How to Make your Ideas Stick in Grant Proposals – A Book Review

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    What is a sticky idea?
    One of the most stimulating books I have read in recent years in one by Chip Heath and Dan Heath called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007). By sticky, the Heath brothers mean that “your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.”

    Sticky ideas are important in proposals. If you cannot get reviewers to understand and remember your major themes, your grant proposals are not likely to be successful. Too many grant proposals are LMO (Like Many Others). You need to find ways to stand out in a crowded pack. Sticky ideas will help you do this.

    According to the Heaths, there are six basic principles at work in all sticky ideas:

    Simplicity
    Sticky ideas are stripped down to their essential core. Here is an example from a grant proposal: “Over the past five years, we have received “Excellent” ratings on all of our government grants.”

    Unexpectedness
    To get people to pay attention to your ideas, you need to challenge people’s expectations. The most basic way to get someone’s attention is to break a pattern by surprise or interest. Curiosity occurs when we feel a gap in our knowledge, and knowledge gaps create interest.

    Concreteness
    Being concrete helps make ideas clear and memorable. Concrete language helps people understand new concepts – especially novices and those in a hurry, like reviewers. For experts, concreteness helps construct higher, more abstract insights. Here is an example from a grant proposal: “Each year, more than a million children in developing countries die from dehydration. This problem can be prevented at a very low cost. Oral Rehydration Therapy saves children’s lives.”

    Credibility
    People need to test your ideas to see if they are true. A credible idea makes people believe. Here is an example from a grant proposal: “In the past year, we have successfully catered two State Department dinners at the White House.”

    Emotions
    People will care about ideas if they can feel something. An emotional idea makes people care. Use associations, appeals to self-interest, and appeals to identity to create empathy.

    Stories
    People are more likely to act on your ideas if you can tell a great story. Stories are powerful because they provide simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). A good story makes people act.
    The Heaths’ advice has obvious applicability to the content of your grant proposals. By using sticky ideas, you can help overcome problems that commonly plague proposals. You can:
    • Get reviewers to pay attention to your message.
    • Get reviewers to understand and remember.
    • Get reviewers to believe you or agree.
    • Get reviewers to care.
    • Get reviewers to act.

    How Sticky Ideas help Reviewers
    Most grant reviewers use fast and frugal mental processes to make decisions about your proposals. Their cognitive resources are limited and they do not have a great deal of time. Consequently, your grant proposals should be designed so that reviewers can evaluate them with as little mental effort as possible. Sticky ideas will help reviewers remember, understand, and believe your proposal, quickly and easily.

    You can make your proposals stickier if you simplify your messages, make them concrete, emphasize the most telling details, use interesting and inspiring stories, and stimulate curiosity. The challenge in any proposal is to make your proposal understandable, memorable, and effective.

    Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die will help you accomplish this task. I strongly recommend this book to all proposal professionals.
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    Dr. Jayme Sokolow, founder and president of The Development Source, Inc.,
    helps nonprofit organizations develop successful proposals to government agencies.
    Contact Jayme Sokolow.
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