Telling Your Story: Formatting and Readability Tips for SBIR/STTR Proposals
A good SBIR/STTR proposal is made infinitely better by writing and formatting that enhances readability and showcases your technology to its best advantage. So, before you dig in, start by knowing who it is that you are writing for. Depending on the agency, SBIR/STTR proposals may undergo an internal review, an external review, or a review that incorporates both internal and external reviews.
For the purposes of your SBIR/STTR proposal, these reviewers comprise your audience, and it is your #1 job to make them want to read your proposal and make it easy for them to do so. With that question resolved, go about your writing with these tips in mind:
- Use a clear and concise writing style so that even a non-expert can understand the proposed research. Scientific American style is recommended by the NIH.
- Avoid emotion or exaggeration. It’s fine for others to laud your research, but not so fine to blow your own horn. Keep it simple; let it speak for itself.
- Use proper technical writing for an academic/scientific document.
- Don’t use lots of jargon, elongated and preposterous words. “If you are already using words like phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, and Gaussian distribution, you really don’t want to be effulgent or felicitous as well.”
- Avoid acronyms. Not everyone reading your proposal will be an expert in your very specific research area, and acronyms can destroy the flow of the text and be confusing.
- Follow the law of “less is more” in your use of words. For example:
Once you have succinct, well written text, use effective formatting to welcome the reader into your story by remembering to:
- Follow page limit rules to a tee. Why? Not doing so may well cause your proposal to be rejected.
- Choose the right font. Unusual fonts, small type sizes and the elimination of spaces between sections may save space and allow you to squeeze in more material, but it also makes the document hard to read.
- Use headings and sub-headings to break up your material and give reviewers’ eyes a rest.
- Use bullets and numbered lists for effective organization, and don’t forget that indents and bold print add readability and help reviewers to scan pages and find information quickly and easily. But don’t overdo it!
- Use diagrams, figures and tables, and include appropriate legends, where they can help reviewers to understand complex information.
- Graphics can help reviewers grasp a lot of information quickly, as long as they complement the text and are inserted appropriately.
- Use a left justified alignment of your text for a ragged right appearance. Psychobiologists say it is easier to read boxy, spaced-out of justified text. Remember: most RFPs and FOAs are ragged edge.
- Use color if it adds to readability, but remember the “less is more” rule above and don’t get carried away. Remember that reviewers may view the proposal in black and white.
- Be consistent in the font and font size of your text and headings and spacing between paragraphs and sections. Use tools (macros/styles) if your document is long, watch for cut and paste errors and, if you have more than one author, make sure the writing style does not vary.
Finally, proof read…and then proof read again. Spell check alone is never enough. Have at least one person who hasn’t been involved in writing the application read it, and be sure to choose someone who has the courage to “tell you if your baby is ugly.”
No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand, so do everything you can do to grab reviewer interest and keep it.
Andrea Johanson is a BBCetc Principal Consultant and NIH SBIR/STTR expert.