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My personal, game-changing ah-ha moments - part 2
Tom Ahern

June, 2011

Two writing tips that will improve your results, guaranteed.


Mental nods. Direct mail newbies reasonably wonder: "What should an appeal letter really say?"

     The obvious answer seems to be (to judge from the scores of first efforts I've seen): "Let's tell the reader how wonderful our organization is, so they'll want to give to us." Unfortunately, that answer is about 10% right ... and 90% wrong.

     For me, the uncertainties surrounding what to say in a direct mail appeal evaporated the day I met the notion of "mental nods." It appears in Mal Warwick's How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters.

     Mal's advice is quite simple. Imagine your reader. She's reading your letter. Every time she encounters something she agrees with, she mentally nods. Here's the emotional math: The more times she mentally nods, the more likely she is to give. (Forgive me, Mal, if I've misstated your advice. This is how I understand it.)

     There's some interesting psychology behind this phenomenon. If you're interested, read Switch, the new business book by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. See p160 in their hardback for an eye-opening case study of how a small yes can lead to a big yes. 

     The mental nods begin with the envelope. "If you believe in hospice as much as I do...." the teaser on one successful package says. The person who mentally nods is more likely to open the envelope. 

     Your appeal has to make sense. Which generates a mental nod: "Well, yes," she thinks, "somebody should do something about that problem."

     Emotional hooks planted throughout the letter produce powerful mental nods. ("Well, that story just about broke my heart.")

     The mental nods should continue all the way through to the reply device: "Well, look how easy it is to help. And cheap: I can afford to give away $5 monthly. Why, that's no more than a few cups of coffee. That's just what I'm going to do!"

     With every sentence I write in a direct mail appeal these days, I ask myself, "Will this elicit a mental nod?"  


Write as if you're conversing. If you were to stand outside my office door on a morning when I'm trying to nail down a direct mail appeal, that mumbling you would hear is me "writing" by talking to an imaginary friend. I say my letters aloud, over and over and over. 

     Let me quote (as well as memory serves) two distinguished British experts on the subject of donor communications.

     Richard Radcliffe: "Write like you're writing to your mum." George Smith: "All fundraising communications should sound like conversation."

     Let me give you an example of "mum-appropriate" writing, from the opening page of a case brochure: "A symphony is a tough business. Every time you perform, you lose money ... if you depend on ticket sales alone." Two simple sentences that even a child could understand ... and a $5 million capital campaign was launched.

     Loftier-than-thou or jargon-laced writing are both common flaws that sap the life from fundraising communications. (Hospitals and universities, I'm talking to you.) The cure: keep your language simple and your sentences short. 


Thought for the day >>>>  


It feels good to curse out the greedy SOBs on Wall Street, flaunting their eye-popping bonuses in a time of low growth and high unemployment. But remember, too, that a partying Wall Street is good for fundraising. One of my clients, a large hospital system, saw major giving plunge 40% last year. That painful decline reflected the fact that many large gifts are made in appreciated stock ... or not made, as it were. When rich folk don't feel rich, they don't give.


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