Stop Making Me — and Your Readers — Work
If reading your appeal seems like hard work to me, than why should I bother? I work all day! If reading your appeal seems like a struggle for comprehension, then what’s the point? I struggle to understand stuff all day.
My brain needs a rest.
Even more, my brain would enjoy a treat. Something that lights up my pleasure centers and makes me feel good.
Does your appeal do that for your would-be donors? Or does it require them to put in great effort to get through it?
Reading may be a breeze for you. But it’s not for everybody. Lots and lots of folks suffer from a range of “reading processing disorders” that make it difficult for them to plow through a bunch of dense text. My son is like this. He “gets” part A and part C, but he completely misses part B. This means the connection between A and C gets lost. [Ever have the experience of reading to the end of a page, only to realize you weren’t really paying any attention to the meaning? So you have to re-read?]. The solution for my son was to organize things in outline form.
To some extent, everyone has a need for this type of organization. Our brains prefer scannable content – short sentences; headlines; subheads; bullets; underlining; bold face; white space – to large blocks of text. Too much of the same thing – even if it’s a good thing – is too much.
If you’ve ever been to a Cirque du Soleil performance, you’ll know what I mean. There’s so much going on that it’s impossible to focus on any one thing. The overall take-away is one of dazed amazement. It’s all good, but it’s hard to follow.
You have to organize and focus things for your reader so your communications are easy to follow. Otherwise, they’ll tank.
After all, your desired action response for your fundraising appeal is a gift – not dazed amazement at the extent of the problem you’re addressing. The same holds true for your e-newsletter, blog or any other type of communication. There’s a call to action there somewhere, and you don’t want your reader to miss it. If you just explode everything out there (verbal diarrhea) then the brain will begin to malfunction. Details will be missed. Action won’t be taken.
So what do you do instead to attract and hold attention.? Actually, it’s a lot easier than you may think.
It all boils down to writing less and styling your text so it’s easy to read.
Readers are Impatient
According to the seminal Nielsen Norman Group study from 1997, 79% of web users scan rather than read website content.
To further explore the way in which people interact with web content, they conducted a study involving five different versions of the same site. They asked participants to carry out the same tasks across the different websites to turn up usability insights.
The five variations were:
- Promotional writing (control)
- Concise text
- Scannable layout
- Objective language
- Combined version
The results revealed that usability was high for both the concise (58% better) and scannable (47% better) versions. Combining the versions (concise, scannable and objective) rocketed usability off the charts ( 124% better usability than the control).
Write Less and Design More. Cut Your Nonprofit Appeal Copy in Half.
In other words, think hard about your focus; then cut to the chase.
The best way to avoid overly wordy content is to begin with an outline.
This forces you to figure out what you’re trying to say; then put structure to your words so they don’t meander all over the page. If you feel you’ve too much to say to make it brief, then break it up into two letters or two e-appeals. Your solution is never to make it fit by squishing it down to 11 point type (unreadable) and/or eliminating all your photos and graphics (kills the emotion). So… cut it out!
One more thing before we get to some actionable tips…
Everybody’s Readers Scan; Yours are Not Different.
Accept that people scan your prose rather than read it in detail, and work with this reality. Don’t try to fight it. And forget much of what you learned in English composition class.
You’ve only got about two seconds to capture people’s attention, so…
Begin with the most important thing you have to say.
If you bury your lead, your reader may never find it. So structure your paragraphs in the inverted pyramid style. State your conclusion first (e.g., Johnny will go to bed hungry tonight, unless you help); then support it with the sentences that follow. This helps scanners decide where they’d like to dive in deeper, and takes them by the hand so they can move easily from point to point.
Want some more tips on how to take your reader by the hand?
10 Tips to Make Your Content Scannable
1. Let it Breathe
Break up your text with white space. I call this “oxygen.” It’s essential to life, and it’s essential to the life of your written communications. So look for logical places where you can insert space.
My number one trick is to begin a fundraising appeal with one sentence. Then you can follow with a paragraph. But keep your paragraphs and sentences short. No more than 70 characters (with spaces) for lines and no more than five lines per paragraph. And break your paragraphs up with one-liners.
Another trick is to read your copy out loud. Wherever you feel like pausing, insert a space. This will help your reader’s eye flow throughout your copy.
2. Indent Paragraphs
Not only is this a friendlier style (something I learned in middle school typing class), it also invites the readers into your copy and gives their eyes another little rest. Our brains use indents in “pattern recognition.” Pattern recognition is important to keep reading speedy. And, remember, your reader has no time.
