In the Appeal, Death is Never Easy To Talk About

Tom Ahern
How to start an appeal re: [gulp] dying?
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Notably re-quotable
“…as we age we rely more heavily on intuition, values and emotion and less on rational thinking. Fewer bullet points. More stories. More evocative photos.” ~ Mark Rovner, Sea Change Strategies, Oct. 2019; citing Jeff Brooks

Talking about “it”

Karen G. (AU) inquired…

“Tom: I’m just in the throes of a lively debate with the copywriter for our next appeal letter … and I’m wondering if you’re able to weigh into this argument?”

Karen G. explained:

OUR debate is about the starting sentence for an appeal.  
The appeal is about our “Palliative Care in the Home” service.

We are a hospital foundation … and through donor support, we offer patients a choice … to DIE at home or in hospital.

The copywriter’s start was this:

When we’re sick or injured, our focus is on getting better rather than on what will happen if we don’t.
My suggested start instead:

Death is never easy to talk about.
The copywriter rejected my opening, saying: “We would suggest not adding the first line (for the reason that death IS hard to talk about, and unfortunately the mention may potentially stop people from reading the rest of the letter)…. Let us know if this is OK with you?”

Karen’s response to her copywriter:

I strongly disagree. I think it encourages further reading because it does make you uncomfortable. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Tom Ahern … but I subscribe to his expertise and the first line needs to be arresting, not subtle.
Karen’s abashed note to me:

And now I’m worried I’ve freely used your name in vain. Could you please let me know if I’m at least in the right ballpark?  

Regards, Karen G.

Dear Karen!!!
You’re BOTH right … but you’re righter, in my opinion.
Still, neither of you is quite there yet.

Why? The most important word in an English-language fundraising appeal (or any sales copy) is “you.”

Neither of you took advantage of that easy hook. BOTH your openings FAIL the YOU test:

  • “When we’re sick or injured, our focus is on getting better rather than on what will happen if we don’t.” REWRITE: “When you are sick or injured, your focus is on getting better … rather than on what will happen if maybe you don’t.”
  • “Death is never easy to talk about.” REWRITE: “You know it. I know it. Death is never easy to talk about. And yet….”
You is glue.

“You” keeps people reading.

“You” is personal.


Heavy repetition of the word “you” is about as basic as basic can be, in fundraising and sales copy. For professional copywriters, a missing YOU up-front triggers an automatic rewrite.

Another reason [Karen’s] version is “righter” is because it’s shorter.

Yes, it’s that simple.

For years (before I got into fundraising), I successfully SOLD stuff through direct mail. Joseph Sugarman taught me a lot.

In one of his books, he talks about the problem of getting people to begin reading a letter. There’s only ONE guaranteed way to get people reading, he insists: make your first paragraph SHORT = just a few words.
So, Karen: your opener is shorter than the other opener … which means you WIN that crucial contest.

As for the argument that “Death is never easy to talk about” is some kind of stone-cold-killer turn-off?

That’s one person’s sole opinion.

It’s an opinion based, I suspect, on a common but false presumption: that 100% of people might respond to your appeal, therefore the loss of even one respondent will cost you money.
The truth of direct mail is more like this: in acquisition mode, 1 person in 100 responds.

In renewal mode, 5 people out of 100 respond.

Will an opener like “Death is never easy to talk about” offend someone?


Will it intrigue others? Probably.

Will most people simply ignore your appeal, no matter what the opening says? Absolutely.

Most of us throw away most of our direct mail most of the time without giving it any attention at all.

We don’t judge it. We simply ignore it.
Somebody SHOULD be offended.

That’s one of the counter-intuitive things that is fundamental to direct-mail response.

If NO one’s offended by what you’re saying, it’s probably as bland as beige. I once asked Jeff Brooks (another mentor) how many complaints one should expect from a successful direct mail appeal. He figured that if you mailed a million pieces, you should get something like 250 complaints.
Trying to write a perfectly bland letter that offends no one is NOT the goal.

YES: it’s a common “insider” goal … “we don’t want to risk anyone taking offense” says the boss, the board, etc.

But it’s a statistically invalid worry, given response realities.

Be strong. Be bold. Stand out. Say something that shocks. Direct mail is a crowded, busy environment that does notreward bland.

  • Tom Ahern