In FY2018, NIH received nearly 55,000 grant applications and funded just over 11,000, a 20% success rate. The NSF gets about 40,000 applications a year and also funds about 11,000. Many great research proposals are left unfunded each year.

To give your grant application its best chance, ground the proposal’s persuasive appeals in the values of the granting organization and its reviewers. So-called “audience-based rhetoric” persuades much more effectively than just stating the reasons your grant is the best idea ever.

MLK’s Jail-House Letter: Audience-Based Rhetoric

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a classic example of using an audience’s values to persuade them. The letter responded to a group of white clergymen who said that participants in the 1963 Birmingham bus boycotts should follow laws (specifically, an ordinance against marching without a permit) rather than practice civil disobedience.

Among his other arguments, King pointed out that the Boston Tea Party was an act of civil disobedience, that the founders of the United States had refused to follow unjust laws, and that Nazi Germany required reporting Jews and penalized sheltering them. Imagine those American clergymen reading their values thrown back at them but still insisting on adhering to Jim Crow!

Of course, you must get to know your audience’s values before you can appeal to them.

Getting to Know your Grant Proposal’s Audience

When you read the RFA and other advice for applicants, don’t only pay attention to requirements, deadlines, and details. Also look for the values espoused by the organization.

Consider some of the questions that NIH poses about a project’s significance when explaining what reviewers look for:

Does the project address an important problem or a critical barrier to progress in the field? … How will successful completion of the [project’s] aims … drive this field? (emphasis added)

Your research addresses a very important problem — in your eyes. But from the NIH reviewer’s perspective, is your important problem a “critical barrier to progress in the field?” Will your project, if successful, “drive” the field forward? In other words, does your project support NIH’s values?

Appealing to Your Grant Proposal’s Audience

Audience-based rhetoric doesn’t mean that you insert phrases like, “My project addresses a critical barrier to progress” or “Successful completion will drive my field,” and declare your persuasive work done. It means crafting your research methods and proposal with the audience’s values in mind.

Say you want to develop a machine that can run dozens of tests on a single drop of blood, without getting all Elizabeth Holmes about it. If you argue that your project merits funding because the new test will make phlebotomy less painful, then you’re stating why you think the project is great. But you’re not relating your project and its outcomes to NIH’s values.

Instead, you might argue that the ability to run numerous tests on a minimal amount of blood will open new vistas of medical research, dramatically increase the efficiency and quality of medical care, usher in an era of routine blood testing, facilitate early diagnoses, catch more preventable illnesses, and make phlebotomy less painful. (No wonder Theranos was a thing.)

For any grant application, you must demonstrate that your project both aligns with and achieves the granting organization’s values. Maybe your project has more modest goals than influencing an entire field, but you should still present it as “driving” your field forward if you want NIH’s money.

Goat Research as Audience-Based Rhetoric

Goat research may seem like an odd example of presenting a (modest) proposal as if it “drives” a field, but hopefully, it will lodge as firmly in your memory as the following story stuck in mine.

Eleven years ago, I attended a graduate research symposium where a grad student listed catheterizing goats as one of her research project’s most significant results. I was baffled until she contrasted her method of obtaining urine samples with the standard, inhumane method of suffocating goats until they urinated!

Still, I wondered why goats were worth researching, why anyone should care about their urine samples. If that grad student were applying for an NIH grant to analyze goat urine, I’m sure the reviewers would have similar questions.

In answer, the applicant could write something like the following:

Testing goat urine for biomarkers associated with antibiotics has the potential for three significant impacts on the fields of animal science, agriculture, and nutrition science. First, detecting excessive amounts of these biomarkers would indicate possible health impacts on livestock and from consuming livestock. Completing the research would also demonstrate how a new, more humane method of urine collection can be used on other livestock and similar animals.

Future researchers in animal science, agriculture, and other fields would be able to conduct more ethical research on animals, in accordance with the PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals and NIH’s guidance to “avoid or minimize animal discomfort, distress, and pain.” This proposed research would create new norms for animal research sponsored by NIH, which would then spread to other institutions and advance the ethics of all animal research.

This example aligns with several of NIH’s values by presenting the research as propelling multiple fields (animal science, agriculture, and nutrition science) with both new knowledge (antibiotic levels) and innovative methods (catheterizing goats). It also frames the new, more humane method of collecting goat urine as supporting NIH’s explicitly stated value on minimizing animal discomfort and its implicit value of shaping fields and methods of research.

The example argues that the research could turn up nothing about antibiotic levels yet still serve NIH’s values, goals, and purposes by transforming the methods and ethics of animal research, thus positioning NIH as a powerful influence on future research regardless of the project’s findings.

Even something as esoteric as catheterizing goats can come across as a potential game-changer when it aligns with the audience’s values.


Identifying and using the audience’s values will help you develop arguments that not only persuade but also excite reviewers to recommend your research project. Carefully review the RFP for the granting organization’s explicit and implicit values and build them into how you describe your research. Especially the goat research.

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric at Southeast Missouri State University. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker. Learn more about his work, sign up for a newsletter, and get free excerpts at

Related Resources:

Getting Your Ducks in a Row for that First Big Grant Submission

Finding Motivation When You’re Ready to Quit

Shark Tank for Scientists: NIH’s SBIR/STTR Grants

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