3. Break up Content with Compelling Subheads
When I create my outline I like to create my headlines and subheads simultaneously. Your headline can be at the top of your letter (before the salutation) or it can be your first sentence. Wherever you place it, it should be enough for the reader to understand why you’re writing – even if they read nothing else. After all, this is what’s going to cause them to check you out in the first place! Then your subheads keep them engaged. Imagine that your reader just reads the headline and the subheads. Does this alone create a compelling call to action? It should.
4. Use Bullets or Numbered Lists
This is another way to break up text blocks and introduce some oxygen. Bullets give your readers a visible break. Plus they enable you to present multiple points in an easy-to-scan format. And people love numbered lists; they make us want to be sure we don’t miss one! To assure your bullets/numbers do their intended job (i.e., cause your reader to read further), make sure you keep ‘em short and follow these bullet point basics.
5. Use Appropriate Fonts
Serif fonts are best for letter text (e.g., Courier or Times Roman); sans serif are best for headlines and sub-heads (e.g., Calibri, Georgia or Arial). A serif is the extra little stroke, those little curves, at the ends of letters. The serifs at the ends of letters makes them easier to identify and easier to read for print materials. For web text, sans serif is best. They’re more legible and easier to read on small or coarse screens. Here’s a list of the 10 most popular web fonts for 2013. And you can find 30 free web fonts here.
6. Use Large Enough Type
It used to be accepted that 12 point text was readable by most people. No more. Baby boomers are aging, and many are your major donors. The new recommended standard is 14 points. Yes, that means you can’t fit as much on a page. Turn the paper over and write on the back. People will cheer you for saving a tree. Resist the temptation to eschew editing in favor of squishing your font down to 11 point so you can fit everything in. Less is definitely more here.
7. Use Story Photos
You’ve heard a photo is worth 1,000 words, right? What better way to cut down on your text than to substitute a paragraph or two with one photo? But not just any photo. A photo that tells a story.
8. Use Photo Captions.
Just in case your photo doesn’t 100% tell a story on its own, you can add a caption to assure it does its job. Studies have shown that image captions are consistently some of the most-read copy on a page – up to 300% more than the rest of your copy! The best captions are “deep” — two to three sentences long. That’s long enough to entice your reader to complete “their job” and read the rest of your brilliant prose. To use captions brilliantly, be sure you’re aware of best practices.
9. Add Relevant Links
There’s no greater friend to you than including relevant links to copy that fleshes out what you’re writing about. This enables you to keep your copy short and sweet, while simultaneously allowing an interested reader to learn more should they choose to do so. Keep your links internal to your own website when you’re writing a fundraising appeal or seeking an action on behalf of your nonprofit. You want to keep folks on your site, reading your own cornerstone content, and becoming increasingly moved to take your desired action response.
For example, rather than write three paragraphs to tell a detailed story, write one paragraph; then link to a page on your website that tells the full story. ( Of course, if you’re simply sharing a blog post to demonstrate your expertise and trustworthiness, then external links can be helpful. They show you’re up to date on the newest developments and news in your field, and act as a “gift” to your readers of information they might not otherwise have found).
10. Bold face or Underline Important Concepts
Adding emphasis to your critical points helps your reader scan through and pick out the most important information at a glance. In print you can use both boldface and underline. Online you’ve only got boldface at your disposal, as we’re accustomed to thinking anything that’s underlined is a clickable link.
This is good, but I have to scroll down below the fold to get to this part. From what I see at the top, I may not be inclined to do so. Also, throughout the letter there is not enough use of the magic “you” word “You can give future scientists new journals” works so much better). Overall, this appeal simply is not donor-centric enough to make to want to give. But it could easily be fixed using the principles described above.
Okay. Let’s assume you’ve followed all 10 rules above and you think you’ve got a great appeal. Now do one more thing.
Scan Your Letter for Multiple Paths of Readability
You’re much more likely to get me to read your appeal if you attempt to get me to read it through multiple pathways. This is one of my most favorite tricks! I like to consider my letters several letters within one letter. Go through your appeal and look only at the text to which you’ve called special attention. If the reader reads only the subheads, they should get the gist. If they read only the boldface, they should get the gist. If they read only what’s underlined, they should get the gist. And so forth. Since you don’t really know which part of the letter your donor will actually read, repetition is essential. You’ve got to hedge your bets and put your key messaging and ask in multiple places.
So… how did you do? Did your content pass the scannability test? If not, what can you do to fix it?
More Nonprofit Appeal Tips
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