Is it really about presentation?

The rhetoric of scientific writing and discourse has long been a subject of research and debate which I’ll draw on extensively in future posts when thinking about the fine details of how to put the core of the argument together in an ERC proposal. For the moment I want to consider some simpler issues about the importance of good presentation in a successful proposal because lots of researchers seem to think that if they write something interesting down in pretty much any order it will somehow magically rearrange itself in the reader’s mind or that the reader will do the work of piecing the puzzle together.

Something struck me when I was watching a tv programme recently in which there was a brief interview with Shaun Greenhalgh who is a sculptor and painter of extraordinary and exquisite skill and whose work has been appraised and erroneously authenticated by the world’s leading connoisseurs and art experts i.e., he is what might commonly be called a forger. I noted down as accurately as possible what he said about how to create a convincing work that would pass expert assessment and I think it is interesting for a number of reasons. He started out by saying ‘that the level of connoisseurship in a lot of cases is found wanting’ when they were looking at his work and wondering if it was original or not. Next he said something that I think is important when thinking about writing any proposal and, given their peculiar and specific nature, ERC proposals in particular. He said ‘what I found I always had to do is to tick the right boxes in the experts’ minds when they come to look at the painting or any other work of art for that matter. What they are actually looking for that says it’s genuine or it isn’t. I think if you find out what those triggers are and tick those boxes they go further than most people might imagine even if they are relatively poor works’. (You can see this short interview here

What I think is worth keeping in mind from this statement is that he has a highly developed ‘theory of mind’ and tries to understand the world as completely as possible through the eyes of the person looking at the art work. He knows that all looking and reading is done using grids of ideas and presuppositions that are put in place to make sense of complex phenomena, that looking and reading is done in the vast majority of cases against a check list of characteristics and details that together allow for decisions to be made in situations where a decision is required, in this case a decision about authenticity. What he understood better than the experts in his field it seems is that these grids and lenses actually limit what the viewer can see and leads to an overemphasis on certain desirable characteristics even if the work overall has weakness i.e., ‘is relatively poor’ which I take to mean that there were detectably not originals. The argument is simply that if you find out what the reader or viewer is looking for and understand that they will be looking for a fairly limited range of things to make sense of what is in front of them, you can trip these triggers and this alone will take the work forward to a surprising extent ‘go further than most people might imagine’ as Shaun says. This selective viewing and reading habit is also one that has been identified in studies of how scientists read and we’ll use this information in more detail in coming posts to thing about strategies of writing that respond best to these habits.

The advantage we have in the ERC is that we know what the reader is looking for. Discourse analysis tells us that readers have what is called a ‘purpose laden schema’, which means in practice here that they are trying to find fundable work (or in the same measure at least trying to get rid of the stuff that really can’t be supported while the rest slowly rises to the surface) and that they are using the evaluation criteria to do this. They are not reading in any strong sense at all but, rather, processing the texts against the time frame of the task and the schema of what comprises a good proposal. Given this fairly obvious fact it is quite surprising when so many proposals are written without thinking in detail about how the material will be received by the hard pressed evaluator i.e., they are not making them easy to process. So, in a very simple way lots of proposals miss out the simple advantages of ticking all the boxes that the ERC have set up and therefore making it easy to deal with and more likely to get positively evaluated. Whether we like this or not it is simply the case that if the reader can get to the content and if that content systematically gives them what they expect to receive in the order it is expected to come then already the text is in a more competitive position than the many other texts that don’t make sure they are ready for quick processing without raising any objections.

Simple ways of doing this are to look carefully at the letter and spirit of the rules as we discussed in previous posts and to use the evaluation criteria as structuring principles or at least have them echo very clearly throughout the text so the evaluator whether consciously or not is able to tick boxes and see that this is indeed an ERC project. Proposals can be quite chaotically presented and regardless of the quality of the work this puts up a barrier between the writer and the evaluator which is very unhelpful and puts far too much emphasis on the reader to re-create the meaning of the text – this is something I am willing to do when this is a client assignment but am certain that even the most well intended evaluator would find the process often too daunting. So, I’d suggest very strongly indeed that the proposal has a very obvious logical flow from overall objective to which the work is going to make a contribution, through focused project objectives which describe the benefits is will deliver, through results intended, through methods to carry out the work and finally to resources – a cause and effect relationship both up and down the text from top to bottom each part causing or caused by the parts above and below should be very obvious to the reader.

It is not possible, I think, to win with a project that is all style over substance – in fact, I have seen reviews that in effect say exactly that (again this is the excellent evaluation process working effectively). However, I have read plenty of reviews which are basically saying ‘we have no idea what this is about and can’t really say anything sensible about it’ and these are one that haven’t been properly and logically worked up. I have also seen examples of winning proposals that before I reviewed them were opaque to both me and also to some extent to the researcher. The value of a dialogue about clear ideas from a disinterested reader can be for the writer to revisit them and see that they are not well thought through. After some very intensive work that researchers have often said was decisive in their view I have seen proposals win often enough to believe that a better and more logical presentation really made a difference.

Also, when a project is reviewed and the messages are obscure or contradictory (sometimes the researcher wonders if the evaluators have read the project that they had submitted) there is nothing really to learn from the whole process and some researchers take this quite hard. A better structured proposal would have allowed them to ‘fail better’ (we take this, of course, as most everything else worth knowing, from Samuel Beckett) and to have at least drawn on the expertise of the reviewers to help develop the ideas or the approach – as Francis Bacon said “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion”. So, excellent presentation also plays a critical role if things don’t go according to plan. I think the worst fate for a proposal is to fade out of contention, to fail because it was never really going to win, that the surface was so ruffled that it was impossible to see if anything worth fishing out sat beneath it. Better to commit to clear ideas and go down all guns blazing and fail, if you are going to, for a reason.

And, I think it is a safe bet to make that in comparing projects close to the cut off point for funding the clearer and simpler the presentation the easier it will be for the work to attract support and interest. So, while I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that rhetoric can trump science I have seen enough to argue that without a persuasive argument which is easy to get at some projects that won and which I was involved with close up wouldn’t have, that the science alone in a poorly developed argument is likely to be less easy to evaluate and so less predictably successful than a very transparent text. From which I would conclude that in some important and possibly decisive respects it is well worth the extra thinking time that it takes to write very logically and transparently, it is never wasted time and might well push work up the list a place or two which could make all the difference.