The Most Powerful Question You Need to Ask. Again.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

I knew it was time for me to jump through the hoop.

The consultant power posed alongside the last slide of his presentation with the customary upward chin tilt that read,

“Impressive, don’t you think?  Now here’s what we need from you.”

As the art person at a table full of suits, I often get the sense that people walk on eggshells around me, or peer at me the way you would look at a new species of a goldfish. Curious, even cautious – you never know about artists and those unpredictable temperaments.

In this case, the suits actually needed input from artists to help make their proposal more compelling.  They needed to rise above the stiff competition to win the bid to put up a new building development in a community that lost hundreds of working artists to growing gentrification.

Their vision was to create spaces for different categories of people in the community.  Something for everyone.  After figuring out what the spaces were, they started filling them until someone told them they needed an art expert to tweak their plan, give it a local spin.

This is what they told me when they first called.  Now, they were all looking to me for my answer.

What I told them was not what they expected.

What a grant reviewer can teach you about getting funding

My background is in art and funding artists.  However, I have also reviewed proposals for real estate, fellowships, radio, education, disaster relief, small business and technology over the past decade.  Enough variety and range to see patterns emerge that appear in the proposals and more importantly, in how they are judged.

So much time and effort goes into preparing proposals.  There is never enough money to fund every worthy proposal and that ratchets up the competitive environment for everyone. Your project may be outstanding in your world but will it elbow its way past a stack of equally worthy projects to get funded? Did you do your best in creating a winning case for your project?  For people who depend on winning bids, grants and funding awards to grow their businesses and careers, mastering the art of proposal writing is crucial.

3 common and unremarkable ways to answer a question

The most common and bewildering thing people do is this: they don’t read.

And to make things worse, they don’t answer the questions. What I often see are answers that make me hunt through a sea of text to find the information I need, eventually making me cranky and annoyed because it takes so much time and I always have a huge stack of proposals to go through.

Many people use the questions as a place to get up on a soapbox and talk about the following:

‘Here’s my passion.”

“Here’s what I can do.”

“Here’s what it will look like.”

Why this is a bad idea

This is not about you.

It does not matter how much you love what you do.

It does not matter how eloquently you write.

To emerge from a competitive environment as the winning proposal, it is a given that the basics are done well, including the above.  But that is not what you lead with.

What turns the grant reviewers into your passionate advocates is something else.

Proposal writing is a confidence game.

People fund people.  Grant reviewers are people, too.  Your challenge is not to convince them you are the best developer or the best artist for the grant because of your talent or expertise.  You need to boost their confidence that you are the best candidate for the grant because you will deliver a specific experience that promises a better version of the world.

This is about other people.

How do you create a proposal that does that?

Imagine your proposal is the one being read.

In your mind’s eye, everyone suddenly sits up, their eyes light up and the discussion becomes animated and alive. “I love the vision,  I can see myself in it,  I can feel the difference….”  They are united in nominating you for the award.

There are things we can control like creating a vision, research, writing, team building.

And there are things we cannot control.

For example, your proposal could be the first one, the last one, or the one that gets reviewed when the coffee runs out.  Maybe they funded a similar project in the last cycle and want to move on to something different.  What if the proposal before yours was for a similar project or in the same area? There may be an internal preference – politics.

In my situation, the consultant had done research and figured out what the needs of the neighborhood were.  Armed with these answers, they put together a plan that included a place for everyone.

Which is exactly what every other applicant did.  This proposal, without a deeper and clearer vision about their impact upon the community, would be no different from the others.

They asked the right questions, which everyone did.  But they stopped once they got the quick and easy answers. They have to keep asking and keep listening for what is not revealed until that particular impact or value is revealed to them.  The transformative outcome that they uniquely are positioned to deliver.

The most powerful question

One very simple but extremely way to do this is to ask yourself and your team,

“Why is this important?”

The consultant I was working with answered, “Because it will fill some pressing needs in the community.”

