Take your writing into the stratosphere!
Want your writing to take off more this year?
Ann Wylie, editor, author, interviewer, teacher and more, is one of the folks I look to for writing tips. And recently she offered 8 tips I believe all nonprofits should take to heart. At least if you want to be persuasive and drive people to take the actions you desire.
You DO, right?
Allow me to share my favorite of Ann’s tips, together with my own thoughts on how they pertain – in spades – to nonprofits.
Some of these I write about a lot. They’re that important and, IMHO, rather obvious.
- Stop writing about “us and our stuff.”
- Hit return more often.
- Don’t stop at the subject line.
Still, it pays to keep these tips top of mind. Because sometimes the obvious stuff can be the easiest to miss, unless we focus our attention (a bit like remembering to smell the coffee, thereby more fully enjoying the experience).
Other tips I’ve thought about less, though I realize I do employ them a lot.
- Make it a metaphor.
- Steal a tip from the New York Times.
I share them with you to bring them into your conscious writing toolbox.
Top 5 Nonprofit Writing Tips
1. Stop writing about “us and our stuff.”
“The more you drone on and on about your organization and its products, services, programs and ideas, the less readers will read what you want them to read and do what you want them to do.” — Ann Wylie
Who wants to hear anyone talk about themselves ad nauseum? If that’s how you treat an online dating first meeting, you’re not likely to get a second one. The same holds true with writing for nonprofit newsletters, annual reports, fundraising appeals, websites and online communications. The purpose of your writing is not to stoke your own ego (or that of your CEO, board president or chief program director). Your purpose is to inspire others to be the change they want to see. In this regard, there’s a huge difference between:
“We make it happen” vs. “You make it happen.”
“Our organization helped ___” vs. “You helped ___.”
“Help us continue doing…” vs. “Your gift will change lives this year by doing…”
If you make it sound like you’re doing swell without the donor’s help, you’ll get exactly that. If you make it sound like even if they give, you’ll merely continue doing exactly what you’re doing now, the donor doesn’t see how their giving will change anything. So, why give?
The thrust and tone of your writing should be what the donor cares about, and how they can like themselves better – especially after making a gift. People yearn to be their best selves, and to like who they see when they look in the mirror. Don’t just talk about your organization’s accomplishments, your clients’ worthiness, and all your needs, needs and more needs. Instead, talk about the donor’s good character and needs. What will make the experience of giving a successful one for them?
Write for your donor, not yourself.
TOP TIP: Go through your copy before you publish; cross out all the “I,” “we,” “us” and “our.” Take out your organization’s name wherever possible too. “The Food Bank did this.” “Save the Whales did that.” No, no, no. Substitute with the magic word: “You.”
2. Hit return more often.
“So, if your paragraph is too long, you might as well stamp on it in red ink: “Don’t bother reading this.” — Ann Wylie
Did you know people skip long paragraphs? Yup. Of course, there’s an easy fix: write shorter ones! You simply need to make it easy for people to read your copy. Otherwise, they just won’t. Period.
Put a lot of white space in your writing – I call it oxygen – to give people’s eyes a rest. Indent paragraphs for the same reason. Use headers and sub-heads. Use bullets, underline and boldface. Make your copy digestible in small bites. Your reader may not digest every bite, but at least they’ll get the flavor of your message. And if it tastes good, they’ll eat more.
Make your writing tempting.
TOP TIP: Use the Flesch-Kincaid Readability scoring tool to measurably improve your readability scores. Attention spans are short. People skim. When doing so, they prefer text at a 4th – 6th-grade level. You’re not going to tempt them with big words and perfect grammar.
3. Don’t stop at the subject line.
“The subject line is only one of four elements your recipients use to decide whether to open your email, delete without reading or put your message in the spam filter.” –– Ann Wylie
All effective nonprofit writing combines a number of thoughtful strategies. For sure, the subject line in an email is critically important. It serves the same purpose as an envelope in a direct mail appeal package — getting the appeal opened! But, then what?
You still have to get folks to read your carefully crafted message. This involves a bit of design. And it’s more than just white space. There are a number of elements that go into making your writing persuasive.
Grab attention by focusing squarely on key elements of your message.
TOP TIP: Be aware of the famous eye movement studies that show where people’s eyes tend to move across a page. Make sure all of your most valuable pieces of real estate are used and optimized.
90% read the P.S. first.
Then they look at the salutation, the top right corner (good place for a photo), and the signature.
Then they look at headlines and sub-heads.
In an email they’ll look at the subject line, preview pane and sender.
4. Make it a metaphor.
“Metaphor has the power to persuade far better than literal language. It lets you say in five words what would otherwise take five paragraphs to explain.” — Ann Wylie
You don’t have a lot of space; your reader doesn’t have a lot of time. Why not put the magic power of metaphor to work on everyone’s behalf? Metaphors take something with which your reader may be unfamiliar and put it into the context of something they know. (If your boss objects to you simplifying complex concepts this way, just tell them “time is money” – may as well put the power of metaphor to work for yourself too!). Metaphors are, simply put, a shortcut to understanding.
When people understand your meaning, they’ll like you better and pay attention more.
TOP TIP: Get familiar with common metaphors. They’re terrific for painting a picture in a story, helping your potential donor visualize the plight of someone they’ll hopefully be compelled to help. For example: “He was a fish out of water at his new school.” “She tucked her tail between her legs and ran.” “Cancer is the biggest battle they’ve ever faced.” Besides making blah text, facts and figures come to life, you can also use metaphors in your subject lines to grab attention.
5. Steal a tip from The New York Times.
“The most common length of a quote in the Times is seven words, plus attribution.” — Ann Wylie
I love using quotes. I use them in blog posts as a form of social proof, showing I’m not the only one who’s ever had my idea. If you don’t trust me, maybe you’ll trust the person I’m quoting. Similarly, I use them in marketing copy to quickly convey an idea, and in fundraising copy as testimonial. There’s no more powerful appeal than hearing directly, and succinctly, from someone who needs help. Or from someone who helped, and how they feel about the impact of their philanthropy.
But you have to get people to read the quote. If they see a dense block of text, they’ll likely skip right over it.
Too much of a good thing is exactly that.
TOP TIP: Review your copy with an eye to the length of any quotes you’ve included. Ann Wylie asks: “Would they be twice as good if they were half (or one-tenth) as long?” You should know that any quote longer than 40 – 50 words should, per various style guide rules, appear as a block quote. But since block quotes are separated from other text, people often do not read them. Cut them down to size to make them more readable.
Take these tips and tweak your copy moving forward.
You don’t have to use every tool every time, but it’s actually kind of fun. And you’ll feel more in control of your writing when you have a few tricks of the trade at your disposal.
To your success!
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