5 words that may be wrecking your year-end fundraising

You may very well be so tired of futzing with your year-end fundraising missives that the thought of even one more tweak makes you break out in hives. BUT if you can muster it, I’d highly encourage you check out this infographic from GrammarCheck.

If you can work up to nothing else, scan your communications for the word ‘very’. Very is unnecessary. Avail yourself of the wonderful list of alternatives at the bottom of the infographic!

Are you writing gobbledygook?

man talking on the phone but does not listen

I’m a gihugic fan of figuring out if what you’re writing can be easily understood by your readers. Those readers may be donors or board members or volunteers or any number of people who care–already or potentially–in your cause.

So it’s important that they understand what you’re saying. Seems obvious enough, right?

And yet, sadly (very, very sadly) a lot of nonprofits are putting out gobbledygook rather than easy-to-understand writing.

Most organizations don’t know they’re generating gobbledygook. Makes sense to them, so it must make sense to other people, or so goes the thinking.

I’m here to tell you that just because it makes sense to you, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to anyone else, especially people who are just getting to know your organization. Nope. Sure doesn’t.

Luckily, linguists and researchers and other super smart people have developed readability tests. You put in your words. They tell you how easy it is to understand them.

I’ve extolled the virtues of the Flesch Reading Ease Score for many moons, as did our super fab intern, Tessa, in this post on tools to help you write. But that’s just one reading test. There are others.

For instance, try out this one from Readability Formulas. It puts your text through seven reading tests and then gives you a verdict on the overall reading ease.

I put my most recent blog post on the Engagement Cycle in there and learned it was “fairly easy to read”.

Here’s, specifically, what I learned:

Reading Ease Screen Shot

Your goal is for a grade level that’s under Grade 8. That’s not because you think your supporters stopped going to school after Grade 8. It’s because that’s the level at which–regardless of how many degrees you’ve earned–it’s easiest to understand what someone is trying to communicate.

I write day in and day out. And I still check the reading ease of pretty much everything I write. Why? Because I want you to be able to easily understand whatever I’m talking about, so you can start doing it!

Reading ease is where it’s at. Try it out for yourself!

Is surprising supporters good or bad?

nonprofits, messaging, language, words, messaging

Yawning’s cute when it’s a baby doing it. Not when it’s a supporter.

There’s a really interesting blog post called, “How to Improve Your Writing: 5 Tips from Hollywood” by Eric, “the guy behind the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog“.

Tip #2 was: Surprise your readers.

Why surprise? Because we remember things that surprise us.

This got me wondering: Do nonprofits surprise their supporters enough? 

If we’re looking at the words nonprofits use, the answer would be absolutely, positively not! Our research shows that nonprofits are doing a downright miserable job of surprising their supporters and a very good job of boring them.

Nonprofits are only using 5% of the words in the English language. And 1% of the words nonprofits use account for 65% of all the words they use.

No surprise–it’s a linguistic yawnfest.

It begs the question: how do you effectively surprise supporters?

Back to Eric and the blog post:

Surprise comes from knowing the expectations of your audience — and then turning them on their head.

In order to do this effectively, you first have to know your supporters inside and out. That means creating personas. (If personas are new to you, read this, this and this.)

Once you know the types of words that will resonate with a given persona, brainstorm words that are similar but have a bit more oomph.

There’s a fine line between startling and surprising. Surprising is good. It wakes up the brain. It’s engaging. Startling can be off-putting. So don’t go overboard.

Some ideas for generating words that surprise:

Bored supporters are rarely happy supporters. Happy supporters are usually stupendous supporters. So, for their sake and yours, mix up your language. Surprise them. (Whatever you do, don’t ever send them a boring thank you letter.)

Is your writing about expression or impression?

Old vintage typewriter, close-up.

Recently, I asked if your writing made people dream or think? I advocated for a combo meal–sometimes writing to make people think and sometimes to make them dream. Depending, of course, on audience and context, and where someone was vis-a-vis the Engagement Cycle.

Now I want to ask you this: is your writing simply an expression or does it, in fact, make an impression?

Umair Haque–economist, author and super smart dude–thinks it’s only about expression.

Umair Haque, writing

[If you don’t know Umair, he’s da bomb. He’s thought-provoking and insightful and has a way of making you re-think your world that is both frightening and liberating.]

For certain types of writing, Umair may be spot on. But when it comes to nonprofits and writing, the goal should be to express so that you impress. Anything less is time wasted.

There’s an opportunity to cost to writing, i.e. if you’re writing, you’re not doing something else. Nonprofits are trying to do so much with so little that opportunity costs are even more pronounced.

  • If you’re the Executive Director of a small nonprofit and you’re writing a grant, you’re not spending time with donors or meeting with program staff to fine-tune your after-school program.

All of the above-mentioned activities are critical. So if you’re spending time writing–whether it’s a grant, or web copy, or a blog post, or notes from a recent donor meeting, or whatever–that writing should get you somewhere. It should be good enough to impress the people–donors, volunteers, elected officials, advocates, board members, staff–who matter most to your organization at a given point in time.

As with all other activities your nonprofit takes on, writing should be about impact. It should be about moving people along the Engagement Cycle. It should elevate and advance your mission and your work. Anything less is simply expression without impression. 

Some resources to help you write impressively:

  1. The Wordifier helps you amplify your words.
  2. This post gives you tips for error-free writing.
  3. And Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course will guide you to words that will definitely impress.

 

Are you making them dream or think?

nonprofits, writing, language

“There are two types of writers: those who make you think and those who make you dream.” ~ Brian Aldiss

This is the opening quote in Paulo Coelho’s wonderful article, “On Writing”.

I love this quote. It begs the question: which is the better type of writer?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. It’s largely personal preference. I contend there’s too much thinking and not enough dreaming going on these days (and I’m not quite sure where all of our thinking is getting us in many cases, to be quite honest…).

So, for me, writing that makes me dream is downright dazzling. It opens up my world and my heart.

But I also value a well-written piece that makes me think, or reflect, or sets me straight on my facts and figures.

I also think it’s not an either/or. Good writers can make us think and dream. Maybe not at the same time. But in equal measure and when the time is right for one or the other.

Now, you may cringe at the thought of writing and want to declare, “I am not a writer! Let The Writers (big ‘W’) do the writing.”

It’s highly likely, however, that you churn out words every day. So whether or not you consider yourself a writer is largely irrelevant.

What is infinitely relevant is figuring out how to make your words work for you. 

On this blog, you can find lots of practical tips on things like making your writing flow better and making your editing error-free. You can play with the Wordifier and find the very best words to amplify your words. All great resources and tools.

But none of them can answer the question about whether you’re writing to make people think or dream. You have to decide that for yourself. And it’s worth asking every time you sit down to write: will people respond to this because it speaks to their heads or their hearts?  (Hint: It’s usually the latter, rather than the former, especially for donors. Don’t believe me? Check out this and this.)

Heads think. Hearts dream. We need both to make the world go ’round. Write accordingly.