Writing Successful Grants: Consider Your Audience

This blog is part three of a four-part series on grant writing inspired by resources published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others.  

You have thoughtfully designed your research and carefully crafted a foolproof budget proposal. Now you come upon the dreaded review committee. But fear not! There are ways to enchant the mysterious reviewer, to reveal their wants and needs and win them to your cause.  

professionals at a workshop; writing successful grants requires understanding your audience

In this blog, we will discuss why considering your audience should be one of your foremost priorities in applying for a grant. You should identify your reviewers and capture their interest through a well-organized and compelling story. If you can effectively frame the intent of your research and successfully communicate how it will benefit your field of study, your chances of completing your quest – or securing funding – can improve ­drastically.

Identifying your Audience

Taking the time to investigate your audience can help you tailor your application accordingly.

Broadly, it’s worth considering the goals of the institution or agency to which you are submitting your proposal. If you are submitting to more than one, you may want to try adjusting your approach between them – each may have a different reason for caring about your research, and you should consider this when composing your application. The degree to which you cater to the priorities of your target institution may be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Before submitting your proposal, it can be helpful to get an idea for which review committees might receive your application. Take a look at the institution’s review groups and choose a few that focus on the field your research is in or something close to it. Then you can contact the scientific review officers (SROs) or a program officer (PO) to determine whether they would be a good fit for your research.

Once you’ve found a suitable review group, take some time to research its members. Good background materials include websites or publications. The better informed you are regarding the areas of expertise of your review group, the easier it will be to create an application that will be met with enthusiasm and support.

It’s important to consider your audience and their background so you can effectively tailor your proposal. Contacting the right people, looking closely at potential reviewers and identifying their priorities will better the chances of your audience appreciating your research.

Find this advice and more about identifying your audience in this NIH article, “Writing a Winning ApplicationConsider the Review Committee”.

Tailoring Content

The primary audience for your application is your scientific review group (study section). These groups comprise both experts in your field and non-experts, as assigned by the SRO.

While some of the scientists in your review group may not be as familiar with your field, they will still be scoring your application, so it is important to cater to them as well as to the experts. This is important in some sections of your application more so than in others, such as your Abstract, Specific Aims and Significance, as these are the sections most likely to be read by all reviewers.

It is your job to persuade both technical experts and non-technical reviewers of the high impact of your research and how it will contribute to the field. Your reviewers will consider the significance and potential of your research, how innovative you are in your approach, and the likelihood that you will be able to achieve your goals.

Check out the NIH article “Know your Audience” for more on tailoring your content.

Telling a Story

Your grant proposal can be elevated through the power of good storytelling. Support your research with an interesting narrative and write with an eye to the principles of good science communication. It is just as important to clearly communicate your non-technical writing as it is your technical writing. This is especially true given that at least part of your audience may not be fluent in your field of study.

There are a few tricks of the trade to remember when it comes to science communication. First, you’ll want to define your audience. Make sure that you know who you’re talking to and why they care about what you have to say. Next, define the problem that you’re trying to solve. Provide clarity in exactly what you intend to do and how you intend to do it. There should be one central idea that is continually supported throughout your application. Try to avoid superfluous detail or “fluff”. Finally, tell a story using narrative tools like emotion and storyline. Your audience will more readily engage with your research if it is framed within a compelling narrative.

Listen to the HelloPhD podcast “The 4 simple tips that will make your writing stand out” for more about good science communication and effective non-technical writing.

Organizing your Application

Establishing a good structure for your application will help you stay on track as a writer and will be beneficial to your audience during review. It’s safe to assume that the people reviewing your application have reviewed dozens of others, so it’s important that yours is easy to follow and understand. Sound organization will improve readability and help your reviewers focus on your key points.

Put some extra thought into how you want your reviewers to navigate your work. The use of headers, clear labels and visual aids will keep your audience engaged and guide them through your application. Bolded and italicized type can be useful as well but should be wielded with restraint so they don’t disrupt the flow of your writing. Be sure that you also adhere to any guidelines or instructions provided in advance so that your application isn’t rejected outright. 

Read more about organizing and writing your application in the NIH article, “Writing a Winning Application―Write to Excite.”

Understanding your audience is a key element of writing an effective grant proposal. Your reviewers will have high expectations and you don’t want your hard work to go to waste. Your research deserves thorough and fair review. Take the time to identify your reviewers, tailor your content to your audience, tell them a good story and thoughtfully organize your application. This will help you in your quest to build an unforgettable proposal that will win you the funding you need.  


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AnnaKay is a science writer at Promega. She studied Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has written across a variety of fields ranging from limnology to veterinary medicine to natural resource management. In her spare time, AnnaKay enjoys reading and writing creatively.

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