Pitching Your Project? Why Answering the Question Perfectly is a Terrible Idea

You have a creative project you are aching to do.

You are holding an application for a grant that could fund this and launch your career. Or, you are standing next to a funder who might be your next investor.

You are dreaming of walking into your studio every morning ready to work on something you are passionate about bringing into the world, your cup of coffee by your side, all of your materials neatly arranged, everything fully funded so all you have to do is, be creative.

You blink at the first question. And your mind goes blank after seeing the three daunting words:

Describe your project

This is where you get up and look out the window, maybe wander in the kitchen to get something to munch on, anything but face the overwhelming task of putting into words everything you want to do.

Why is this so difficult to do?

Here’s a tip: that question is too big to answer well and we have no idea where to start.

Here’s another tip: answering this question is a terrible idea.

People don’t know how to ask for what they want

Funders, investors, foundations, strangers in elevators will ask the same questions. They want to know what you do, they want information they can understand. The truth is, what they really want is not always what they ask for.

When someone asks you about your project, you immediately think of the best way to describe all of the amazing things that are going on in your work, the infinite interesting little details, how everyone loves it and wants more, more, more, which is why you are killing yourself with this application. This is do or die, the place you have to make your case as the very best at what you do.

The truth is, people can’t really hear any of that until you give them the answer they really want but didn’t ask for.

They want to know on a much deeper level if you are a person they can trust. They want to know if they like you as another human being. They want to feel something.

“But they are asking for information,” you say, pointing at the question. “Not a date.”

You have all had an experience talking to someone and felt your attention drifting, you start getting fidgety and wonder how the hell you got yourself into a conversation with this person. I am sure this person was doing most of the talking, mostly about herself thinking you are simply fascinated when in reality, you are just a big ear.

You haven’t been seen. You haven’t been given a space to jump in and be a part of the dialogue. You don’t matter. So you detach and come up with some polite excuse and slink out the door.

Answer the unasked question

Tell them what you care about, what you are passionate about seeing in the world. People are fascinated more by what you are passionate about than what you are doing. If your work is about helping every immigrant child grow up to become a happy, confident citizen or you create music to banish the silence that separates us, say that. Give us a place to see a child we know or once were as a happy person. Let us remember the feeling of connecting with other people by listening to a song.

Instead of information, give an answer that inspires them

Something happens when you leap frog over the obvious question and address the better question. People invest themselves emotionally because you have made them feel something. People listen because what you say matters to them and they see that you care deeply about doing work that makes a difference for the people that are important to both of you.

People who care do not need to be convinced. These are your people.

Care deeply

How you show up in the world is very important. How you care about the world is even more important.

I was late to an interview. On my way in, I got stopped just outside the building by a construction vehicle blocking the door. Through the window I could see the person waiting for me. He was looking at the plants on the window ledge and every so often, he would look up at the sky turning each plant carefully to face the sun.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said.

“No worries,” he smiled and sat down. The interview went well. He presented himself as a good candidate for the job and I offered him the job.

What convinced me was not what he said as much as what he did. I want to be around people who care. Especially when no one is looking.

Remember these key mindsets when you start crafting your pitch or your proposal. They can make a huge difference in how someone responds to what you have to say. Better to be the one they remember than the one with all the answers.

Why less is scarier than more

In the land of books and academia, more words, more pages, more weight in your bookbag in digging into your shoulders means This Is Important Stuff. Consequently, the longer your essays and reports are, the better your chances are of a good grade.

We have an unholy fear of white space. The urge to fill it up is irrational and will almost always give your work the appearance of a wall of text which to me, will put you behind the eightball no matter what you think.

People like me who have to actually read the stuff you write will run out of steam and caffeine at some point and you don’t want to be the one facing reader wrath, something you have absolutely no control over.

What you can control is white space. And specifically, the use of white space to be considerate to the reader in visually focusing on what is truly important information.

Bullets beat blither. Throw a couple of those in and you now have the attention of my lizard brain seeking the one shiny thing in an ocean of text. I will remember you, not only from your clearly set off points, but because you cared enough to make it easy for me to see you.

That is the superpower of white space.

Don’t be afraid of using it.

Squeezing time

For those of you with busy days and big lists of things to do, squeezing time is nothing new.

It is all because we want to have accomplished something by the end of the day that we resort to things like this. Finding 5 minute pockets of time to scribble some notes, dragging ourselves out of bed before sunrise to get an hour of creative work in before heading out to work, sitting at our desk during lunch to draw something.

This is making the most of our precious time everyday and with it comes an urgency that is often absent when you do find yourself in front of your blank canvas with time on your hands.

Do I have writers block when I know I have 25 minutes on a train? No, I have a list.

Do I have trouble coming up with the right image? No, I keep sketching until something clicks.

At the end of the day, I have created a little more than I had the day before. Over time, this will become something born of squeezed, stolen, seized and savored time.

