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.

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

20140603_142704

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.

…And Why is That Important?

 

Most of us don’t know what to say when faced with this question.

Especially for the 4th or 5th time.

Most of us have never thought to ask ourselves more than once.

I suspect it is because we haven’t really figured that out ourselves so this question would expose that.

The reason to ask yourself this over and over is to make you think deeply about why you are doing something and reveal what you are thinking.  And why your work is important enough for other people to pay attention to it, fund it or buy it.

Your answer to this question is the seed of your mission.  From this, you build your tagline, your pitch, your grant proposal narrative.

I asked one artist to tell me why his art was important.

“I create art because I have a message to share with the world,” he said.

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“Well, I have something important to say,”  he said.

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

A moment passed.  Then, he said, “It could help people, maybe show them something new.”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

He shifted restlessly in his seat, thinking.  “Seeing something they never saw before, or even imagined… it could change them, make them experience things differently…”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“If my art could give people a new experience, it could change them, make them feel and connect on a deeper level.  They would change how they go through life.”

“And why is that important?”  I asked.

“Life,” he paused, and finally said, “is too short not to live every single moment deeply and fully.”

Now that is very different from his first answer.

Millions of people have something to say, a message they want to share with the world.  If we allowed ourselves to receive all of these messages, we would be in a constant state of bombardment and overload.

We decide what we are going to pay attention to.

To get a grant as an artist, it is not enough to have passion, skills or a message.  But by asking yourself this question over and over, you will discover something else: impact.  You will know why your work is vital, why it has to happen now, and why the world will be better for it.

You will have a reason for someone to take note of what you are doing.

And this is important because…

 

Grantwriting, Fundraising & Driver’s Ed

You ask me about how to write a grant.

You ask about fundraising.

My question to you is: Can you drive a car with no gas?

You have something that you are passionate about, something you believe deeply in.  It may be something you feel you were meant to do and share with the world.  

It can be a series of paintings, a book, a play, a desire to make the world a better, a more beautiful place.  Something you are uniquely positioned to do.

Maybe you are building your practice, you may be in a MFA program or both.

The most important question you have is: How will you create a life around making art or your passion project that can sustain you?

Which brings me to grantwriting and fundraising.

Learning how to write a grant that gets funded or creating ways for people to donate money to you is like learning how to drive a car to get someplace.  It is understanding how to navigate the world of foundations, philanthropy and donors.  Conceptually, it is not too different from mastering the rules of the road behind the wheel of a car.

Picture yourself in the driver’s seat after you have just learned how to drive.  You will need a few things before you get going:

  • A destination – do you know where you are going?
  • Directions – what is the best way to get there?
  • Gas – have you got what you need to power your car?

The same is true in grantwriting.  Knowing how to put together a competitive proposal is only part of the process.  To turn that proposal into a successful grant award you will need to do a few other things:

  • Give the funder what they want

Think of it this way: You want something, they want something.  A grant, like most human interactions, is a fair exchange between people. Give funders what they want first before you start asking.  Do your homework. Answer the questions clearly.  Respect word limits. Address the criteria. Granting an award to someone is like saying yes to the right partnership. Understanding what is important to a funder and positioning yourself as the one who can deliver that is what you give in exchange for a grant award. Make it about them.

Tip: Always give first.

  • Give the funder a place to jump in

Why just ask for money?  If you create an experience where you can invite the funder to see themselves as a part of beyond funding it, you will open up the door for so many other ways you can work together.  

Tip: Give something bigger.

  • Give the funder confidence

What do you need before you invest your money or your time into something?  You will probably do some research and talk to people you trust.  

A grant review panel is no different.  They will be looking closely at your background, your letters of reference.  They will scrutinize your budget to see if your numbers reflect fair market values. You need to give them everything they need to give them the confidence to invest grant dollars in you.  

