So you’ve put in all the hard work to write the bid, and you’ve been successful enough to be invited for a panel review. But you know that this will be challenging. How do you ensure that you best represent yourself, your colleagues and your work?
Answer – assemble a “red team” to critique your presentation (and indeed your original proposal) so that it is as clear, communicative, compelling and robust as possible.
Philip Guildford, Director of Research and Finance in the Engineering Department, described the “Pyramid Principle”. Iteratively craft your ‘governing thought’ (the one sentence that summarises your proposition) and build below that a pyramid of supporting evidence. Each layer of argument or evidence adds more detail in support of the layer above – all the way to a compelling governing thought. This discipline enables you to edit out extraneous material – if it doesn’t fit in the pyramid of logic then it doesn’t add to the argument and should be left out.
With your argument sound you then move on to the question of how to sell it. Philip explained the Situation, Complication, Question, Answer sequence. Begin with a simple statement of a prevailing situation – your audience will agree and be nodding their heads. Then identify the problem – the complication. That raises a question – and now your audience is waiting for the answer. And, of course, your research will find the answer to the question, so resolving the complication and easing the situation. It’s no accident that this sounds like a film script – “It was a dark and gloomy house. Suddenly the door creaked open and there in the doorway stood…. What could it be?” An engaged audience is much more interested in your answer – so hook them in.
Professor Rob Miller of the Whittle Laboratory picked up the thread and described how he had assembled a red team of academics and industrialists to critique his bid and presentation for a CDT in Gas Turbine Aerodynamics. He attributes the bid’s success to trying hard to understand their customer’s perspective – so arguing explicitly why a CDT is needed (to support the UK economy) and how the CDT addresses this (by providing a holistic education that spans three institutions integrating many tools and techniques) and that adds special value (students that understand the sector and its technology).
He assembled a red team that included Sam Beale, now a Visiting Professor in Innovation and previously Head of Research in Rolls Royce. Here is a man who has heard many pitches in the area from industry and academia and knows how to ask the difficult question.
Rob highlighted the area of uncertainty that the red team raised – how would the CDT be managed? What would happen if the research didn’t go to plan? From where would they get an outside perspective? This advice enabled the CDT team to create simple diagrams, replacing paragraphs of text, bringing to life an elegant answer to the question – a question that a review panel would be likely to raise.
Dr Tim Minshall, Reader in Innovation and Technology Management, focused on the power of pictures – for both good and ill. A page of text that repeats the content of the bid borders on the insulting – have the reviewers read it and did they understand it? So start with greater impact – a memorable quote or, in Tim’s case a picture of the Hype Cycle. This grabs a review panel’s attention. Work hard to find the single diagram that simply and elegantly explains the core of your proposition. Then use this.
Best of all is to have a framework for your project – a diagram that you can use throughout the document and the presentation. Hang off this framework all your important point. By using the same framework throughout you can keep your audience with you and maintain a unity to your story.
Finally Tim pointed out that not all pictures are interpreted the same way by everybody! One diagram he tested with his red team could be interpreted in two very different ways – the way Tim saw it and designed it, and in a way that obscured and confused. So check how people see your pictures and diagrams! Don’t assume it’s obvious!
Your bid sinks or swims in the first few minutes – so if you confuse or alienate your review panel you will find it hard to recover. So test your presentation!
Your red team will be tougher than the review panel – so you can work on your agility and response to nasty questions. Get the nerves out of the way in a practice session!
Recruiting a red team is remarkably easy – colleagues are generally willing to help and you can also ask your Knowledge Transfer Facilitators as well – here’s a list by department www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/rso/iaa/ktf/. If you are a member of the University you can also access examples of good applications at www.researchandfinance.eng.cam.ac.uk/funding/successful-apps .
You have so little time to present that you may wish to show a diagram that gives the overall picture, but that hints at the detail behind. If you stimulate a question about the detail then you can demonstrate your competence. Similarly, under the constraints of your bid you must weed out the unnecessary paragraphs – no matter how elegant they are. As Rob Miller said – “you may love that paragraph or argument, but if it doesn’t help then it has to go!”
Tim Minshall raised the importance of “knowing the rules of the game” – so look here for the reviewer forms and guidance notes www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/assessmentprocess/review/rev/ . There’s a lot more on adjacent pages on the EPSRC website.
If you’d like a copy of the slides contact Charles Boulton (cb683 at cam.ac.uk). And if you would like to hear an industrial reviewer’s perspective then come along to the session on Monday 13th April, when the Visiting Professors of Innovation will be describing their perspective, the questions they ask and why. See our Upcoming Events on the right of this blog for details.