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.

8 Quick, Easy Tips to Boost Engagement

8 Quick Tips

Crafting messaging for your nonprofit can be hard work. How do you get someone to hear your message, let alone remember it?

No one-size-fits-all formula for engaging writing exists– especially since each of us have a different audience. However, these 8 easy-to-follow tips will likely increase your listeners’ engagement, no matter who your audience.

  1. Use Active Voice
    A few months ago, I wrote a post about how to convey confidence through writing. Confidence gives the impression that you really know your stuff, and that’s important. The number one way to convey confidence is to write with an active voice. This means reducing your number of “to be” verbs such as “are”, “is”, “was” and “will be”. “We are preserving the environment” and “Our building is a safe space for homeless youth” improve with just a few minor adjustments: “We preserve the environment” and “Our building offers homeless youth a safe space.”
  2. Involve Your Listener
    We all want to feel like we’re a part of something. See my post on You and Your for advice on how to bring your listener into your story.
  3. Tell a Story
    Speaking of your story, make sure you’re telling one! You may think the facts will speak for themselves, but without a story to frame them in, people will forget them or overlook them all together. It’s in our nature as humans to enjoy and respond to stories. So, pick a good one and get writing. And promise to tell true stories, because people can see through a lie or embellishment.
  4. Be Clear
    Don’t use sentences that last for nearly a paragraph. Don’t use fancy, long words that people have to stop and think about what they mean. And don’t use jargon that only people within your organization will understand. Your listener will appreciate it.
  5. Choose Better Words
    We’ve have a whole series on word choice called #WordsThatWow. Check it out!
  6. Keep it Short
    There’s nothing worse than a three-page letter from a nonprofit, a webpage that requires an extraordinary amount of scrolling to get to the bottom, or a person that talks for five minutes straight when asked about their organization. Know your key information, and figure out the easiest way to say it.
  7. Leave Room for Inquiry
    You want people to engage with you. If you spew out pages upon pages of everything anyone could possibly want to know about your organization, you close to door to inquiry. Say enough to get people interested. Interested enough to ask more questions.
  8. Be Yourself 
    No one wants to feel like they’re talking with a robot. Let your personality and the personality of your organization shine. People relate to other people, not distant-sounding, colorless words.

Would You Say This Out Loud?

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern Tessa. You can find all her posts here.]

Simplicity Quote

“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” -Yeats

While I don’t particularly esteem this quotation because of its condescension to “the people” and its gender exclusionary term “wise man”, it does present a worthy sentiment.

For those of you that I didn’t lose already, let me rephrase that:

I don’t like this quote because it’s condescending, and it excludes anyone who isn’t male. But it does make a good point.

(You can obviously see the difference.)

To get your message noticed, it’s helpful to use unique words rather than the same old same old. However, there’s an important disclaimer to that advice: Make sure you are using words that are easy to understand. The key word is easy. You don’t want people to have to re-read your mission statement three times to finally get what you do. You don’t want to sound like you wrote your donation appeal with the help of a thesaurus. And you don’t want to overwhelm your audience with syllables.

An easy test you can use is this: Ask yourself, “Would I use this word/ phrase/ sentence in casual conversation?” Most people understand a “worthy sentiment”, but most people wouldn’t say it out loud. To make your message accessible, write like you speak. There are some exceptions that may have the opposite effect, such as using slang words and jargon that outsiders wouldn’t understand. But in general, if you can’t see yourself using it in conversation, don’t use it in your nonprofit’s messaging.

“Think complex thoughts but communicate with simplicity.” -my revision of Yeats.

[Photo retrieved from QuotesWave.com. Website:http://www.quoteswave.com/picture-quotes/2618]

We & Our – Use with Caution [#WordsThatWow]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practices

[This is the latest post in our #WordsThatWow series.]

We. It seems like such a nice word, doesn’t it? Like a big hug. Only it’s a word. A word-hug, as it were. Ditto for ‘our’. 

“We are creating opportunities for girls across our state.”

‘We’ implies we’re all in this together. Working hard to make our state a better place. That’s a good thing,  isn’t it? Yes, it is, but here’s the thing: often ‘we’ aren’t all in this together.

“We’re putting an end to human trafficking.”

“We make sure every kid can become a great reader.”

“We feed our neighbors.”

When you read those sentences, to whom is the ‘we’ referring? That’s right, the organization. And this where ‘we’ goes awry. It’s not about you and your organization. It’s about the people you serve and the people who make it possible.

Often, when using the word “we”, nonprofits actually alienate the very people they want to include. We, us, our and ours (a.k.a. first person plural pronouns) quickly become an exclusive group, with the organization on the inside and donors, volunteers, supporters looking in. (Hence the cliché “us versus them”.)

The good news is: It doesn’t have to be this way. You can use these first person pronouns as a tool to include everyone who plays a part in helping your organization meet its mission.

Check out the phrases Tessa, our word-erific intern, used in a recent thank you letter:

 “We appreciate your commitment to a sustainable future. Together, we will create a world free of environmental injustice.”

