Have you seen the studies that indicate a high correspondence between what students say about your class when queried after 10 minutes and after an entire semester? What if a similar effect influences whether or not your grant proposal is funded?
The panel member has just opened your proposal. She spends ten minutes reading the introductory material, perhaps flipping to some other section also. She peruses your aims. She might look at your publication list or at what university you call home. In these first few minutes she is forming an opinion of your proposal. This first opinion might be very hard to change. She may well spend the rest of the time reading through the proposal to justify her first opinions, finding either flaws in the details of the methods for a negative outcome, or strengths for a positive one. If those first few minutes color everything what should we do?
You may argue vehemently that you absolutely do not do this when you read a proposal. You read the whole thing before judging. You are careful. The process is fair. But how do you know? Anyone who reads much of Daniel Kahneman or Daniel Ariely among others realizes how little we understand of how we actually make judgements. (Why did two male names come to my mind first anyway?)
Of course it is true that a grant proposal is carefully read and discussed. A reader might change their mind in the process. There might actually be a subtle fatal flaw in the methods. What looked very creative might not actually be so original. The disjointedness of the proposal might reflect a similar problem in the thinking. But when I look even at my own funded and unfunded proposals, there seems to be a huge random factor. Does some of that come from the impressions from the first ten minutes?
So what do you do? Polish. Make the headings look harmonious and informative. Help the reader see the connections and the structure, even after a quick glance. Sooth the reader with clarity. Make the different aims connect to a larger goal, a complete picture. Do not use negative words, even if you are saying you won’t do those things. The word might stick longer than the context. Break the text up with nice figures on important points. Hold the reader’s hand.
Give the proposal to friends and time them, giving them 10 minutes to look at the proposal and give a quick opinion. They should know what it is about and how you are going about answering the questions even in this short time. You might even try the same thing for slightly longer periods, or even just five minutes.
The good news is that doing things for the first 10 minutes also helps the entire proposal. But if you still do not think this can possibly be true, think about grading essay exams. I imagine you are like me and do this blind. But sometimes you sneak a look at who it is. If it is a generally good student, you can almost feel your brain frantically finding reasons why a weak essay is actually stronger than it is, or a good one is actually shallow.
So, try to be the careful reader throughout when you are on the panel. Write your own proposal early so you can bring even complex and exciting research problems to clarity in ten minutes.