Do you write like you talk?
- Mary Cahalane, originally from mchalane.com
Would you write to your mother like that?
Open your last appeal, newsletter or email.
Now read it out loud.
Does it sound funny? Does it sound like you?
If so, congratulations – you’re a step ahead of many.
If not, let’s talk about what you can do to fix that.
Good donor communications are not corporate pronouncements.
They’re rarely formal. They’re not meant to come from an organization but from a human being.
(Or occasionally, in the hands of a very talented copywriter, an animal or even a truck.)
People respond to people. It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about an organization.
But, good news! So much of this is easy to fix.
First, you can do what I suggested above – when you’re still in the draft stage, read it out loud.
Or even start there. Dictate first – imagine you’re talking to your donor and explaining why you’re grateful or why you need her help.
Listen. Your ear will catch all sorts of things you eye doesn’t.
Many people hear the words in their head while they read. (I know I do.) So what strikes you as off will also strike your donors that way.
Break a few grammar “rules”.
Contractions are how we talk. They’re not improper! Want to sound stiff? Eliminate the contractions and you will sound like a robot. (Look at that last sentence. Looks fine. But it’s stiff when you say it out loud, right?)
When was the last time a robot moved you to tears?
Sentence fragments? They can be fine. Or even better than fine.
And you absolutely can start a sentence with and or but or because. Think about it – do you avoid doing that when you’re talking to a friend? You don’t.
Make some music.
Long sentences can work. It’s good to vary the length of your sentences, so your writing sings.
But be careful with sentences full of clauses. Why? Because they’re hard to read. Hard to follow. Too much work.
You can’t ask a donor to work that hard.
The brutal truth is it’s either easy to read or it’s tossed. So break those stinkers up.
Good vocabulary might not mean what you think it means.
Long words don’t make you sound smart. They risk making you sound pretentious. Don’t say “utilize” when “use” will do.
Having a good vocabulary means you have the right word at your fingertips. The precise word, not the fanciest.
An artist has an almost infinite range of colors to work with. You have choices, too, so choose well.
Your aim is clarity, not puffery.
Direct each communication to one person. Yes, you’re mailing 1,946 pieces. But each one will be read by one person.
So don’t talk about “people who give”. Put the reader in the driver’s seat: “when you give”.
You’re writing from one person to one person. Pretend it’s your mom who will be reading – how would it sound to her?
Share complex ideas with simple language.
Maybe your mission isn’t easy to explain. That mean you have to work harder to communicate well.
Beware of jargon. It’s tempting to rely on inside terms – they’re the shorthand you and your colleagues understand. But they make your reader feel like an outsider. Or stupid. Or both.
You don’t want her feeling like that, do you?
When something is complicated, you need to think clearly before you even write. Complexity requires simpler language to make it understandable.
Think about how you’d explain something to a child. Not because your readers are children. You’re not talking down to them – you’re working hard to make your ideas easy to grasp.
When I can’t explain something simply, it means I don’t understand it well enough yet myself.
Just be human, OK?
Too much writing intended for donors is stiff, distant, and formal. And I know – your executive director or board chair wants to look intelligent and proper. But it’s your job to show him or her why the best communication feels anything but corporate and proper.
Distance is your enemy!
People give to people. Emotions move people, not intellectual gymnastics.
The best communicators write so well you forget you’re reading. You’ve moved right to sharing feelings – heart to heart.
That’s what you want if you want to raise more money.