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How to write a proposal (or funding application)

Caspar Lucksted - Thursday, November 16, 2017

Writing a proposal or funding application is often one of the hardest things creative people have to do. The trouble is, whether writing a brochure, pitch pack or even a dating profile, sooner or later we have to ‘sell ourselves’ in print. As most of us receive little training on this very specific art, it’s incredibly easy to get wrong – something I think we’re subconsciously aware of, and which makes us dread the task. It seems remiss to me that it’s not taught in schools.

Talking of remissness, I forgot to include instructions on how to write a proposal in my book

More than a year after delivery, I blushed to realise that I’d forgotten to include guidance on how to write any kind of funding application, commission application or proposal in my book ‘Organizing for Creative People. I’d intended it to be a complete guide, so this was annoying too. The question came up again at the masterclass I gave at Foyle’s flagship store on 30th August. And I realised I really must write a blog that I could direct people to, to remedy the omission, until the book goes to a second edition and I can request that these instructions are included.

Most people think they know how to write a proposal

Most people think they can write. And it’s human nature to regard anything you’ve created, or even chosen yourself, as inherently superior. This is where creative people who’ve learned to criticise and edit their own work have an advantage over everyone else. We know that the first idea is not always the best. We also know that work has to be created to a certain standard to survive in the marketplace – no excuses allowed.

The style of writing you learnt at school or university is totally useless for writing a proposal

The reason we’re all so confident, is that we learned to write essays in school. But essay, academic paper and thesis writing are entirely unlike the kind of writing you’ll need to draft a proposal. In fact, in educational establishments, you’re positively encouraged to be wordy, convoluted and to make your point sound more obscure or weighty than it is. This is (in my view) a form of vanity: simply mutual preening that educated people encourage each other in. Writing in the real world does not work like this. And educators do us all a disservice to teach us that wordy, convoluted writing will ever do us any favours, other than inside academic institutions themselves. Even there, as Albert Einstein said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ And it really is time they caught up.

The one principle you’ll need to bear in mind when writing a proposal

Anyone accepting applications probably has dozens if not hundreds to wade through. So how do you make yours stand out? Well, for that poor person is ploughing through applications, there is only one question in their mind, on behalf of themselves or their organisation. ‘What’s in it for me?’

Your proposal should tell them right up front ‘what’s in it for them’ (or their organisation). If they’re hiring you to work, it should tell them that you’re perfectly qualified for the job, what they’ll need to provide (and how easy it will be for them to provide it) and that you have a great idea that will make them look good. Similarly if you’re pitching to a venue or agent for gigs. Tell them who they need to sell you to (in terms of your fan following demographic/examples of festivals where you’d fit right in etc.), what your tech set up is, your pricing and other terms, and convince them that you’re going to make any promoter money. Give them all the materials they’ll need, like a description that can be lifted straight into their programme, and accompanying jpegs of your act. Provide whatever they’d need to be ‘ready to go’. Make it a ‘no brainer’ for whoever you’re addressing, to say ‘yes’.

The killer skill to have when writing a proposal or funding application

Funding applications often come with a huge list of criteria known as the ‘brief’. This brief is your best friend. Get a highlighter pen out and start highlighting what their specifications are, both for the project and writing the proposal itself. As you do this, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot their hidden agenda. Most people have one. They may say they want to raise money for charity, but actually maybe they want a lot of publicity for their organisation for doing so. If the secret agenda isn’t in their brief, find out what you can about it by researching the organisation or chatting to the funding/coordinating officer.

If you can fulfil their secret agenda when writing a funding application, it will give you the ‘edge’

Of course, if you’ve spotted and addressed a secret agenda – say, as in the example above, by proving you can attract a lot of publicity − then you’re going to be in a better position than most other applicants. Whether the other applicants are good at getting PR or not, you’ve stated up front that you can do so, and ‘a bird in the hand, is worth two in the bush’.

Don’t be afraid to write like an advertiser when you’re writing a proposal

A proposal or funding application is, in effect, an advert – however much funding bodies like to pretend it’s not. So far, I’ve talked about ‘what’ you should write, but not ‘how’ it should be written. And this too, is where people struggle.

