President Obama Would Likely Make a Good Grant Writer, as He Recognizes the Value of Telling a Compelling Story

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, President Obama said this about his first term:

The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right, and that’s important [. . . .] But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

President Obama correctly points out that presidents often serve as the nation’s Story-Teller-in-Chief. For example, FDR’s Fireside Chats calmed a frantic nation caught up in the uncertainties of the Great Depression (he was the first president to really have access to and understand mass media) and President Reagan’s weekly radio addresses gave him a regular story telling platform that has been used by every succeeding president.

Like the presidency, grant writing at its most most basic level is nothing more than story telling. Successful presidents and successful grant writers are good story tellers, telling their audiences stories the listeners/readers want to believe in.

The latter point is critical in grant writing, as grant reviewers come to the process with preconceived notions of what they expect to read. The grant writer’s job is to craft a compelling story that meets readers expectations within the constraints of the often convoluted RFP. For example, when writing a childhood obesity prevention proposal for a poor and minority target area, it is good idea to suggest in the needs assessment that part of the problem is the lack of available fresh and nutritious food.

In other words, readers will expect a reference to food deserts, whether or not there are few grocery stores in the area (we also wrote about this process in “Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs“). And a food desert conjures up images of want and neglect that are key elements in a “grant story.”

It’s possible that we shouldn’t trust stories nearly as much as we do; in Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on why stories make him nervous, he says that “narratives tend to be too simple,” that they tend to focus too much on good versus evil, that they tend to focus on intent instead of accident, and that they play on our cognitive biases. (A somewhat skeptical New Yorker article about TED talks even said that we might want to “feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions,” which is what proposals should basically do.) But most grant reviewers are still looking for stories, even if the stories are simplistic.

The better a grant writer is at telling the story, the more likely she will be to write funded grants. While it is possible to get a grant without a cohesive narrative story, the odds of success increase with the quality of the tale being told. One can get lucky, but it is better to get skilled, because one always count on skill, while luck is elusive.*

When reviewers consider a stack of proposals, they will gravitate toward those that are readable and interesting while fitting within the framework of their expectations, much like you’ll gravitate towards readable and interesting novels more than those that are the opposite. Even if the need in a community is great, a disjointed proposal will generally score lower than one that captures the reader’s imagination.

In composing your narrative, make sure you weave a consistent story throughout all sections. This is easier talked about than done in large part due to the chaotic and repetitive nature of most RFPs, which are written by committee and resemble a camel more than a thoroughbred horse. We’ve written extensively about this in many contexts. Your task as a grant writer is to feed back the information requested in even the most confusing RFP, and you should do so in a way that makes all sections of the proposal hang together. You don’t want to be like President Obama in the quote above, realizing that you’ve failed to fit your policies and your community’s needs into a cohesive story.


* My favorite quote on “luck” is from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Peter Thiel’s essay on luck and life is also good.

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