The secret to effective communication: Concepts to help your grant proposals, papers, and more

Sheila Cherry, PhDcareer success, research leadership, research successLeave a Comment

Whether you’re writing a grant proposal or technical manuscript, giving a research talk, or having a conversation with a senior or junior colleague, you probably want to be understood. You might also want the other party(ies) to agree with your perspective, or to take action based on what you share.

No matter the desired outcome, there is one key to effectively communicating: understanding your audience so you can frame your approach to meet their needs. This means answering some key questions: Who are they? What perspectives do they bring? What do they need to know from you to be able to understand your perspective?

If your first thought is, “figuring that out sounds like a lot of work,” then my question to you is, how much extra work arises out of ineffectual communication? It’s likely more than the work you would invest upfront to plan out your approach to the situation at hand, and doing this advance work can save headaches, misunderstandings or missteps, and lost time after the fact.

While we may not think of the readers of our grant proposal or research paper as being in dialogue with us, communicating poorly can still have similar consequences: maybe the grant application isn’t awarded (headaches and lost time), or the paper is rejected (headaches and lost time), or the audience at your presentation can’t get out of the room quickly enough (headaches related to our reputation or impacts of our work).

It’s hard to overstate the value of effective communication. What’s more challenging is figuring out how to be a more effective communicator. Largely this is because of the inherent struggle between what we want to communicate, and what the individuals receiving the communication want or expect from us. When we add in some constraints like page, word, or time limits, that means that we have to be really good at meeting the audience’s needs quickly, because we don’t have room to meander our way through to try to hit all of the possible needs.

An additional challenge with respect to communicating our own research is that we know a lot about it—it’s the space where we invest a lot of time thinking and doing. Our audience may or may not know a lot about that space, and even among those who know a lot (e.g., expert reviewers), they will always be carrying with them their own perspectives. This dynamic often results in us, as communicators, doing one of two things: telling the audience too much so they will know almost as much as we do (and, sometimes, to convince them that we do know a lot), or not telling them enough because we’ve assumed that they already know enough and share our perspective. Both are recipes for poor communication. So how do we bridge this space between what we want to communicate and what our audience needs from us? Use this three-pronged approach:

Understand your purpose

Knowing what you want to achieve with your communication is a crucial step. After all, you cannot plan a journey well if you don’t know what the destination is. Once you understand what it is that you want to achieve, you can work backwards to identify what information you need to convey to get your audience there.

For example, if your grant application seeks to produce essential new knowledge in a research space, then your application needs to build a story that points toward that outcome.

Similarly, if you are having a conversation with your department chair about getting a pay raise, then your approach to the conversation needs to be building toward that desired outcome. In both of these examples, and countless others, how you build the story depends on the next piece of strategy.

Understand your audience

Defining who will be receiving your communication, what they likely know or don’t know, what they need, and what they expect or value is central to identifying the way you will communicate your purpose. If you’re invited to give a talk, write a review article, or submit a proposal, one of your first questions should be “who is the intended audience?” Without this information, you cannot design an effective strategy to meet your goal.

Extending our two examples above, for the grant application, the audience is most likely going to include some combination of funding agency staff, peer reviewers, and potentially other stakeholders (e.g., patient advocates). In a general sense, you can learn about the audience members: the funding agency’s values and needs, the expertise of the peer reviewers, the experiences of the patient advocates. Yes, you may have to make some assumptions here because, unless you ask each individual what they know and that their perspective is, you will not be able to write an application that addresses those specific needs.

You also cannot write an application that meets all of the needs of each person on the receiving end because those needs will vary. In the one-on-one scenario, you can make some assumptions about what your chair values and needs and the environment that informs their decision-making.

Once you equip yourself with this perspective, you can come up with a strategy that takes the audience’s needs into consideration on the way to fulfilling your purpose. Your grant proposal can be written for an educated audience using simple language that makes it easy for experts and non-experts to understand. Your request to the chair can thoughtfully incorporate their perspectives to help them see the way forward.

Emphasize the benefits and/or impacts

Humans—even peer reviewers!— are emotional creatures. When we are intentional about our communication, we give these other humans a reason to care about what we are conveying. In most cases, the reason an audience will care is going to vary by audience.

When you’ve defined who your audience is and what is important to them, you’ll have the necessary information to align your work with what they care about. While the specifics will change based on the audience, the general rule is that people care about benefits and impacts. In other words, it’s the outcomes and what they mean that get people excited.

To do this, make sure you’re answering the “so what” question before your audience has a chance to ask it; tell them why they should care. I recognize that this can be easier said than done. In fact, when our team at CareerVolt is working with investigators on their writing or presentations, we will ask them “so what?” (in a kind way), and often they’ll say, “Oh I already answered that here.” But often the reason we’re asking is because the attempt falls short… it may be unclear, convoluted, or too limited.

The best way to ensure you convey the so what factor is to get input from someone who understands your audience. Yes, this advice also applies to asking your chair for a raise, or any other negotiation/tough conversation you might be facing. Then, use the feedback to refine your so what until it hits the mark (meaning, you seek feedback again to be sure).

These upfront efforts will go a long way toward making you more effective and enhancing the power of your communications. If you’d benefit from more specific guidance related to writing, presenting, or conquering difficult conversations, check out our workshops and consulting programs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *