Its All Basic Greek To Me

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Its All Basic Greek To Me

One of the best ways to improve your grant hacking skills is to methodically track your successes and failures and regularly going back to the text of these grants and extract useful “design patterns. With a good set of design patterns once does not need to re-invent the wheel each time a new grant opportunity arises, you simply reuse your old wheels. But what can you do if you do not have access to a large enough sample of previous grants? Well, you could do worse than resorting to the ancient Greeks and in particular the art form they invented thousands of years ago that we now know as “rhetoric”.

The term ‘rhetorike’ appears to have been first introduced by Plato[1] in dialogue with Gorgias. Ancient Hellenic society had rhetoric in very high esteem as it was one the primary art forms of the time as well as a crucial instrument –from the 5th century B.C.E onwards- in the exercise of Athenian justice. Indeed, quarrelling parties were required to present their cases in well-formed speeches and this judicial application of rhetoric energised its further study and development. With the advent of imperial Rome, rhetoric forms flourished. Cicero, a philosopher, politician, lawyer and orator who lived between 106 and 43 B.C.E, left behind not only his severed head and punctured tongue[2] but also –amongst many other works- “De Inventione”. The later, together with “Rhetorica ad Herennium”[3], became the essential books on the subject matter. It was Aristotle, however, whom much earlier conceived the idea that a good oration is one that masterly interleaved and integrated “three appeals”, namely, Ethos, Pathos & Logos and started the process of building up a set of reusable building blocks for the delivery of effective speeches. His three appeals apply equally to the written text; indeed any successful grant I ever wrote or reviewed made good use of them and interweave the three appropriately within the text. Indeed, most grant application formats follow, although inadvertently, the three appeals of ethos, pathos and logos. As I go briefly over each of the three appeals you will start recognising that, in one way or another, you have been writing ethos, pathos and logos text all along albeit without noticing it. However, understanding what you have been doing all along, and doing so in a deeper sense, can help you improve your craft.

So let us first visit briefly the Ethos reusable building block.


Ethos is the first Aristotelian category and is concerned with conveying a sense of mission and ethical grounding to an argument. The goal of the Ethos appeal is to produce a set of statements geared at convincing someone of the character and credibility of the proposer of an idea. In modern terms, and more specifically, in grant writing terms, ethos is about clearly laying out the track record of the applicant, its about the branding (e.g. name and logo) of the project, its about projecting an image of the institution where the project will take place, the team that will carry it out and the person (or team) that would lead the project. Thus ethos is about the credentials one carries that makes one suitable recipient of public funding. These credentials should be laid out clearly, convincingly and should be commensurate with the scale of the project being proposed. Ethos indicators include previously held grants, prizes, awards, patents, publications, editorships, citations, number of doctoral students supervised, leadership roles, scientific pedigree, public engagement and advocacy track record, industrial engagement, consultancy experience, startups, institutional infrastructure, global rankings, etc.

The ethos design pattern is an important one to master and it is usually reflected in the “track record”, “Members of the consortium” or similar sections of a grant. While there is large variability on how people implement this, they would all mention the expertise of the investigators, their past successes in terms of publications, previous funding, number of publications and their citations, prizes, awards and other peer esteem indicators as well as local capacity such as laboratory space and equipment, high performance computing or other unique facilities (e.g. tissue banks, prestigious archives, etc) available to the proposers. In some disciplines, the pedigree of the proposers is important (e.g. who their doctoral supervisors were, etc).

A well laid-out ethos can win you half the battle because it pre-emptively disarms ad hominem attacks (either implicit or explicit) the reviewer or panel might deploy against your grant. However, the ethos appeal should be well-calibrated: e.g., writing in the investigators track record section that you have a current grant portfolio of –let’s say- £5M when you are asking for a £5K travel grant might not go down well with reviewers. Another example that I have seen happening at panels and that I suffered from it myself: showing off that you are currently supervising many doctoral students – and what many means is highly discipline specific and, to a large degree, subjective- does not play well with some reviewers. Thus, although in the ethos appeal you want to “blow” your own trumpets loudly and clearly, you must ensure your trumpets are neither deafening nor discordant.


Pathos, the second category, is an appeal to emotions. As Burnner argues, a good story convinces by establishing verisimilitude to lifelikeness situations. That is, pathos seeks to create an emotional resonance between the producer of an idea and the intended receptor(s) whether conveyed by speech or by text. In his now-famous 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale H. Carnegie wrote, “…the only way on earth to influence the other fellow is to talk about what he wants and show him how to get it”.  The importance and enormous impact that emotions have had on the “scientific method” and how we go about creating this thing called science are usually underestimated. Yet a grants hacker ignores pathos at her own risk and expense. If the text of the grant does not engage the reviewer and the panel evaluating it at a deep emotional dep level, it is unlikely to get funded.

