Here are some basic rules that I try to keep front of mind when I write to donors.
Kind beats clever
It’s tempting for a writer to fall in love with clever prose. We read it, we get it, we smile and nod.
But if the purpose of your writing is to help people open their hearts, then heartfelt wins every time.
Clever is really fun. You, and other people on the inside, enjoy it. But if it makes the people you want to communicate with feel like outsiders, it fails. If the joke makes them smile but not feel, it fails.
It’s hard to do clever AND kind. And often, kind – by its humble self – does better work, anyway.
Simple is better than complex
In the same way, simple words, simple sentences, even simple ideas are what reach more people. And reach those people in the way that moves them to act.
That’s why we pay attention to grade level. Not because it’s a contest to see who can come closest to Dick and Jane. (Just dated myself there. For you younger people, it was a very simple, early reader. “See Dick run. Run, Dick, Run.”)
We pay attention because it reminds us to avoid complexities that get between our words and the reader’s heart.
Simple is often harder to write. Try reducing scientific language to something anyone can read and understand! First, you need a firm grip on what you’re “translating”. Then you can put it into simple terms. Not easy!
People respond to people, not statistics
We sometimes have the idea that the most persuasive way to win is to throw down the most statistics. Surely, those facts will win people over? They’re not opinions – they’re facts!
But that’s not how we’re built. We like stories. About people. Because at least since we crawled into caves for shelter and sat around a fire at night, we shared stories. That’s how we learn.
Stats turn on the side of our brains that see giving something away as not logical, Captain.
You may persuade someone to think, “Yes, well I see why you care about that.” But you’ll likely miss, “Yes, well I see why I need to care about that!”
Statistics are easy to work with. They’re correct or not. They’re sterile and safe and don’t bring in all those messy emotions. But if you write for donors, messy emotions are part of your world. They’re your love language. Embrace them.
Your words are not as powerful as a great image
Every writer wants to think that their words will do powerful things. That they matter and people should pay attention.
But we can’t fight who we are. Humans react to photos faster and with more emotion than they do words. Images have been part of how we survive since we existed. One quick look told you that animal was thinking you looked like dinner.
So use great images. Make them part of your work. Whether on paper or in real life, eyes that look at you demand you look back. And subtle feelings can be communicated by expressions – things so subtle we don’t even realize we’re reading them.
People skim. Or skip. Let them.
Along the same lines, realize that you need to write for people NOT to read much of what you write.
I know. You’ve tenderly gathered all the best words. You’ve poured your heart into every one.
But people will likely read just some. Don’t fight it. Write for it. Headlines. Captions. Make it easy for people to catch your meaning without having to read every word.
(That doesn’t mean you get to skip pouring your heart into all the words. There are some people who will read them. You still need to work.)
Helping makes us feel good
I refuse to believe that we are essentially selfish beings, concerned mostly about ourselves. Nope. (You can toss statistics and facts at me about this. But I won’t read them.)
Helping other people makes us feel good. That’s why you write with both your intellect and your heart. Because your goal is to show people how good it will feel when they use their own heart and reach out to someone who needs them.
I could go through a non-scientist’s science about why. But this time just trust me. Helping does as much for the helper as the person (or animal, or climate, or…).