A grant proposal is a product. Its single purpose is to convince people to give you money. Like any other product under the sun, a grant must be designed before it is built. The key to success is -as we said earlier– to do things to discover what to do. No successful product comes into existence fully formed and the most successful ones have gone through a loop of rigorous design-build-test and start-over-again many times indeed. Thus, an effective way to get your grant engineering started, is to rapidly prototype and socialise a minimum viable product (MVP) that tells the core story behind your grant. This MVP will enable you to fire up your own design thinking loop.
Design thinking has a large repertoire of techniques for kick-starting discussions, ideas, workshops and products. Two of those techniques that I found very handy are “storyboarding” and “science fiction prototyping”. We will leave science fiction prototyping for another post and here I will briefly explain what storyboarding is and how I use it.
Storyboarding is a venerated design thinking methodology whose origin can be traced back to Walt Disney’s studio: the “Three little pigs” cartoon was the first movie to be fully storyboarded. The technique spread quickly within the creative world and classic movies such as “Gone with the wind”, which was the first movie with real actors to be storyboarded, followed suit. Storyboarding uses pictures (cartoon-like, sketches, etc), to explore a situation, its heroes, the hurdles they face, their struggle and the eventual resolution of their struggle. When applied to products, such as a grant, storyboarding depicts the interaction between people and the challenges they face, which may involve products, services and -quite likely- other people. Storyboarding is also an essential tool in UX, user research, and more likely than not, every app you use in your mobile phone or tablet has gone through a process of storyboarding or through a related design thinking process.
The idea behind storyboarding is, in essence, quite simple: set up a small set of “windows” and compose them into a story. Through each window, you must portray a key concept or core message of your grant. These windows -the story’s boards, also called panels- are arranged in chronological order although, for a grant, the order might be a different – logically meaningful- manner of organising the panels.
The windows are small rectangular areas where you can draw a scene. The level of graphical detail and accuracy of each of the storyboard’s windows is unimportant: you are not after artistic praise, you are looking to quickly generate a low-fidelity prototype of your grant. That is, you can draw the panels by hand or, if you are tech-savvy, you could use a graphical editor. Each panel will have a central picture, e.g. a few uncomplicated symbols or stick figures, perhaps with some speech or thought bubbles. A panel may have a bit of detail about important concepts, context, problems, opportunities, etc. A window in a storyboard may also have some headline or footer text that you can use to explain the scene the panel is depicting. To add emphasis you may use different line strengths, fonts, colour highlights, etc.
There are, however, four important constraints that you must adhere to when prototyping your grant with storyboards:
- the number of windows or panels should be relatively small, 3 to 6 (8 at the outmost);
- each window or panel must convey a clear self-contained situation;
- put together, the 3 to 6 boards, should tell the entire story of your grant and
- the three previous steps should take less than 30 minutes or so to do.
Sticking to the above constraints will help you produce a prototype from which you can derive further insights about the grant you are planning. Remember: there is no point perfecting this prototype. You should be perfectly happy to ditch it if it turns out that the feedback you get is bad. And the reason you will be able to do that without attachment is that you spent 30 minutes or less working on it; not hours, not days and, most certainly, not weeks. The goal hence is to -in 30 minutes or less- have an MVP you can show to people so you can bounce ideas back and forth and quickly collect feedback to refine your concepts.
In the figure below, which you can download, you can see a simple canvas for storyboarding.
You start by writing -in lieu of a grant title- a storyboard headline to set the scene. Then there are up to six panels to fill. At the top of each panel, you can find five icons to choose from by placing and X just below the selected icon. The question to ask is: which icon best represents the core issue depicted in the panel? There are five issue categories: is the core message of the panel about people? is it about nature or the environment? is it about optimising or saving time? is it about creating value? or is it something else entirely? By selecting the right icon you guide your interlocutors to the right mindset for interpreting the drawings in the canvas itself. The centre of each panel is a white area where you can draw a specific snapshot scene or concept from your grant: a notion that you would like to communicate. Just below the white area, there are a few lines in which you can write a couple of tag lines or contextual information to complete the snapshot description.
You do not need six boards to prototype and communicate the core story of your grant, sometimes two or three suffice. The important thing is that to build your storyboards, you force your thought processes to come up with a defined number of “snapshots”. And, in so doing, you start to clarify -mostly to yourself- what the grant will be about. More importantly still, you start to decide what the grant will not be about. Namely, you already start to filter out the things that the grant will not tackle, and these are all the things that you have forced yourself to leave outside the storyboard.
Because storyboarding your grant takes as little as 30 minutes or less, in half a day of work, you can even produce alternative versions of your MVP to experiment with and engage your social network, from the outset, while designing your grant.
For more practical information on storyboarding and other design thinking techniques consult the excellent book by M. Tomitsch and colleagues’ “Design. Think. Make. Break. Repeat. A Handbook of Methods”.
A final thought: for my grant writing, I use storyboarding as an early minimal viable product in the way I described above. But I also use storyboarding to break-out of a creativity dry-spell or a procrastination cycle. We all suffer both. Procrastination is fueled by many factors such as boredom, fear of failure, self-doubts, lack of discipline, perfectionism, inability to “divide-and-conquer”, analysis paralysis, work overload, etc. In “59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot”, Richard Wiseman tells us that another reason why sometimes people procrastinate is because the human brain is hardwired to both save energy (i.e. we are all biologically lazy) but also to actually finish stuff we start; when we start something we create a psychological dissonance between the current state of affairs and what we desire to achieve (i.e. the end state we pursue). People who procrastinate often do so because they unintentionally try to avoid that very state of dissonance. Thus the remedy to combat procrastination, Wiseman suggests, is to take a tiny step: start small and break the lethargy. This will set in motion the dissonance alluded above and you will likely end up finishing what, for so long, you avoided starting. And this is what I use the storyboarding for, to take a small step, a 30 minutes-long one, to start a new grant.
Grant Hackers “Storyboard” by Natalio Krasnogor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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