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The Psychology of Delivery

For this year's Grant Professionals Association (GPA) conference in Washington, D.C., I partnered with Deborah (Deb) Cook, who like me, is an academic grant professional with deep roots in biology. Together, we offered a breakout session we entitled “Pivoting the Message using Grant Architecture and Storytelling.” Co-presenting takes significantly extra preparation time relative to going solo.

It's kind of a slow simmer of ideas generated over several months and offering new perspective as we develop the bits and pieces. The PowerPoint is always due too soon, and then suddenly, it's time to travel! In transit from Arizona to Washington, DC, I appreciated the change in the seasons—the sensory turn of cold air, colorful trees, and the splash of wintry attire. For the final push to present, I could stop the mad work pace and mostly ignore emails to think carefully about the message that we wanted to offer to our early Saturday morning audience. A terrific opportunity for a refresh.

The newest insight in sharing and co-developing our talking points and transitions was that I formed my style in the two-way interplay between my own character and the niche of the clients that I serve. As I thought about our topic, I asked myself a few questions:

Who am I? I am from a family of educators and in college, pursued my interests in art, biology, and languages. Although I was drawn to a career in the sciences, I have used this “liberal arts brew” to evolve my grants persona, approaching each encounter as a sociologist of team dynamics. My analytical nature pushes me to a data-driven approach to understanding competitiveness. And my creative side allows me to develop guidance on visual placement of concepts. Combining these produces a methodical treatment of how the elements gel in a design framework to influence the final grant product (article here).

Who do I serve? As a staff member in a research-intensive “R1” university, I attract self-starting, confident faculty members who are very aware of the funding landscape. I'm often called upon because a grant has received poor scores and difficult-to-address reviewer comments. Faculty are typically angry and sometimes mystified by the comments. Because this is not my lab or my work, I can offer judgment-neutral advice. This enables me to collaborate with researchers across the staff scientist/tenure spectrum, their career span, and with those in leadership positions.

What do I share with those I serve? I myself am sensitive to input, and thus, I am sympathetic to my client audience. My expressed intent is to improve the chances of an award while not being a scientific expert. In the discussion, I gain the influence that is necessary to produce a tandem shift in the thinking and the writing.

What's the synergy? While I have scientific training that enables me to grasp their work at varying levels of technical jargon, unlike Deb, a long-time professor, I am not a direct colleague. To gain credibility, I evolved a tendency to be straightforward and detailed. To overcome my lack of professorial past, I pursue long-term relationships and sustained multi-submission efforts—delivered and structured around the grant review criteria. Remaining firm that my grant professionalism is more important than my subject matter expertise, I succeeded in winning over even the most formidable audiences inside my institution and external collaborators on multi-project proposals. To my surprise, viewing faculty as clients (article here) helps them to consider me as a teammate instead of “staff.”

Like the hero in the story arc that we presented at the GPA Conference, I returned home changed, having intensified my bond with my co-presenter and my hope that I can continue my introspective growth, learning from others, and producing change in my Center, Institute, and Institution.

What delivery strategies have you evolved to increase the uptake of the guidance that you provide to others?

Michele Zacks is a research development professional that specializes in grant readiness in academia. Her “sweet spot” is focusing on strategies in the research enterprise that impact the college, school, or center level – with effects that ripple institution-wide.

GPCI Competencies:
  • Knowledge of practices and services that raise the level of professionalism of grant developers
  • Knowledge of organizational development as it pertains to grant seeking