By Lisa Sargent
- Talk to Aunt Bertha. Whether you write to donors via e-mail or direct mail, keep their “picture” in your mind. Is your average donor 75 years old, female and a grandmother? See her. How does she feel? What’s she thinking? Writing to one person gives your communications an intimate voice... and a human touch.
- Be a “master of exclusion.” That’s what the brothers Heath wrote in Made to Stick (read it if you haven’t). Knowing what to leave out keeps your stories simple. And people remember simple. So don’t introduce too many themes, people, pets, whatever. Keep it simple.
- Add you, subtract we. Because of you, 20 children have fresh drinking water. Thanks to you, Fido has a loving home. With your support, five more adults can learn to read. People love to hear “you.” So: less “we.” Less “us.” The magic word is “you.”
- Focus on benefits, hard and soft. Does the donation come with a magazine subscription? Say so. Will it bring 25 pets in from the cold? Say that, too. And pay keen attention to the fact that the famous Seven Copy Drivers* have nothing to do with programs. People give because you touch their hearts.
- Avoid taboo words and phrases. One example: animal welfare organizations must never use copy that objectifies pets. Why? Animal lovers see their pets as people. So it’s always, “pets who” or “dogs who.” Never “pets that.” Are there no‑no words and phrases in your nonprofit? Avoid them. Do you use a Style Guide? Make sure you refer to it.
Turn on Flesch-Kincaid
. Studies show that even highly educated people read – and recall – more at about a 7th grade reading level. The Flesch‑Kincaid Readability Test gives you that level automatically. (Note stats for this report at right, including the 6.6 grade level.) Here’s how to turn it on:
In Word, go to Tools
. Click Spelling
. Click Options
. Select Show readability statistics
. Click OK
. You’re done.
- Chop long paragraphs. Aim for 6-7 lines for your longest paragraph. And don’t make them all long (or all super-short): mix it up.
- Cross channels. In e-news, refer to your magazine or website. In direct mail letters, refer to a great new resource on your website.
- Break unevenly. If your letters are more than one page long, break the pages in mid-sentence, so reader has to turn the page to finish the thought.
- Speak plainly. Choose small words over big, straightforward over cute. Give grandiloquence the heave-ho. Avoid too much jargon. (When in doubt, see #6.)
- Beware the voice of despair. If you get all nitty-gritty with your readers, they will not get past the horror of your story to enjoy (much less act upon) the rest of what you tell them. Like the old song goes, “accentuate the positive.”
- Get to the point. In that first draft, your lead is seldom where it should be... more often you’ll find it buried in the middle. To spot the real lead, some writers I know literally cover the first paragraph with their thumb. (I rely on two or three drafts.)
- Don’t leave your reader hanging. If you start a story, bring it to a logical conclusion... or tell the reader where to find it. Anticipate, then answer, questions.
- “Kill your darlings.” Oft-quoted, heeded less. If you’re attached to a poetic phrase you’ve written – what the late Joan Throckmorton called “deathless prose” – and your ego can’t let it go, it’s probably time to hit delete.
- Tell the truth. Your readers and prospects are smart, just like you. They can spot cleverly massaged copy a mile away, just like you. Why not tell it
like it is?
- Make yourself clear. To renew membership... for a holiday fundraiser... to build a clinic. If there’s a specific purpose for writing the letter, say so.
- Give them a reason to give. Urgency gets better results: “Donate $75 by November 4th and the ABC Foundation will match your donation” is a whole bunch better than “Donate $75 today.”
- Ask the Big Three. When editing your work, keep three questions in
a. So what?
b. Who cares?
c. What’s new?
d. If you can’t answer these, revise.
- Check under the hood. If the mechanics of your piece aren’t in place, you’ll look sloppy in the eyes of your readers. Always double check:
a. Proper date
b. Correct closing and signature
c. Accuracy of any facts, figures and references
d. Accuracy of any hyperlinks noted
e. And... use spelling and grammar check!
- Quadruple your proofing power. A quick read-thru of your letter is not enough. To do it right, you need four separate proofs:
a. Read on-screen.
b. Print the piece, then read in your head.
c. Stand up, walk around, and read it out loud.
d. Let the whole thing site overnight, at least. Read out loud again.
e. Author Bob Bly advises a fifth: read the copy backwards, word
- Say thank you. Relationship-building is a two-way street. You can’t do what you do without your donors. Don’t they deserve to hear that? Say thank you.
21-½. Say thank you. Yes, I said it again. Here’s why: in my opinion, it’s one reason donor retention rates have been plummeting into the abyss. Listen: when I give to your nonprofit, I’m secretly hoping you’ll be the first to treat me like I’m more than an ATM machine. So please, say thank you. Sincerely. Clearly. And most of all, promptly.
* Wondering about those Seven Copy Drivers? (Tip #14)
Bob Hacker and Axel Andersson called them key copy drivers, and there are seven: fear, greed, guilt, anger, fear, exclusivity, salvation and flattery. Remember, though, in follow-up communications with your donors, you have lots of emotional benefits to which you can (and should) appeal – good things like hope, gratitude, changing the world, giving to those less fortunate, leaving a legacy, and so forth.