I asked the question again, “Why is that important?”

Pause.  Then he said, “Because we will have the spaces for groups.”

Getting there.  This process is like opening those Russian nesting dolls to get to the center doll at the core.

I recommend you ask this question at least 5 times.  Unexpected insights will pop up as you are forced to think more deeply.

Done right, you will find the answer will not be about what you can do, but what you can do for other people.

This process of asking that same question continued a few more times until everyone realized there was a greater potential for change and transformation they could provide.  What excited them was seeing that they were uniquely positioned to deliver these outcomes.

That passion is what a proposal needs to transmit to the people reading it in order to turn them into passionate advocates for your proposal.

With this knowledge, you can sell people on a journey to a destination.  Something they can see instantly, feel and want to be a part of.

Sell Paris, not the airbus

Once people are hooked on the vision of roaming the streets of the City of Light at twilight, all they will want is to be confident that you will take them there.  Now you can talk about what you are going to do, how you are going to do it.

The consultant and his team got a set of Russian nesting dolls.  Now it is up to them.

 

 

How to Write a Proposal that Gets to YES

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

She stared at the envelope in her hand.

With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and slowly pulled out the letter.

Her fingers told her the paper had a nice weight to it, a linen finish, 2 or 3 paragraphs of text, an embossed logo.  Impressive.

Her instincts told her nothing.  They were wrestling with conflicting outcomes, each one invested with tremendous emotions.

If I get the grant, my life and career as an artist will be successfully transformed.  If I don’t get the grant, I will be crushed, dejected and consumed with self doubt.

If you are an artist who has written grants for your work, chances are you have been in this moment of truth situation. Anyone who has put together proposals or pitches knows that this is simply part of the territory of fundraising and awareness building of who you are.

Getting grants is important for more than just the cash award that comes with it.  A certain validation and recognition comes with grant awards. Some artists have developed long lasting relationships with their funders who have grown into loyal fans and collectors.  And in some cases, getting your first grant can open the doors to getting grants from larger funders.

This was actually my path to becoming a grant supported artist in the beginning of my career. Now, after spending over a decade in the arts as a grantmaker in Queens, NY, a grantwriter and a grant reviewer for many foundations and corporate philanthropies,  I know that the ability to put together a clear and well written proposal is the most powerful skill an artist needs to build a successful career.

 

Rejection is tough.

No one likes spending a lot of time and effort putting a proposal together that gets shot down and feeling that your work isn’t worthy of funding. This is the time all those pesky demons start coming around to fill your head with self doubt and thoughts of giving up.  But you keep wondering, “How do other artists get grants?  What are they doing that I’m not doing?”

Here’s what you may be thinking

“I’m an artist, not a writer.”

Yes and no. This is an excuse. Being an artist does not exempt you from being to communicate clearly whether it is about your work or directions to your studio.  That knowledge, insights and a deeper understanding will emerge when you spend some time asking yourself clarifying questions about your work.  You can write with confidence once you know what it is you want to say.

“My art can speak for itself.”

This is the second part of the first excuse.  The only thing your art will do is open up a million reactions, none of which you will have any control over.  People are drawn to the back story of the art as well as the actual piece.  In a grant proposal, it is the story that is important.   The art illuminates your artistic process and thinking.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

You start by asking yourself some important basic questions to understand the why, what and how of your project.  The answers will help you understand why your work deserves to exist.  In a grant environment, this is what builds passion and support for a proposal to be funded.

Mastering the art of proposal writing will give you a powerful tool to benefit all parts of your creative career.  These skills impact how you talk to people about your work, how you pitch your projects to funders and donors, what you say in your elevator speech or while you are waiting on line at the bar during a reception.

Most proposals are written close to the vest.  Just you, your project and your computer.  You are the best person to give life to this project and at the same time, that closeness can make it hard for you to communicate that in a compelling way that rises to the top in a competitive grant review process.