Did you catch which “we” was referring to the organization’s staff, and which was including the donor? It’s the same word, but the distinction is in the context.

This is why we, us, our and ours can certainly be used, but should be used with caution. Sometimes, they can be powerful tools to make others feel involved in your cause. But other times, they can make people feel separate from your cause. Pay attention to your context.

We appreciate you reading our blog post. By learning more about language, we can better achieve our missions. (Get it?!)

What’s Your Favorite Part of Writing? (In Honor of National Grammar Day)

[This is the latest installment from Tessa, our wonderful intern. If you like this one, check out her other posts.]

National Grammar Day

I can’t hide it. I’m kind of a grammar nerd. Which is why I got excited when I found out today is National Grammar Day.

It would be easy for me to use the opportunity to spout some grammar rules at you. I could tell you why that comma you just typed should be erased, ask you to change your “affect” to an “effect”, or remind you that the period should go inside the quotation mark. In fact, I would have a lot of fun doing that. Because for some reason, grammar rules are the only type of rules I enjoy following. Good grammar brings order into my often-messy life.

I understand that most people don’t get this same joy from punctuation, capitalization and word choice. And they certainly don’t use it as a method for staying sane in a disorganized world. (I’m sure there are much healthier methods.)

The point of this post is to say, somewhat reluctantly, that it’s okay not to get crazy about grammar rules. Of course you want your writing to be understandable, to flow well, and not to be full of noticeable errors. But with all things in life, you need to have a balance. If you are spending a substantial amount of time every time you write agonizing about the placement of each comma, take a step back. The most important thing is that your message is clearly received by your audience. And your grammar doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect for that to happen. (Notice how I started that last sentence with a conjunction? Grammar police would say “no!” to that…)

That being said, I’m not going to totally let you off the hook. You shouldn’t be making rookie mistakes such as misspelling common words or constructing sentences that are as long as this paragraph. If you find grammar to be a weak point in your writing, educate yourself on the things that keep tripping you up. Visit Grammar Girl often and learn the basics. You may even find a willing co-worker that would get excited to edit your work sometimes. I know because that was me in my last position. I somehow managed to manipulate “official proofreader” into my job description. Even if you don’t have a grammar enthusiast in your office, it always helps to have a second set of eyes look over your work whenever possible.

Let’s each use this day to reflect on what gets us excited about writing. For me, it’s taking complex ideas and simplifying them into short, easy-to-read sentences. What is it for you? Maybe it’s seeing your name in print on a final product. How about the people you are reaching with your message? Post your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

The Beauty of Rhetoric

Last week, I wrote about the various words for love in Ancient Greece. Today, I continue my homage to the Greeks by attempting to revive the honor of a word that often stirs up negative feelings. A word that every marketing professional should be familiar with, including nonprofit marketers. The word is rhetoric.

While studying Public Relations and Communication Theory in college, I ran into the word rhetoric a lot, as well as the negative reactions that come with it. (I also faced a lot of negative reactions to the term “Public Relations”, but I won’t get into that today). Clichés such as “empty rhetoric” have emerged in the political arena and elsewhere. Misuse of the word has made it nearly synonymous with manipulation. Even Merriam-Webster has added a dimension of dishonesty to its definitions of rhetoric.

Let’s put thoughts of spin, trickery and dishonest politicians away for a minute and take a closer look. First emerging as a word in Ancient Greece, rhetoric literally means the art of rhetor, or, the art of oration. Essentially, it is the practice of effective communication. You don’t even have to have persuasion as a goal to practice rhetoric. You can educate. You can motivate. You can commemorate. In short, you can get people to listen to your message. And that’s important when you have a mission you care about; a mission others should know about.

The Ancient Greeks viewed rhetoric as an art form to be learned. While the concept didn’t start in Greece, Greek scholar Aristotle famously studied rhetoric and coined these terms closely associated with rhetoric: Ethos, pathos and logos. You may feel like you are reliving your Public Speaking 101 course here, but for those who aren’t familiar with the terms, this is the breakdown summary:

Ethos, pathos and logos are components to include in speech to make your message effective. Ethos means demonstrating your expertise of the topic on which you are talking. Pathos is an appeal to your listeners’ emotions, to get them to connect to your message in a personal way. Logos means ensuring your message is logical. If your message is lacking one of these components, it is less likely to be remembered, and less likely to be successful if your goal is to change opinions or behavior. While rhetoric’s origin is in speech, these same concepts can be applied to your writing as well.

If you still aren’t comfortable calling your organization’s communication rhetoric, that’s okay. Word meanings change constantly and quickly in our society, and this one may be a lost cause. But I encourage you to remember Aristotle’s advice the next time you are speaking or writing about your organization: 1. Establish your credibility, 2. Include a story or something similar that your listeners can relate to, and 3. Make sure what you are saying makes sense rationally.

While there are many language tools you can use to make your message more effective (some of which I will cover in future blog posts), ethos, pathos and logos are a good three words to keep in mind. And this may be my inner history nerd speaking, but isn’t it cool to know that the same techniques that were used over 1400 years ago are still relevant today?