I am sure this will not come as a surprise that what you say in a grant proposal is important, but have you ever considered the importance of how you say it? In this article I will demonstrate 3 key things NOT to say if you want your proposal to be successful at securing funding.

As an “expert reviewer” for two major funding agencies – the Ontario Centre of Excellence and the European Commission – I have reviewed many grant proposals submitted by innovation companies. (In fact, to date I have reviewed 105 proposals in total from both agencies). Typically, strong proposals will demonstrate clear team commitment, solid leadership and outstanding ideas; poorly conceived proposals lag behind on these and many other elements. Needless to say that applications from the first group will have greater chances of success than the latter. This is a straightforward concept to grasp.

Now, what about very similar proposals, would they be equally successful? Surprisingly, this is not as simple as it seems. Let’s compare two grant proposals with relatively similar founder’s experience, equally interesting ideas, closely overlapping sales projections, and closely matched markets and marketing strategies. In some cases a funding agency would rank both as high priority for funding, BUT in other cases one proposal would come out much stronger and rank higher than the other, despite all things being equal. Curious and fascinated, I started paying particular attention to such “non-important” aspects of grant proposals as wording, proposal length, and even the type and size of font used. The results were quite surprising.

The good news is there is no need to get fancy with font and other beatifications of your proposal. What you say is still more important than how you say it. BUT, to get your point across and your proposal approved you must say exactly what you mean. Part of delivering a strong proposal is explaining your ideas and intentions clearly and concisely and a knowledge of what funding agencies don’t like to see. Please bear with me as I walk you through my three all-time favorites of what not to say in your proposal.

1. “a 40% performance improvement, or cost reduction, or profit increase, etc.”

The key here is “40%”. I call it a “40%” benchmark. Companies of all sizes and from all industries are eager to promise a 40% increase in sales, a 40% improvement in product performance, a 40% better turnover, 40%… You got the idea, right?

Driven by my urgent need to get to the cause of this “40%” trend I realized that we are surrounded by “40”. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following aspects of our life:

Cultural: 40 days have a special meaning in many cultures; 40 days of fasting, 40 days of grief etc.

Movies: “This is 40” – one of the recent ones (I haven’t watched this one, but for weeks the poster of which hunted me on subway trains in Toronto)

Life: With the average life span of 80 years, 40 is the new middle. It also can be considered as middle of your career and for many this is the time they finally start saving for retirement.

Nevertheless, going back to grant proposals, it amazes me every time that so many smart people would avail of this number when unsure of what else to say. Why 40% then and not 10%, 20% 30% or 70%? A very good question. Perhaps because it is less than 50% which seems like an obvious lie but more than 30% which seems very low and thus no one might get excited about anything less than that. Someone might jump in now and say “but what if this IS the number we estimated?” Great! The problem is, from my experience, that companies do not think through and do not do any background estimations based on facts when writing a grant proposal. And this shows.

Suggestion: do your homework, estimate what the actual performance improvement, or cost reduction, or profit increase is going to be and explain it. Show the evidence and the thought behind it.

 2. “a huge market opportunity”

Recently, I have encountered two other variations – “enormous” and “very big”. I’d like to start with an example. Imagine you ask two people to describe Niagara Falls.

One says, “This is huge!”

Another one says, “On average 4,000,000 cubic feet or 110,000,000 m3 of water falls over it in a single minute. Or in other words, 40,000 average sized vehicles would drop over the falls in ONE minute. If you ever happen to drive by Yorkdale Mall in Toronto on Boxing Day and saw their parking completely full and if you ever felt overwhelmed by this picture, you should know this is only 7,200 cars parked there. You would need 5 times more cars to get the same volume that falls over Niagara Falls every minute.”

I hope this is somewhat clear which answer is more compelling?.. I do not want to say you need to go crazy driving your point home (like me, with the cars dropping from Niagara Falls) but doing your research (like me, checking the flow volume of the falls) would definitely help to make your statements sound stronger. In two words, huge is huge, but facts always rock.

Suggestion: do your homework and illustrate with facts what you know. You may be confident this is a huge opportunity and so are investors, but what they also want to know is how serious you are and that you’re prepared to work hard.

3. “we have no competition” or “there is no competition to our product

When I read this, two things come to my mind. First, the inventor, the business owner, or the team, is very proud of the company’s product or service. Which is great and admirable. Secondly, the company failed to view the product or service from the customer point of view. Which is unfortunate and can be very (and again very) costly.

Imagine, you live in a small town and there are no martial arts schools around. You decide to open one – there is no competition and considering the current trend for healthy lifestyle, you are guaranteed an early and sustainable success. Right? Almost.

Imagine now, how your potential customers view your newly opened martial arts schools. Before you came along your potential clients had already signed up for local fitness clubs, committed their time to daily running, or joined various sports teams. When you arrive, their time and money for health and fitness have already been allocated. Your job now is to convince your clients either to 1) switch and/or 2) increase their allocated health and fitness expenditure plus 3) find extra time for your martial arts classes. Considering how busy and limited in our resources we all are, this is going to be damn hard.

Suggestion: the simplest way to start is to consider there is always competition. Then you may want to split it in two parts – direct and non-direct competitors – and think through or talk to your potential customers to get their perspective. Remember, at the end of the day your job when presenting your grant proposal is not to show that this is an easy opportunity, but that you are prepared and ready to face the harsh reality of growing the business.