For those of us with pursuits larger than our scheduled time slots, this is the best and only way to make a creative life.

The Most Important Thing A Writer Should Never Forget

Iris Chang

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

She was a force.

As I looked at her 2 books, The Thread of the Silkworm and The Rape of Nanking, I felt small and foolish sitting among a pile of old photographs from my own family history.

Many people have spoken of the tenacity, brilliance and compassion that drove Iris Chang, an American author and journalist best known for her best-selling 1997 account of the Nanking Massacre, The Rape of Nanking, to achieve so much in her short life. She was a thinker, someone who dreamed big and accomplished even greater things driven by a passion to tell a story that needed to be told.

“Civilization is tissue thin,” Iris wrote. She called this the most important lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Nanking. And she believed her research produced irrevocable proof of Japanese atrocities. She wrote:

“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”

The book hit the stores at Christmas, a tough selling season for serious nonfiction. It became a surprise best-seller. A groundswell of interest in the Chinese American community had quickly spread to booksellers and the broader reading public. Newsweek ran an excerpt, and soon Iris was a familiar face on TV news shows. Reader’s Digest devoted a cover story to her.        

from SFGate

Like others who were in awe of her as a confident young woman who excelled at everything she put her mind to, I feel my attempts to write anything are futile. Especially stories that are rooted in our shared Chinese American background.

Would my stories have the ferocious yet compassionate lens on a human experience?  Could I create something as resonant for my reader?

Something that has the power to comfort the troubled, and trouble the comfortable?

It would be very easy to give up and take up knitting.  To brush off the demon who is dancing on my shoulder daring me to write my story.  To turn away from the story I have been longing to tell.

But I know I won’t because my belief in my story is as strong as Iris Chang’s belief in hers.  She knew how words could bring to life the silent narratives of people with no voice. And that we have to write them.

That is what I tell myself when I sit down to write.

I often wonder if the stars feel like this when the sun rises.

Do they think, “Oh great, now that he’s here we might as well fizzle out.  Who’s going to even see us?”

But sunrise happens everyday.  And so does sunset, which is followed by a dusk, twilight and yes, the stars.  The light of the stars at that moment has its own magic and wonder.

If any of you have ever felt like this, rekindle the passion you have for the story inside of you until it burns bright with an inner flame and tell it.

You may not be a snowflake, but you can dream of being a star.

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About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.

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Creating Joy is Not About You. It is Because of You.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

Four artists.

Four dreams.

Four proposals.

Sometimes you can just tell from the first few lines of what they have written, or what they say in the first few minutes, whether their project will succeed or not.

And when I say success, I mean that as something that defines an artist’s entire career, not just one grant proposal even though many of the same contributing factors can affect both.

One of the artists in a recent proposal writing workshop said,

“I really want to give people a hands on experience that can change their perspective by directly participating in my project.  This will help me grow as and artist and develop my creative process.  And the grant will help me create new projects and help me develop new experiences based on traditional art forms.”

Her proposal had been turned down by another foundation and she wanted to know how she could make it better.

My answer was really a question.

“Better for whom?”

Why this is important

No one likes rejection.

Or the feeling that you have invested so much time and energy for something that has been turned down.

You start to question your work, you start listening to that pesky demon whispering in your ear at 2:00 am, you wonder if you really have what it takes.

How do some people make it through?  What are they doing that makes that all important difference between getting a grant and getting a rejection letter?  Is their success unique or a sequence of strategies that you can learn?

And, what are reviewers really looking for?

What you can learn from your competition

You have a creative dream and a passion to share it.  It is something that will make a tremendous difference for the people who experience it.  You need moral and financial support to bring this to life and to build a life around your creative work.

I have been thinking a lot about how to create spaces and opportunities for artists to make life more beautiful and vibrant and all of the reasons we choose to create.

After spending a lot of time reviewing grants on the city, state and national level, I have seen patterns of success in the proposals of artists who get grants and go on to build great careers.

There is one thing that makes grant reviewers like me sit up and pay attention.

My dear friend and colleague, David Johnston, said it best, at the end of a long panel session:

“I just want to be delighted.”

 

How do you do this?

Create from a sense of joy.

It will fill you with energy, motivation and a sense of purpose and the work you produce will often be more successful in the market or with your audiences whether they are ticket buyers, fans or grant panels.  These 2 values – creating work you are passionate about that is successful – are not always closely linked but there is a way to find that sweet spot.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Think about framing joy as your intention.
  2. Then take yourself out of the equation.

That’s right.

Creating Joy is Not About You. It is Because of You.

My answer to the artist was an invitation to rethink why she was doing her project.
If the intent is to help her to grow as an artist, who really benefits besides herself?  If it is to change a person’s perspective, and perhaps in a joyful way, the world will benefit, one person at a time.
Never underestimate the power of delight.

Hoong Yee

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About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.