6 Ways to Improve Development and Grant Writing using Stories and Arguments

Do you have a story to tell?

Last month I had the pleasure of presenting a half-day workshop at the Meals on Wheels Annual Conference and Expo in Charlotte, NC on the topic of using stories and arguments to improve a grant proposal’s needs statement. The same principles apply when writing an annual fund letter, case statement, or any other type of persuasive project.

The 50 or so participants in that chilly conference room in Charlotte and I discussed the need to include stories in grant applications to engage and involve your reader and make your application more memorable at decision time. When the board or grant review committee comes together to decide which applications to fund, you want them to say about yours, “Oh, yes. I remember. We need to help seniors like the ones they described” instead of digging through their notes to differentiate yours from the others they read. 

We also talked about how arguments help move the reader logically from the known to the unknown to enhance the believability of your information and decrease the likelihood of disagreement. Again, you want to grant reviewers to respond with “Wow! I never knew that the number of hungry seniors in our community could fill the high school football stadium. That criminal!” instead of “I thought seniors had all the money; I don’t know any who can’t get a good meal.” 

If this sounds like “right brain” versus “left brain” stuff, it is!

Research suggests that the most persuasive cases – and that’s what you want in development or grant writing – combine both the emotions of storytelling and the logic of good arguments. In fact, recent research suggests that you want to engage the emotional side first and then justify those emotions with logic.

 So how can you best accomplish both – especially in the 2,000 characters allowed in the application?!

  1. Weave a story line throughout your application. Briefly introduce a “character” into your needs section by describing the need in very personal terms. “Jane and Jim exemplify the average Anytown senior.” Continue using that character throughout your project description, outcomes, and even budget narrative. This will provide coherence to the application and create the same type of curiosity that keeps you up reading “just one more chapter” of your book until 3 AM.

  2. Substantiate your story with statistics. Using the Meals on Wheels example, if I introduce characters like Jim and Jane, I want the reader to know how many “Jim and Janes” exist out there. Data or statistics (arguments) do that. For example,
    “With Jim’s declining health and Jane’s growing dementia, many weeks Jim doesn’t have the energy to shop for or cook a healthy meal, and Jane forgets to eat. Like 1 in 4 seniors nationwide – or 1,250 in Anytown, Jim and Jane fail to meet their minimum nutritional standards on a daily basis.”

  3. Similarly, use a story or personal example to explain or humanize data. Basically, you reverse the previous suggestion:
    “Research conclusively demonstrates that poor nutrition leads to poor health and inhibits the body’s ability to fight infection or heal after injury. For Jim, it meant frequent hospitalizations for pneumonia while Jane struggled to regain her mobility after a hip fracture.”

  4. Use personal names instead of impersonal nouns when describing your programs or the problem. Instead of saying “individuals have this problem,” say “your neighbors and friends” or “older adults like Jim and Jane.” The latter is the most personal with the first as the most impersonal. Simple word choices can put your reader in the application.

  5. Use descriptive words instead of technical terms especially when describing the problem. You may know what “food insecurity” means, but will your reader? In fact, what does “hunger” mean? I missed breakfast and my stomach is growling. Am I hungry? Yes, but not in the way this application probably means it. Instead, talk about how Jim and Jane exist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for most meals or, when Jim’s not feeling well, they may not eat for a few days. Reviewers can read over “food insecurity” as technical gobbledygook but “have not eaten for a few days” gives the readers a very real punch in the gut.

  6. Explain any data in terms the reader can understand – especially numbers – so your reader better understands and remembers them. Don’t make them do the math or figure out how prevalent the problem is in your community. Continuing with the previous example:
    “Anytown County has a growing elderly population. With 20% of residents currently over the age of 65, census data projects we will reach 30% by 2025. That equates to 5,000 Anytown seniors – enough to fill the high school football stadium – in various stages of health and mobility.”

Grant writing involves making choices regarding the best way to present your case. With increasingly restrictive character and page limits for most applications, those choices become even more important. Let other grant writers sacrifice readability and submit a stale application full of facts, figures and technical jargon. What you have to edit out to add a story will likely not add as much to the readability and memorability of your application as your story will. 

So, try to humanize your application and see if you can raise more money.

NOTE: I totally made up the statistics used in these examples! 

If you would like me to speak to your organization, contact me at linda@wastynassoc.com or view my speaking topics or request a custom presentation.