It is rare for anyone to speak about selling in the research community – unless they research that topic in a business school. In some areas of science I have never heard people speak about anything that might be mistaken for trying to sell their ideas and in some other areas of research the idea of selling still has a taint of charlatanism about it. In some areas it goes deeper still and the very idea of application has a question mark hanging over it.
There is, of course, a strong argument to be made that universities are the last bastions of knowledge for its own sake and the only place left where anyone can swim against the tide and in fact it is the vision of research that I’d defend above any other; but it has mostly become an irrelevance in recent years for anyone below the very senior ranks and even they are often too busy running departments to do any thought leadership as well. Even old colleagues of mine working in theoretical areas of social sciences and philosophy seem continually pressurised to ‘do something with it’ and get hold of some cash.
I think it is clear now that we can no longer assume that outstanding projects will sell themselves, that great ideas will be recognised and given space and time to grow and be promoted and that with a better mousetrap the world really will be beating a pathway to your door: we have to get out there and sell our stuff. One thing that becomes clear for anyone who works around projects and pitching and selling in academia is that great ideas badly sold are regularly beaten by pretty good ideas well pitched. So, if our ideas can’t be relied upon to speak for themselves we need to give them a good shove in the right direction to help them on their way and to get other people thinking as positively as we do about them.
In one way or another the academic world will be, is becoming or already is (depending on which jurisdiction you are working under) a project based one and based, in the end, on different forms of competition. In the more entrepreneurial academic cultures it is possible (and has been for ages) to get a very long way while doing very little in the way of recognisable academic work in teaching or research as long as the lines of project funding can be opened up and the taps kept turned on.
And if we accept we are in competition for cash then the question of selling in all its various forms comes to the fore, I don’t think we can avoid it. The previous post on the elevator pitch introduced an excellent way to begin to think about what are the key selling points of your project, to boil it right down and have the latest, hard hitting version of what you are promising to achieve and why at your fingertips.
To think about selling and persuasion with a bit more detail I’ll use some headings from a classic in the marketing field and see what lessons we might learn from there and if any of it is transferrable to the world of research proposal writing.
Robert Cialdini’s work is about how people can be persuaded to act and decide, how marketing works, how to sell and how to avoid being sold to – in the field it is highly respected and is backed up by evidence from the very significant body of research on the study of social influence and persuasion. It is a mainstream place to start to see if there is anything from the selling literature that we might keep in mind when trying to put together a competitive ERC proposal. In the other blog posts so the focus has been on logic and rhetoric which might be thought of as more on the ‘art’ of persuasion side of the coin, now we are going to take a look at what the science of persuasion might add to that. There are six principles of persuasion in Cialdini’s work and we’ll take a look one by one to see how they map over onto good practice for proposal writing.
Reciprocation – reciprocation recognises that people feel indebted to those who do something for them or give them a gift. The implication is that ‘you have to go first’ and give something to make the other person feel that they want to give something in return. In the context of proposal writing I think this gift giving first step can only take one form and that is the gift of (significant) information and a willingness to contribute selflessly to the common goals to the wider environment that we all share – in project planning terms this will probably be about the overall objective or the ‘greater why’ argument as it is sometimes called. The writer has to be very generous here with their knowledge and information and add something new to the community and to the reader, to clarify, to contribute, to aid and assist the common good in the field where the work is going to take place, to be cooperative. The most productive attitude to adopt here is ‘who can I help?’ rather than ‘who can help me to get where I want to go?’. In fact, the best attitude to adopt is that this generosity is already and part of a long track record of such community focused work which is very well established and that this project will help ERC to support this work to the benefit of all. It might also be helpful to show how appreciative you are that the ERC is providing you with this opportunity, a unique chance to make this contribution which you value and respect and which has drawn out this highly personalised response from you, that you see the world through their eyes and share and value this vision, that the ERC is a special kind of a thing (which actually it is) – this might in some small way draw out a reciprocal positive response. I am sure there are plenty of other gifts you can include in the writing of each particular proposal but to be guided by a spirit of generosity is probably a good principle.
Social proof – when people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look to those around them to guide their decisions and actions. They especially want to know what their peers are doing and thinking. I think here what the ERC proposal writer can do is to link their work into the work of well known peers by showing that either you are part of the network of key trusted thought leaders or are working on lines of research that can be linked to them and on projects related to peers that can offer proof of the value of the work proposed. The obvious place to make this case is in the state-of-the-art section of the body of the text and in the cv where a paragraph pointing out the work is well linked in to the best network and has been supported by other funding bodies. I think the ideal balance here is that you can show that you have enough funding experience to give this social proof (as well as other things about being a good manager and general ‘safe pair of hands’) and this acts a form of testimonial. The principle here is that we want to give the impression that highly esteemed others are seeing you and this work as in demand and worthy of support, that other people like them (i.e., the evaluators) think positively of this thing which may help persuade others to think similarly.
Commitment and consistency – people strive for consistency in their commitments and they prefer to follow pre-existing attitudes, values and actions. We might use this principle in ERC proposal writing by finding out and pointing out work that has been funded in your field recently in areas closely related to the work that you are proposing to show that there is a good ‘head of steam’ and that good past decisions have been made in this area and that the work is as good as it could be based on the information available at the time. The researcher then needs to find ways to stress values connecting existing actions and projects with the underlying values of the new work that is being proposed. We need to be able to show that commitments have already been made to work in this field and that it is seen as a worthy cause, perhaps even with an earlier ERC project, probably with other EC funded work and to work on the impression that it would be to act consistently to keep funding work in this line – even if we are promising to go well beyond what has already been achieved. This is the core work of the state-of-the-art section, in fact, this is the critical purpose of this section in the creation of a persuasive argument i.e.,. ‘we have all this stuff, we are committed to getting these problems solved, it is based on the best knowledge we had but now we need to take our commitment one step forward if we are really concerned about making a lasting difference to overcoming these problems’.
Liking – People prefer to say ‘yes’ to those they know and like or are similar to themselves. Well, we can’t really make ourselves more physically attractive…unfortunately, but I think we can make the best of a bad job at the interview and present our best face there and, perhaps more importantly, present ourselves in a way that is recognisable as typical and appropriate for such a setting i.e., make sure we appear to be part of the right tribe. In writing I think we can try to make ourselves as likeable as possible in this sense by showing that we are similar to the likely evaluation audience and know their challenges and preferences and so on. This, again, I think is a core job of the state-of-the-art section and the first orientation section about the overall objective of the project, the things that you’ll be contributing to but which are shared problems of the wider community. We can also make ourselves ‘liked’ in writing by working hard on the proposal structure, make is simple and open and readable, leave the reader with no work to do and make it shorter than the limits – you’ll be well on the way to being a likeable candidate.
Authority – everyone respects authorities and tends to want to follow the lead of real experts and giving the appearance of authority increases the likelihood that others will comply with requests and directions. I think we can use this tendency in various ways in drafting our ERC work. Of course, as a general rule it is necessary to appear authoritative at all times and write confidently definitively even when we don’t necessarily feel this way. In particular don’t open up too many questions and options especially in areas where your background might raise some concerns. Rather, state objectives as definite end points that will be reached and work backwards from there to create the project. And build the argument around the most respected and authoritative work in the field – don’t underestimate the extent to which many evaluators will be working at the limits of their own knowledge and are looking outside themselves for guidance which they might find by reference to the work of recognised authority figures and association of this work with them. In fact, I think that ERC evaluators are pretty tough and independent thinkers and won’t be influenced by this very much if it doesn’t actually ring true with the science contained in the detail of the work – but nonetheless it is a good percentage bet to link researcher and research work to authorities and authoritative projects and sources of knowledge and opinion very clearly and it can certainly do no harm.
Scarcity – it is a basic of economic theory that the less there is of something, the more valuable it is, the rarer a thing is the more people tend to want it. Like the other characteristics above, to overplay this in an ERC proposal, or any other proposal, would be a mistake and would alienate the reader which is the very worst effect we can get. However, in the more discursive and argumentative sections of the proposal i.e., in the sections on objectives and state-of-the-art, underpinning it all is a version of this scarcity logic, in fact we can’t really escape it and it is basic to the selling of the proposal whether we try to foreground it or not. What we are saying is, quite simply, that this proposal is timely, urgent and that this researcher in this place is the person to do it – ‘buy it now!’ is what we are saying in a very watered down form, ‘this offer won’t be there forever!’ We have already made it plain how glad we are that the ERC is offering us this unique chance to carry out this work and this is part of the argument when we consider the topic of reciprocity (number 1, above). However, added to that is the sense that that should also be grateful that they have happened upon this thing at this time and that all the stars are aligned in a way that they really shouldn’t miss out on. So, along with the benefits of the work which should be clear from the objectives we can help guide the reader a little by pointing out that this configuration of ideas and person is unique and we should make it clear throughout why it is. This aspect of the selling is built into proposal writing and as it is there all along when we try to build arguments about why this is better than the other competing proposals: the trick is not to overdo it but certainly draw attention to the fact that these objectives and the benefits they encapsulate are available only through funding this action. We need to make sure this part of the argument is clear and it should make a favourable impression, consciously or otherwise, if it is done with the right degree of finesse i.e., somewhere between the normal academic modesty and the televangelist.
Don’t push any one of these dimensions too far – you’ll look insincere at best and might kill the project at the very worst. However, I think this is a great checklist of some basic elements of the work that can be used to make sure all the right psychological buttons are being pushed, at least to some extent, to get the reader on your side. Too many proposals seem to assume that the reader is going to be on their side from the start – but with a pile of work to shift and sift the reader is not by default going to do anything to see why your work deserves that they delve into it to reveal the precious nuggets – the job is with the researcher to make the proposal as irresistible as possible and this check list is one way of giving ourselves the best chance of making a good impression.