What’s in a Word?
Back when I was a budding research administrator, a faculty member from the Literature Department showed up in my boss’ office with a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities.
At the time, I was the first graduate assistant in the brand new Office of Sponsored Programs. My boss was hired as Director to start the office following his “success” with getting grants. He had just earned two National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awards. People, this was a long time ago.
He brought the proposal to me and said “it needed some help and would I like to give it a go?” He provided no instruction as to what he thought needed to be fixed. Since we only had one typewriter in the office (you could backspace and erase a word!), I’d have to hand-write it for the secretary to do. But, I was eager and pleased that he had asked.
As I read the proposal, I learned the faculty member was a poet and wanted to go to Japan to translate some Japanese haiku. She wanted to hire a translator because, as it turned out, she did not speak Japanese beyond a few words. I was, as they say where I come from, bumfuzzled. Why in the world would NEH or any other sponsor agree to send a faculty member to another country to translate in a language she did not speak?
She was very upfront about this. Like many humanities faculty, there is precious little funding and thus no experience writing proposals, nor help from a fellow faculty member.
Her proposal read something like:
“I don’t speak Japanese, so will hire an interpreter to translate.”
Absolutely true. But what if it is reworded slightly to:
“Because of the intricacies of the haiku, I want to hire an interpreter so as to not miss any nuances of the language.”
Still absolutely true. Which one would you be more inclined to fund?
There is power in language. When we speak to someone, whether it be on paper, in a text, or in person, we are often trying to persuade them in some way.
Think of it this way: If you are watching a concert wind band play (or an orchestra to a lesser extent), who is leading? Who is making sure the instruments and notes are working together?
The conductor, you say, but it isn’t entirely true. It’s the bass drummer. It only takes a slight variance to really screw up a band, regardless of the conductor. I won’t go into how I know this. But, a really good bass drummer is not really noticed, floating just under noticeable sound.
When communicating with others in an attempt to persuade, regardless of the medium, the idea is to direct the conversation without it being obvious how you are doing it. This is particularly true when writing a proposal.
There are two levels of persuasion, a conductor and a bass drummer, if you will. The words on the page are the conductor. How the words are arranged is the bass drummer’s job, working just below the surface to reinforce the conductor’s movement. When they are working in unison, magical things can happen.
I don’t remember if the faculty member took my suggested edits, nor do I remember if she was funded. If she had been, I am sure I would remember that, so I am 99% sure she wasn’t.
Words in our proposals can’t change the truth, and the truth was that, amidst all of the hundreds of proposals NEH receives for their very limited funds, it is unlikely that someone going to Japan to translate a language she didn’t speak probably did not rank highly enough.
As research administrators, particularly in smaller universities, it is part of our jobs to understand the power of words, and be ever alert for those times when a little bass drumming might go a long way.
reprinted by permission of the author.