First, remember that increasingly, people are being bombarded with information and distractions. And second, that their reading skills have been affected by the fact that much of that information is provided via screens, which produce eye strain. As a result, your writing style has to be simple, clear, well orientated and pitched to the reading age of an 8 year old. So how do you write like that? Here are some tips:

  • Use language your reader likes – So, if you’re applying for funding from an educational institution, a slightly more formal style may make them feel more comfortable (only slightly – bear the points below in mind too…). If you’re writing to a trendy café to paint their walls, then some slang and a more informal ‘feel’ may convince them that you ‘get who they are’. To do this, you must understand the people who will be reading your proposal, before you put pen to paper.
  • Use short sentences – cut them in half if you have to. Occasional two or three word sentences can add ‘punch’ to your message.
  • Use short paragraphs – as your teacher told you, one idea per paragraph please!
  • Use short words – don’t say ‘obfuscate’ where ‘blur’ or ‘confuse’ will do. Or ‘procure’ instead of ‘get’. In the exasperated words of the famous internet meme ‘Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!
  • Use lots of subheadings – yes they take up space, but they prepare the reader for the message you need to deliver. Using a subheading like ‘We have the experience to deliver [desired outcome]’, or ‘We’re ready to go’, becomes a promise you can back up with the highlights of your evidence, in the following paragraph. And the headline will jump out again when they skim read it. Don’t be afraid to be absolutely shameless about spelling out your excellent qualifications to deliver the job to their complete satisfaction, in each one. Subheadings will keep you focussed on the most important points to get across too, and it’s often an advantage to write them first, and all together.
  • Read the application out loud – where you stumble, something isn’t right. You may need to simplify a sentence, or add a comma or two to tell the reader how to pace/understand the clauses in it.
  • Include photos where possible – Funding portals don’t generally allow this, but if you’re submitting via a word document, insert good photos that demonstrate your point. It’s much harder to say ‘no’ when you’ve seen someone’s face. And for visual artists, it’s essential. You may also include photos that illustrate the diversity of people you work with e.g. children, disabled people, where this is desirable.
  • Provide hard evidence – provide as much evidence that you will deliver the desired outcome as you can. Bullet point it where you can.
  • Bold and italicise that evidence – Sometimes the point you need to emphasise lies within your main body of text. Where that’s the case, bold and italicise it, if you’re physically able to (not all funding portals will allow this. If you can’t, captialise where you need to.). This makes your essential points to convince the reader ‘jump out’, if they only have time to skim read what you’ve written.
  • Include something special to the funder/client – if you know they love special papers, print out your proposal on a specialist paper. If they love stereoscopic vision, deliver your mock up image in stereoscope. Don’t be gimmicky i.e. use an effect completely unrelated to the reader, but do add personalised touches that mean something to a private funder where appropriate to their interests. It makes them feel special.

Two additional points to remember, when writing a successful proposal

As I’ve said, you need to make it clear ‘what’s in it for them’ to the person or body concerned. However you may also need to work out what your reader fears (e.g. looking like a fool, overspending, not getting their parameters met etc.) and give them assurances that these things can’t happen. In other words, think about both the juiciest ‘carrot’ and how to avoid the ‘stick’.

Because they’re avoiding ‘sticks’, it’s worth remembering that many funding bodies will simply not give a grant to anyone on their first application. This is the ‘don’t want to look a fool’ aspect at play. When you’ve made at least two, or possibly more, applications to them, they start to feel that they ‘know you’ – and are more likely to give your proposal serious consideration. This is entirely arbitrary and unfair – but it’s unquestionably a factor. So don’t give up after the first unsuccessful application. Try again. Let them get to know you, and feel you’re a person they can trust. Ask the funding officer where you failed with your first application and what you could improve. Sometimes your first application is simply an hors d’oeuvre.

If you want to know more tips and tricks for staying sane in your professional creative work life, you’ll find them in ‘Organizing for Creative People’

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