 Pathos seeks to create effective and discrete emotional “resonators” within the grant to enable its readers to feel connected to your ideas. In order to produce the desired effect, you must find ways of connecting with the anticipated reviewers, panel members and funding organisation managers at an emotional level. There are several places and sections within grant applications where you could deploy pathos. For example, the section where one describes how to translate research into real-world results, e.g. the so-called “Pathways to Impact” in UKRI parlance or the “Impact” section in H2020 vernacular, are ideal places where to arrange pathos-based text within a grant. Similarly, almost every grant application has a “timeliness”, “relevance to beneficiaries”, “national/international importance” or similar section and, again, these are intended to be used to deploy pathos ammunition in your grant. Indeed, in these sections is where you tell reviewers, evaluation panels, funding agencies, stakeholders (e.g. commercial or charitable partners, the public, etc.) and others that you have understood their pain. “Pain” will mean different things to different actors related to your grant and thus one needs to be mindful of carefully identifying the various segments that your grant may touch. For example, “pain” could be about the need for urgent research on a rare disease nobody else is paying attention to, or about conducting research on a new national priority area, or about an area with surplus cash that needs to be spent quickly, etc. An effective implementation of the pathos design pattern will:

  • Identify what the pain indicators are and clearly align your grant to pain relievers that others can relate to.
  • Quantify the identified pain indicators. People will react stronger to numbers if you can be precise about where to deploy them. For example, suppose your grant is about new gene therapy for a high mortality disease, then a pathos appeal that reads “95% of patients diagnosed with the disease die within 2 months of the diagnoses” will be more effective than “most patients that are diagnosed with the disease die shortly afterwards”. If you grant is about a new software engineering methodology, a pathos appeal that reads “in 98% of software engineering projects with more than 10 programmers, the percentage of documented lines of codes under the existing methodology is lower than 17%” would be more effective than “most software engineering projects that depend on several programmers have a low percentage of documented lines of code”.
  • Reify the pain and the benefits your grant will bring in terms of pain relievers. That is, move away from the abstract and focus instead on (a) concrete actors (ideally a named partner in your grant such as a company needing your solutions or a charity looking after a segment of the population, an end-user, etc) having (b) concrete problems (translate the abstract pain you have identified into the real-world consequences that pain causes to your stakeholders) and (c) the concrete benefit your solutions will bring (avoiding the pitfall of listing features of the solution rather than the benefits the solution actually delivers; people are not interested in features, they want benefits).

A grant that makes none or poor use of the pathos design pattern is highly unlikely to succeed for the simple reason that it will fail to connect with whoever is judging the value of the grant; it will fail to tell a good story.


Finally, and complementarily to Ethos and Pathos, Logos is an appeal to reason and logic. Indeed it covers what most scientists would tell you your grant should be about: “hard facts”, “evidence”, “logic”, “hypothesis”, “deductions”, “inductions”, etc. It is important to distinguish, however, between logos and logic. Logos differs from the latter because it allows for gaps in its arguments, allows for hidden assumptions, generalisations and analogies. Unlike logic, a logos appeal does not seek, and cannot provide, absolute proof that your ideas will fly. Instead, the logos design pattern is about effectively persuading your reviewers that your conclusions look-like the only reasonable ones. 

Making this deliberate transition from logic to logos will also help to unblock serious procrastinators who delay the process of writing and submitting grants by waiting for the perfect proof: “I need more evidence”“I need another experiment to provide the key proof of concept”, etc; no you do not need it and you will never get perfect evidence. Thus, you should not seek absolute proof that your grant will work, rather, you should seek to plant in the jury’s minds (your reviewers’ minds) that it is beyond reasonable doubts that you will not be wasting taxpayers’ money, that you will indeed succeed. 

To accomplish this, Aristotle argued that a good logos-driven case must include a form of:

  • Proofs: which translates to preliminary results, technological demonstrators or prototypes in the scientific context of grant writing.
  • Witnesses: that could attest to the plausibility of your ideas and approaches. In a grant, these can be bibliographic references, letters of support from academic collaborators or industrial partners, etc.
  • Common places: however ground-breaking and disruptive your grant idea might be, you should always build bridges to existing paradigms. This is a crucial point; you must empower your grant reviewer to find a way from where her knowledge stands at the moment of reviewing your proposal to where you want her mind to intellectually go.
  • Evidence: covers everything else you need in order to substantiate a case by an appeal to Logo.

The Logos design pattern should help you navigate the fine balance between, on the one hand, what could be perceived as the pie-in-the-sky constructions by Ethos and Pathos and, on the other hand, a logically plausible argumentation.

Done right, these three design patterns collectively will carry the day.

 Image by Margit Wallner from Pixabay

[1] E. Schiappa. Did Plato Coin Rhetorike?. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 111, No. 4, pp. 457-470, 1990.

[2] The story goes that Cicero overplayed his rhetorical hand and pissed off Mark Antony to the extent that the latter asked the former to kill himself. Which he dutifully did with the help of not a few of Mark Atony’s soldiers. It is said that Cesar’s wife later used a hairpin and passed it through Cicero’s tongue repeatedly in an act of self-indulgent poignancy.

[3] Originally attributed to Cicero but the current consensus is that it is of unknown author.

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