In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.

President, Missouri Botanical Garden


The Missouri Botanical Garden, founded in 1859, is the nation’s oldest continuously operating botanical garden and today includes one of the largest Japanese gardens in North America. A National Historic Landmark, the Missouri Botanical Garden spans 79 acres in south St. Louis and serves as a center for science education and botanical research as well as a retreat from city life.

The Mistake:

Writing a proposal that showcased knowledge rather than addressing the audience’s needs.

When I was a research student, I was given a task to prepare a very complex, or at least I thought it was complex, funding proposal to get a large research grant. I worked for weeks and put in everything I knew about the project. I was very proud of it, but it didn’t get past the first stage of consideration.

I asked the reviewers why. They said, “It was not pitched to us.”

I was keen to show off my knowledge and, in fact, that was not what was needed to go forward.

The Lesson:

So I learned that you really have to know your audience. You have to tell a story that’s going to be effective in helping you gain the outcome you want. I was keen to show off my knowledge and, in fact, that was not what was needed to go forward. You have to compose in a way that keeps what you want to achieve in mind and in a way that will be appropriate for the audience that will receive it.

That often is an issue with scientists. As they do their work, they really have not learned to tell a story. And they really are not putting themselves in the seat of the receiver of the message they are trying to convey.

Occasionally, people will say the best way to go is for simplicity. That is sometimes true, but not always the case. You need to ensure you give the needed information. And you need to do it in a way that doesn’t presume the knowledge of the readers. You want to present it in a way that will engage them in what you hope will be the outcome you want.

I think there are several steps in that communication process. One is to know what you’re talking about. That sounds obvious, but don’t try to tell a story that you don’t fully understand yourself. Secondly, keep it straightforward. Build the story with information you want to provide. Finally, you need to be presenting in a way that is appropriate to that particular audience. If you want to tell a story about something, don’t have it full of acronyms people don’t understand. Don’t give them a lot of information that will take them off into dead ends they don’t need to explore. Provide the information in a way that shows that you really know what their needs are rather than just giving them what you want them to know.

I think that is often an issue in science communication. The public doesn’t always fully understand the information that some of us scientists are trying to put across, and so we end up with a disconnect between science opinion and the facts as scientists would like to present them.

I would advise people writing proposals to consider what they hope will be the outcome of the proposal. For example, explain how the the grant will make a difference or change something rather than describing in too much detail the tasks to be performed. Because what evaluators really want to know is what difference the support they give will make.

I suppose the thing I’ve learned most is to tell a good story. I’m an Irishman and telling a good story is generally something that comes naturally to the Irish. I think that was a good lesson for me to learn because I have followed it through in my life ever since. I think I’ve been more effective in terms of being an interface between the public, for example, at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and our own research team than if I hadn’t learned from that early mistake.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is on Twitter at @mobotgarden.

Photo courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

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