evolutionary Algorithms. Besides the seminal books he wrote on the subject, such as “Genetic Algorithms in Search, Optimization, and Machine Learning” and “The Design of Innovation (Genetic Algorithms and Evolutionary Computation)“, he later wrote extensively on the philosophy that underpins engineering, as well as modern ways of teaching the discipline (see for example “A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education“).
Years passed, and while working at Nottingham University as a lecturer, I had the opportunity to invite David to visit our lab, meet our researchers and give us feedback about our work. We learn a lot from his visit. But his most enduring lesson would come not at the lab but -as is often the case- during dinner. What he told me on that dinner table might seem trivial at first, but, over the years, I have come to realise that it is a kind of “superpower” lesson: it has clarity, its actionable and its concise (you simply cannot forget it). That night, over dinner, David casually said something that stuck with me ever since:
Academics are in the business of convincing people that our ideas are bestDavid E. Goldberg (in conversation)
I remember vividly how this statement stirred something inside me; it felt true but at the same time a bit raw if not brutal.
It felt true because, in one sentence, David had managed to articulate the essence of publishing peer-reviewed papers and submitting grants for external funding.
It felt raw because, at the time, I was struggling to get funded and -as many people do- I often blamed the reviewers or the panel members for not seeing that my grants were great. Yet, here it was an intellectual hero of mine slapping me in the face over dinner (what a chutzpah!). Without saying it, I heard his message loud and clear: it is not the reviewers’ or panels’ fault, it is your fault because you failed to convince the powers that be that your ideas are great.
It also felt brutal: in one devastating swipe it demolished my belief –at the time still intact but already fragile- that science operates outside the realm of the human drama; that science was fuelled only by theory, experiments and the mythical “scientific method”. Thus, I felt this was a cynical thing to say and I wished, with all my heart, that academia would be different; yet I knew deep down, right there that night, that he was right.
Why is this relevant to us? Put succinctly, because
“We, grant hackers, are in the business of moving people”.
For successful grant writing, one must take into account the human factor.
In an earlier post, I mentioned Daniel H. Pink’s book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Persuading, Convincing, and Influencing Others”, where he writes about “non-sales selling”. Pink convincingly argues that, as the social creatures that we are, we are constantly engaging in transactions, even when money or favours do not change hands. He summarises the situation as follows:
“1. People are now spending about 40 per cent of their time at work engaged in non-sales selling – persuading, influencing, and convincing others in ways that don’t involve anyone making a purchase. Across a range of professions, we are devoting roughly twenty-four minutes of every hour to moving others.
2. People consider this aspect of their work crucial to their professional success – even in excess of the considerable amount of time they devote to it.”
Persuasion, nudging and influencing skills are an essential “soft skills” for the modern world regardless of what line of activity you spend your time on. David, in his “A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education” also talks about the importance of persuasive communication both in writing and presentations (chapters 5 & 6). Successful grant hackers always pay attention to how they present their arguments, whether these are conveyed in a written proposal, in a response to reviews or at an interview panel.
We will discuss much more about these matters in future blogs but first things first.
I believe that the first step in your journey to becoming a better grant writer is to accept that to sell is human; I believe that grant hackers are in the business of moving others. So search deep inside your soul and come to terms with this. Indeed, get over it!
Once you do, you will start seeing the process of writing grants in a new light, with a fresher and more revealing attitude that will help you to communicate better, to be more selective on the ideas you carry forward, to be more receptive to (and less faced by) feedback, and more resilient to the inevitable rejection letter. It will, I believe, enable you to nudge your grant reviewers and panels in the direction that you want them to go: to fund your grants.
* Nowadays, David leads ThreeJoy Inc, a USA based change management consultancy (https://threejoy.com/blog/), where he run group classes and coaching sessions studying how to improve soft skills (what he