After spending over a decade around grants as a grantmaker, a grantwriter and a grant reviewer for foundations and corporate philanthropies around the country, I have seen certain things that grantwinners do that reflect a distinct mindset and focus.

There are some things you can control and some things that you cannot control.

You don’t know how your proposal will land.  Your proposal may be the first one out of the gate to be read, it could be the one after the morning coffee wears off, it could be the last one of the day.  This is something you cannot control.

There is something that can be your superpower if you use it well, or your worst nightmare if you don’t.  This is something you engage when you think about how your proposal lands.

You need to write as if you are going on after the Beatles.

How do you do that?

By engaging your superpower: Readability

This is your most powerful weapon against panelist fatigue, panelist rage (yes, this can happen, but I will show you how to turn around to work in your favor), and will position you ahead of your competition.

I have 6 time tested strategies to sharpen your readability skills:

  • White space
  • Shorter sentences and text blocks
  • Bullets
  • Consistency
  • Clarity
  • Kill your darlings

White space

MASTER MINDSET: YOUR EYES NEED AIR

When I am faced with a stack of proposals that look like walls of text, I can feel overwhelmed and less than ecstatic about trudging through them.  I get tired and frustrated when I have to dig further or navigate through a seemingly endless sea of sentences to find the answers.  My eyes seek places to land and anchor myself.

With e grants and their specific word counts, writing becomes a challenge for you to distill your thoughts into a highly skimmable and readable form, not a place to dump everything you want to say.

Use shorter sentences.  Choose a simple word over a ten dollar word. Avoid jargon.

This is a place where you can turn every answer to the questions into a compelling reason why you are the best candidate for the grant.

Many fiction writing teachers tell their students that each sentence they write must exist to do one thing – to move the story.  In a grant, the purpose of every sentence is not to present yourself as the best artist, but to position you as the best candidate for the grant by answering the questions.

Answer the questions.

If you do this well, you will be way ahead of the game.  The narrative is not a soapbox for your artistic statement or vision.  It is not a place to present yourself as the best artist but as the best candidate.

Your eyes have to come up for air. White space around text has this curious effect of compressing importance and urgency into a space that we can focus our attention on.

When you section off your responses, you make it easier to find the information we are looking for. It makes things look less daunting, less confusing.  The breaks in your text, which I love, set the pace for an easy to read, clear and balanced flow of information.  It gives our brain a moment to absorb what we have just read and retain what you want us to remember.

E grants often have set word counts and other limits.  You will be doing yourself a big favor by using white space in your narrative where ever possible.

Bullets

MASTER MINDSET: BULLETS ROCK

They don’t call these things bullets for nothing.

Bullets make your data pop. Bullets make you look professional.

They make it easy to take in and remember key points.  Use bullets to highlight important data that support your answers.

I have heard other grant panelists easily make a case in support of a proposal by simply rattling off bullet points to support their opinion.

Consistency

MASTER MINDSET: CONSISTENCY IS ATTRACTIVE

The mind loves patterns.

Patterns make it easier to navigate and remember information.

To be memorable, be consistent.

If you are using numbers i.e. “2”, be sure you do not spell out “two” somewhere else in your narrative.  If you are using the third person voice, maintain that voice throughout your writing.  If you capitalize your captions, capitalize all of them.

E grants offer limited formatting options, sometimes you will only be able to capitalize or use numbers. Still, strive to create a pattern of consistency in your writing with what you are given to help grant panelists read and retain information.  They will remember you for that.

Clarity

MASTER MINDSET: DON’T MAKE ME WONDER

Write as if the person reading your proposal does not know who you are.  Chances are, they don’t.

If you are writing about an organization with a long name, identify it with an acronym the first time you mention it.

For example, Queens Council on the Arts (QCA)

Focus on answering the questions.

If the question is really several questions, you can set off each response to make it easier to find the answers.

Remove anything else that does not support positioning you as the best candidate for the grant.  Unless specifically requested, remove quotes and testimonials.