Tip: Create trust

Approach your grantwriting and fundraising efforts with these mindsets and you will get much more than success and confidence in achieving your grantwriting goals.  Get to your destination and enjoy the ride.

How Your Aunt Millie Can Make You a Better Grantwriter

older-woman-smiling

There must be something in the air whenever people begin to write grant proposals.

Something that lands on your shoulder and hisses in your ear, “Don’t forget your proposal p’s and q’s!”  

If you obey this little voice, you will end up with a grant proposal that looks like a wall of text jammed with information about you using ten dollar words that read like a matter-of-fact summary of dry facts.

 

twitter-2Jargon is the pig latin of snobs – Tweet that!

Most people believe this is how to write a grant that will get funded.  

Why anyone would think that is beyond me but after reviewing grants for many years, this is what I see.  

What that kind of proposal is guaranteed to produce is what I call “panelist rage” which is quickly reached after the stage called “panelist fatigue”.  

Once that kicks in, you have a slim to none chance of regaining ground and getting that grant.

Here are 3 things you can do to win over a grant panelist:

 

1. Make it passionate

If you are putting together a grant proposal for a project you are passionate about, start by writing a short paragraph of 3-4 sentences that captures why you feel it is urgent, important and essential.  

Don’t feel like you have to start at the beginning of the list of questions you will have to answer.  

This paragraph will most likely become part of your project description but it will keep you on track as you write your proposal.  

I call this “pulling in the grant panelist”.

When I am looking for a book to read in a book store, one that I will actually pay money for, I have to be hooked by either the jacket blurb or the opening sentences.  

These are the places most people go to if they are curious to know more about the story and ultimately, buy the book.

As a grant panelist, I often find myself doing the same thing when I read a proposal.  

I look at the opening of the project description which usually sags with self consciousness, lack of urgency or sounds dry, factual and regrettably, forgettable.

Almost as if they were repeating this amongst themselves and not to a group of people who may have never heard of them.  

But if you imagine yourself telling your favorite Aunt Millie about your project, you will have to use your imagination to make it come to life for her.

You want her to feel the same passion that you have.

Write down what you would say to here even if what you are describing is not in chronological order because what is key here is to make Aunt Millie feel the urgency you feel.

Go ahead and write what you feel has to be said first, and you can fill in the stuff you should include later.

 

1. Make it about Aunt Millie

Fiction writers talk about creating an experience, or a dream state for the reader.  

In his book, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about the “fictional dream” and how the writer must use the power of writing – language, plot and voice – to keep that reader in the narrative flow of that dream.  

Think of the person who can tell a long joke and keep everyone at the edge of their seat waiting for the punch line.

What she says, how she says it, the timing are all crucial elements to the success of the joke.  

This dream state, or the experience your project, has to become something Aunt Millie can imagine herself being in.

You will want her to sit up a little straighter, clutch her pearls, and say, “I can see myself there.”  

Leave space in your writing for Aunt Millie or a grant panelist to invest some of their imagination in to become part of your project.

Successful grantwriters use the same strategies as fiction writers to engage grant reviewers as they make their case.

 

3.Make it universal

Philanthropy is all about making the world a better place, one person at a time.

Even if the grant proposal you are writing is about creating a piece of art or writing music, the underlying intent is that work will contribute to making the world a more beautiful place for people.

Many artists will spend more time describing the art than the change the art will make.

One way I like to describe doing this better is this:  

twitter-3

Sell Paris, not the airbus – Tweet that!  

Focus on the destination, the dream of being in the City of Light, April in Paris, baguettes and cafes.  

Once you have hooked people into the emotional pull of that vision, how they get there is not as important.  

Tell me your project will open my eyes to a different way to see colors, or show me a new way to move through light and shadow.  

Change something for me that will make life better.

Artists have the power and the vision to do this.  

By keeping these three things in mind you will make a fan out of Aunt Millie and you will create a proposal a grant reviewer will love.

 

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Hoong Yee

20140603_142704

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.