What degree of boredom are you inflicting on your audience?

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This is the season of grant applications. If you’re in the throes of completing one, you have my sympathy. Many application forms seem to have been designed by a committee whose members didn’t communicate with one another. How else do you explain the repetitious questions, nonsensical questions, and typos to boot.

Anyone who successfully makes it through one of these paper or PDF torture devices should be applauded. But what about the folks who have to read the completed forms? They really deserve condolences.

Given the poor design of many grant applications, it can’t be easy to try to see through the faulty infrastructure to the content within it. The form may split up content that logically belongs together, for instance, or it may not allow the applicant enough room to truly develop a persuasive point.

So if I were someone reviewing a stack of funding applications, I’d get pretty grumpy just thinking about untangling the meaning from the mechanism of presentation. That’s why, when you’re submitting an application, it’s so critical to make sure that the ideas and information you shoehorn into the form don’t bore the reviewers.

In my experience working with hundreds of engineers, scientists, and IT professionals over the past 20 years, there are three degrees of boredom you can inflict (unintentionally, of course) on your audience. In order of increasing intensity, here they are:

Third-degree boredom

This happens when you use long, wordy sentences. American fiction writer Henry James once called nineteenth-century novels “large, loose baggy monsters.” The same phrase could describe paragraphs and sections in many pieces of technical writing.

Back in the Victorian era, business—and the flow of information fuelling it—moved at the pace of a prehistoric snail. Investors and patrons could afford the time to decipher bulky, indirect writing. If you think the people vetting your grant application have the same kind of leisure, you’re living in a nostalgic fantasy land.

Put your grant application language on a trim-and-tone program. Sculpt those three-line sentences into two lines or less. Simplify your language by using everyday words as much as possible. And abandon the semicolon (it will only tempt you to produce looser, baggier sentences).

Second-degree boredom

This occurs when you bury your main point. Sure, some of your reviewers may be used to reading academic writing, which tends to feature long introductions and paragraphs that meander gradually to the main idea. But your reviewers aren’t in the library when they’re assessing your application. They’re in business mode, which means they’re pressed for time and impatient.

Don’t make your readers dig to discover the most compelling bits of your application. Grant-hunting isn’t a game of hide-and-seek. It’s a game of show-and-tell, and it should be your goal to show the explicit value of what you’re proposing as clearly and as early as you can.

First-degree boredom

This degree of boredom makes reviewing a grant application not just challenging but also painful. It occurs when you fail to align your writing with the audience’s frame of reference.

First-degree boredom, like a first-degree burn, can be fatal. It can kill, quite quickly, your chance of getting the funding you need. First-degree boredom develops when content shows up in one of these problematic ways:

  • Evades the specified funding criteria
  • Uses technical concepts and terms unfamiliar to the reviewers
  • Assumes interests and motivations the reviewers don’t share
  • Fails to point out how the proposed project or business will achieve the goals that are nearest and dearest to the hearts of the reviewers

During this grant application season, please be gentle on your reviewers. Consider the daunting task they face, trying to sort rapidly through a pile of complex descriptions and business cases, and try to make their job easier.

Avoid the causes of boredom we’ve just explored, and you’ll make your application instantly stand out from the rest. As a side benefit, you’ll probably also find the writing process less burdensome and more clarifying, so you can produce your next application or pitch more quickly and easily.


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