When I interviewed here at Capterra, I was nervous about the fact that I was selling myself – a long-time freelance journalist and previous political, nonprofit employee – to a major B2B software company. In my eyes, this was one of the leading companies in their sphere, why would they want to hire me?
I decided to treat the interview like a personal conversation rather than a stale sales pitch. As it turns out, that was exactly what they were looking for. Anyone can sit across a table and spout numbers, facts, and figures, but what do those facts mean to you and why do they matter to the listener or reader?
A grant proposal is a lot like that interview. While you have all of the information and talking points at your disposal, those assets are useless if you don’t know how to convey them correctly. Otherwise your grant proposal is just another entry in the giant stack of proposals destine for the desk of some hapless reader.
This guide is not meant to teach you how to write a grant proposal (if you don’t know how, I’m not sure how you got your job as a grant writer). Instead, I will show you how to improve your grant writing so that your proposal will be as slick and personable as possible.
Here are the five ways to improve your grant writing.
1. Dump unnecessary language and vague phrases
Trust me, I understand the temptation. When I began my work in journalism, I made every effort I could to sound more authoritative. I would use complicated sentences and big words to compensate for my age. It was straight up thesaurus abuse.
We all want to be taken seriously and we all want to be respected in our work, but using unnecessary language won’t do that. Instead, you will be laughed at (by me) on “r/iamverysmart,” the home of people who try way too hard to sound smart.
No one cares about your attempts to bewilder your readers with your boundless and eloquent use of the English language. If you feel like your writing is trending in this direction, consider resources like The Pompous Ass Words Website which shame thesaurus abusers and suggest simpler words to get the point across.
The same goes for vague words and phrases (almost, roughly, etc.). These create uncertainty where certainty is needed to create confidence in your organization’s ability to solve a problem.
The best grant proposals are simple, straightforward, and easily understood. Although you are appealing to the common interests of governments, businesses, or foundations, there is no guarantee that they will understand all of the inside terms and nuances of what you hope to accomplish. If your grant proposals can’t be understood by the common layperson, it is too complicated to send.
If you want to pre-edit your grant proposal before submitting for edits, use websites like Hemingway App to shorten your sentences, cut-out passive voice, and increase readability. Your editor will thank you for it.
2. Use visuals to explain numbers and concepts
If I was trying to obtain funding for research into a solution for the Nic Cage vs. people drowning, I would have a hard time selling this cause to anybody, except perhaps a community of flat earthers. That is, unless I include this absolutely fact driven and totally not spurious correlation graph comparing the number of people drowning in pools to the number of films with Nicolas Cage over the years.
No? Still not sold? I promise I have more evidence of this.
With the exception of far-fetched correlations, charts and other visuals are key to explaining numbers and other concepts that aren’t easy to grasp through words alone. Visuals provide context to these concepts in order to influence the emotions of your reader.
For example, at first you would think someone trying to connect Nic Cage films to drownings was joking, but the utilization of the line graph would then convince you that person was crazy. That chart influenced your emotions.
If you want to convey growth in an area, dropping percentages and other figures doesn’t have the same effect as showing that growth on a chart or a graph.
Visuals also have the added effect of breaking up the text, making it more interesting to read. No one likes reading giant blocks of text. Visuals ensure that the points you are trying to convey to the reader won’t be lost in the vast oceans of black and white text.
Remember this acronym: TL;DR (Too long; Didn’t read)
3. Balance out problems with clear solutions
When I was younger, my dad taught me one of my favorite lessons that I still try to follow to this day. When I was a child, he worked on shutting down a nuclear plant, which required that everyone be on their toes when solving waste disposal issues. There would be meetings to discuss solutions and one rule was not to criticize a proposed solution unless you could come up with two alternative solutions.
The point is, it is easy to criticize, but it is hard to come up with real solutions. If you don’t have a better idea, then your criticism is worthless and helps no one.
When writing grant proposals, it is tempting to just focus on the details of the problem while letting the details of the solutions fall to the wayside. If left unaltered, you find yourself with a proposal of issues to complain about and if you’ve ever had a Facebook account, you know that there is more than enough complaining to hold the world over for a few decades.
For every detail and paragraph detailing a problem, there ought to be equal or greater detail given to the solutions. Don’t skimp on describing the issues since you must demonstrate that you understand the current situation, but don’t let it overrun your proposal.
4. Separate yourself from the crowd
Yes, I know, another Office Space reference. Bear with me here, it’s one of my favorite movies.
Although the manager of Chotchkies is one of the most annoying managers to ever walk the face of the Earth, he makes a great point about differentiation when talking to Jennifer Aniston about her “flair” as opposed to the other server, Brian:
“People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude.”
When writing your grant proposal, you need to ask yourself: “What is our flair? What sets my organization apart from the multitudes of other nonprofits looking to achieve similar results?”
Do you spend less on overhead? Do you have a larger volunteer base than other organizations?
If you complete projects at a faster rate and with higher satisfaction or you’ve seen a spike in interest with your nonprofit, be sure to highlight those facts. This grant proposal is all about reassuring your benefactor that their contributions will be put to good use better than all of the rest.
If done correctly, your grant proposal will have them giving money to your Chotchkies and not the Flingers restaurants of the world.
5. Spice it up
You know what my focus on economics in high school and college taught me? That economics professors are really, really boring. In fact, I contend that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off had the most accurate depiction of an economics professor in cinematic history.
You know what was even more boring than the lectures themselves? Researching and writing the papers for those classes. I’m pretty sure if the American Medical Association wanted to conduct a thorough study on the possibility of dying from boredom, a class-worth of economics students would make the perfect subjects.
While writing a grant proposal may sound as boring and dry as writing a paper on the Laffer Curve, it doesn’t have to be.Your grant proposal isn’t a research paper or a senior thesis, so don’t treat it like one.
Just like college admissions essays, the person reading your grant proposal will stumble upon it halfway through the stack of other proposals while subconsciously wishing they had called in sick.
Make it interesting and fun! Throw in a joke, tell a story, or try to relate to the person you are writing to.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
This is a quote to live by, and as you can see from my writing style, I embrace this mentality.
Which are you more likely to read? A dry list filled with suggestions for grant writing or a personable, point-by-point explanation of ways to improve your grant writing?
If you’ve made it this far into this blog post, then that means option two is more appealing to you and I have done my job correctly.
Apply this same logic to your grant writing, and your readers will thank you for it in the end, possibly with an approval to your proposal.
Although some of these are linked in this piece, here is a simple list of tools and resources to help improve your grant writing and hook your reader.
- Hemingway App
- Pompous Ass Words Website
- How to Write in a More Personal and Engaging Tone
- Venngage Chart Maker
- How to Avoid TL;DR Syndrome
- 11 Powerful Ways to Tell Your Story
I’ve fallen into each one of these pitfalls in the past, but after some [friendly] beatings from my current editor, my writing has gone from unintelligible word salad, to the sarcastic and personable flow you just experienced. While sarcasm might not be the best way to sell your grant proposal, adopting these guidelines and using these resources will work wonders on your prose.
What creative methods have you applied to your grant writing? Are there any other suggestions you feel were missed in this piece? Let me know in the comments below!
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