The key to getting money from any sponsor, be they industrial or from the Research Councils, lies in absolute clarity about what you want to do, why it’s valuable, and why you are the best person to do it.
And there’s a simple way into this:
Situation: Your proposal to either a research council or to industry is just one of many competing for attention and funding.
Complication: Faced with lots of bids, reviewers get jaded and lose the will to wade through more turgid stuff
Question: So how do you make your proposal clear, concise and memorable?
Answer: Use the pyramid principle to organise your logic and to engage your audience.
At a seminar given to about 40 people from the Cambridge postdoc community from engineering, materials science, chemistry and the Computer Lab, held at the University’s Postdoc Centre (www.pdoc.cam.ac.uk), Philip Guildford presented the Pyramid Principle (developed many years ago by Barbara Minto) and explained how it can be used to structure good proposals. A vital first step is to create a draft “governing thought” that captures the proposition. Then design a pyramid of logic, each step clearly made up of others and on a sound foundation that clarifies your premise.
Then, with your pyramid in place explore how to set the scene for your reader. Begin with a ‘situation’ statement – a statement of fact that gets the reader nodding in agreement that you know what’s going on. Then add the ‘complication’ – this is poses the dilemma which is usually the core purpose of your work. Then articulate clearly the ‘question’ – this is the question you’d like to answer through your proposal. And finally craft a concise answer – which is the answer to the question or which describes how your work will provide the answer.
Now, the magic step. Pull together the situation, the complication, the question and the answer into a “governing thought”. This is at the top of your pyramid. And now you can iterate on the SCQA and on your pyramid of logic to create a robust proposal with incontrovertible logic that shows it just has to be supported – doesn’t it?
Avoid the error of first writing your proposal and then going back to impose a logic later – you’ll fail or you’ll have to rewrite. (And at the end you’re usually tired and under time pressure!)
Take the opportunity to check your pyramid of logic with colleagues – they can help you to make it more robust and more easily understood by people who are not so close to the topic.
Obviously you’ll need to tailor the situation to the interests of your audience – industry will be interested in the commercial aspects while the Research Councils will care about the scientific state of play into which your work fits.
Another use for the pyramid principle is to break a problem down so you can see the components – the answers that need to fit together to deliver the completed solution. So you can use the diagram to plan the projects that will provide the various answers that assemble to answer the bigger question. So now you, your colleagues and your sponsor can share a view of what is being done and why – even across a complex programme of projects.
If you’d like a copy of Philip’s slides please contact Charles Boulton (cb683 (at) cam.ac.uk)