Kill your darlings

MASTER MINDSET: GIVE ME ONLY WHAT I NEED

Be brave.

This is your next best step.  Be ready to kill your darlings.

Grant writing is best done with many eyes.

Write your first draft and let it sit.  Ask other people to review your work and be a ruthless editor.

To avoid writing that is weak and ineffective, be ready to, as Stephen King famously said to aspiring writers, “Kill your darlings.”

This way, you deliver exactly what a grant panelists needs, that and only that.   Take out whatever doesn’t clearly answer the questions so that you are left with a proposal that is well written, lean and powerful.

Follow these 6 strategies to write a proposal that places you in the top 10% of the field and delivers what a grant panel needs to know to say YES to your proposal.

Deploy readability, your superpower, to avoid panelist fatigue, panelist rage and to position yourself as the best candidate for the grant.

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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.

How Music Can Rekindle Your Creative Sense of Wonder

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

I spent an entire weekend in Miami among thousands of people who claimed to be music lovers.

And they behaved in many ways like music lovers – gathering with excitement, talking about the artists, getting dressed up to go to the concerts, etc.

Over dinner, I overheard some talk about the concerts.

“Dude, those fireworks were awesome!”

“You gotta follow that band now, they crushed it last night.”

“There must’ve been a couple of thousand people that showed up.”

I think of myself as a music lover.  But there is an enormous difference between them and me.

If I shut the sound off in my head, what I see are crowds of people eagerly chasing something that will dazzle them, wow them and take them to a heightened sensory experience of life.  Something that is anchored by 3 days of solid music, but to my eye, is designed to stimulate the senses, and does not engage them beyond encouraging stadium sized frenzied crowd responses.

Is that music, really?

While I do share their love for music, I am drawn to another kind of experience.

I pulled out a playlist I have been working on to hear the music that never fails to open up a world of wonder for me.

After many years of not listening to classical music, I discovered recordings and photos of Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian pianist my piano teacher adored.  In my memory, he was one of a group of older pianists, always pictured in a grand concert hall by an elegant grand piano.  And always playing Chopin.

Something in one of his photos fascinated me.  He was not by a piano, he was simply looking up at something and smiling, as if he was about to laugh.

It was his eyes.  I wondered what he was seeing.  And what he was hearing.

I found a few Youtube videos of him talking about music, about Rachmaninoff and the mysterious Russian soul of his music, about Western music, what great music gives us, and finally, his recording of a Chopin Ballade I have been tinkering with on and off since I was in music school..

What I heard brought tears to my eyes.  It changed my world.  Again.

What moved me?

He delivered on his promise.  To bring out the highest expression of what it means to be human through music created by great composers.

He understood his purpose.  He could play a piece by Chopin, Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff a hundred times, and there will always be something he will find that he could express in a new and different way.  Something he insisted on doing with a freshness in his approach each time to share with people.

He knew who was listening.  

“For some people, it means nothing.  You try to bring something to them and they say, ‘Oh, that’s very nice, but I like this one, I like that one, I like some popular piece, this or that…’ ” he said, “Nothing happens.  So it is not everybody that would and will respond.

But those who do, will never regret it.

Those who begin to understand how much it offers you from a person whose height of our existence – of knowledge of our existence – was so high, so important, those people, say from Bach to Shostakovitch, they gave us so much of the understanding of what we are, what we are for, what is it in us, what we are trying to do with our existence.

People become musicians or go to lots of concerts, become music lovers, because it gives so much to our lives.”

What brought tears to my eyes?

I also found myself feeling a sense of despair.  Of wondering if I was doing what I was destined to do with as much clarity and success as he did.  Of sensing regret for making decisions that led me away from what my purpose is.  Of doubting myself.

But here’s what changed my world.

Vladimir Ashkenazy spoke very simply about music and the beauty in his life.  He practices the piano every day.  He is married for a long time to his wife, also a pianist, with whom he has a wonderful family.

“My wife is Icelandic.  We’ve been married 55 years by now. Not bad, 55. Good number.”

And his eyes are always open to discover new depths, new expressions of the fullest human experience with all of its emotions in the music he loves to share with people who are listening.  Even if it is one person, what a wonderful gift that is.

That person, in this moment, is me.

And rather than be despondent about what I think I should be, could be, would be doing if only……. I am grateful for this beautiful music illuminating the beauty that is in my life, my daily art practice, my family and sharing my rediscovered creative curiosity as a gift every day.  Like Ashkenazy and all creative people, my work is to share that experience of wonder with someone else.

This is my purpose and it is for you, who are listening with an open heart.

Here’s the Chopin Ballade, No. 1 Op. 23 from my playlist. Close your eyes and let it light up your soul.

Share it with someone you love.

 

 

How to Redesign Rejection into Success

NO is a tough teacher

 

Has this happened to you?

Someone says no to you.

A foundation turns your proposal down.

You get a bad review, negative comments on your work.

You get no response to your work.

Nobody is coming to your show.

You can’t sell your work.

 

Getting a NO or a rejection letter is lousy.

Rejection can have serious implications for an person’s psychological state and for society in general.

Researchers say, the rejected should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and family.

That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, says Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, at the University of California.

 

At our recent awards ceremony, I spoke to an artist who invited me to his upcoming performance.

“Please send us information about this so we can put it on our promotional calendar, “ I said.

“Oh, but I didn’t get a grant this year,” he said.  “I came because I want to support my artist community and to feel what it is like to be among the grantwinners.”

He smiled and disappeared into the crowd.  

I expect to see him at next year’s awards ceremony as one of the grantwinners.  What he did was a positive step in getting beyond the NO and doing some strategic networking and marketing for his career.

To be an artist and put your work out into the world, you have to accept a reality that is polarized by a spectrum of human interaction with acceptance on one end and rejection on the other end.

We are hardwired to crave acceptance, belonging, being part of something. Perhaps that has something to do with our instinct for survival. Isolation and death are persuasive incentives.

When we are faced with rejection, we let NO destroy us because we have attached our sense of self worth, esteem, accomplishment to a decision someone else will make.   We fall hard, crushed by the weight of everything we have attached to this decision.  We have given up our power.

Unless you have a very tough skin, you will feel terrible when you get a NO.  Add that 2:00 am voice of self doubt and your own inner critic – you know that you are your own worst critic – and you will probably not sleep and wake up ready to chuck your dreams out the window.

Dealing with rejection is not easy.  It can be made worse by the words and behaviors of others and how you deal with it.  But, being mindful of how you control your thinking and experience of it can restore your inner strength and sense of well being.  

There are many reasons behind a NO that have nothing to do to with you or your self worth.  Here are 3 common examples:

Not yet – Sometimes foundations prefer observing you before they fund you.  This is a usually an internal decision that may or may not appear in their guidelines.  

Not the right fit – It is not what they are looking for.

Not this time – A funder may have given a grant award to a project similar to yours last year.  Their priorities may have changed so they will, for example, choose to fund artists like you but in a different part of the country.

Think of it this way: “you” personally, are not being rejected, it is the other person that is declining what you have to offer.  Don’t personalize rejection.

Take each NO as a chance to learn a little more about the decision maker.  A NO is a perfect opportunity to pick up the phone and ask for panel comments.  I do this as a matter of course for every grant I get as well as for every grant I don’t get.

Here’s what works for me:
Crumble up into a ball

Take whatever time you need to absorb NO.  Let your body and your mind take it all in.  I like to think of it like the beginning of making a pearl.

Just how does a pearl get started?

An irritant enters the mollusk either when it is open or sometimes it actually burrows through the shell from the outside. As the irritant enters the mollusk, in order for it to be the cause of a new pearl, it must pick up some of the mollusk’s mantle tissue on the way into the inside of the mollusk. It’s the mantle tissue that forms a pearl sac.

So…do you think you could start taking irritants in your life and turn them into beautiful pearls? What a challenge! And the humble, lowly mollusk’s lead the way in this miraculous process.

 

Take lots of deep breaths

Energize your inner mollusk

 

Re define No

I spoke to a group of MFA students recently and asked if any of them had success in writing grants.  A few raised their hands.  Then, I asked, “What did you write the grant for?”

“I needed the money.”

“I wanted to get famous.”

The usual answers.

One student raised his hand and said, “I wanted to focus my writing.”

He wrote grant proposals because they forced him to distill his thinking and be clear about everything that goes into making art like putting together a reasonable budget, marketing, a workplan, etc.  

I admire his understanding of the grant process as a long term game and his willingness to use this process as practice.  If he continues to do this, 2 things will happen: he will become a better grant writer who will win grant awards and he will gain more focus and clarity in developing his business skills as a working artist.

He wins whether he gets the grant or not.

No can be many things including:

Not you personally

Not yet

Not quite

Not for you

The most important thing to do is to lighten the weight of NO by detaching your sense of self worth, your self esteem and your belief in yourself.  Redefine what that NO is.  Maybe it is just a writing exercise for an MFA student.  

I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.

 Sylvester Stallone

Move on

When someone asks you how you are, simply say, “I’m fine.”

If pressed further, I suggest you take some advice from Austin Kleon and say,

No, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?

(When one is distressed, one either has to take a walk, or do like Paul Klee and “take a line for a walk.”)

Get out. Get some fresh air.

Repeat as needed

You will be just fine.

How Do You Respond to Fear – Fight or Flight…or Fright?

pencil instagram (1)“When we perceive a significant threat to us, then our bodies get ready either for a fight to the death or a desperate flight from certain defeat.”

You know the drill:

A threat is perceived

The autonomic nervous system automatically puts body on alert.

The adrenal cortex automatically releases stress hormones.

The heart automatically beats harder and more rapidly.

Breathing automatically becomes more rapid.

Thyroid gland automatically stimulates the metabolism.

Larger muscles automatically receive more oxygenated blood.

 

For me, it is not being able to breathe.  The walls falling and trapping me.  I skip fight and flight and plunge headfirst into fright.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear a voice whispering weakly, “Everything will be fine,” but my heart is beating so fast and so loud that I don’t hear anything.  And I don’t believe it.

That’s when it happens.  That awful black hole of despair in the pit of my soul begins to swallow every last bit of hope and I crumble.  Everything closes in.

I am so overcome with terror that I am paralyzed with fear.  People who know me are familiar with how I deal with bad, scary things.

Give me 24 hours and I will be fine.  Slowly, but surely, my mind clear, my back uncurls and I can stare back at whatever it was that terrified me.

This is the way my body has decided to react to threatening situations.

No matter how I try to fight or run away, this is how I process fear.

I often wish that deep breathing or some other stress reducing exercise would work to get me out of feeling so overwhelmed. But when I think about each time this has happened to me, I realize that my coping skills have become stronger and what knocked me for a loop doesn’t quite have the same punch the second time around.  It takes a bigger, scarier thing to get to me.

What really works for me is holding a pencil.  Something I can write my way out of my hell.

It feels like a lifeline and a weapon at the same time.  A way to plot my path back on my terms.  Truthfully, I never read what I have written afterwards. This kind of writing is more like shedding layers, not poetry.

So there you have it.

If you stumble across someone curled up in a ball, give her a pencil.  She will appreciate your understanding it is just her way of getting to the light.

Whatever your process is, honor it and become aware of what is going on in your mind and body.  Fight, flight or fright, the more you resist, the longer it will take you to get through it.  Accept it and let it take its course.

I am amazed that some people think I am fearless.  They admire my ability to stay calm under fire.  This makes me wonder if all of my heroes are actually going through the same internal roller coaster I am.

That is a comforting thought.  I feel better already.