5 Ways to Supercharge Your Direct Mail Copy
It’s probably the most common piece of wisdom people give to fundraising copywriters: “Tell a story.” And it is great advice. There's a whole wealth of empirical and experiential evidence to prove it .
But there are many ways to tell a story. And unfortunately, in direct mail, too many of them sound the same: same flat tone, same passive verbs, same sense that you’ve read this a hundred times before.
Now to be clear, a lot of direct mail phrasings and formulas are used again and again because they have been widely tested and proven to work. But within those architectures, there are powerful tools you can use to grab readers’ attention, pull them into your story and get them so emotionally involved that they feel compelled to make a gift or take action.
Here, lifted straight from the short-story writers’ playbook, are five techniques you can use to inject new life and energy into the stories you tell (and the results you receive):
- Zoom in. Too often, fundraising stories sound more like caseworkers’ intake reports than dramatic narratives. Don’t let readers observe your story from 20,000 feet. Bring them right into the room. Engage their five senses, so they experience your story rather than just watch it.
- Find the details that reveal the larger story. Sensory metaphors add depth and emotion. Archetypal images set a scene for the reader in just a few words. A torn screen door denotes rural poverty. A squeaky hinge or creaking floorboard can induce a sense of dread. On the opposite end of the spectrum, morning sun pouring through the window, flowery yellow wallpaper or the aroma of fresh coffee evoke happiness, security and the simple joys of life.
- Use the language of feelings. How many ways can you show that a person is scared? Let them be alarmed, anxious, startled, terrified, petrified, horrified, paralyzed, rattled, stunned, frozen in place or unable to scream for help. All of them are more powerful than just saying, “Sara was really scared.” Or don’t just let Sara be happy. Make her cheerful, ecstatic, overjoyed, jubilant or simply content, peaceful and satisfied. Adjectives that are specific and concrete help your readers feel the way you want them to feel.
- Convey emotions through action. Which is more powerful: “The old man was incredibly sad,” or “The old man leaned his forehead against the window and wept”? With just a few words, you can go beyond saying what happened and set a scene that makes readers experience the moment themselves.
- Make yourself uncomfortable. It’s a cliché, but Robert Frost’s dictum “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” is unsettlingly true. It takes empathy to feel someone else’s pain or fear or relief or jubilation. Fortunately, it is not simply a gift. Empathy is a writing skill you can learn. But it does take a bit of courage. If you’re not willing to feel someone else’s pain, your reader won’t feel anything at all.
A good fundraising story is a lot like writing haiku. Both depend on using a few poignant details to lift readers out of their familiar surroundings and transporting them into a different world. Listen for the cat knocking over a trash can, smell the rancid air, watch for the shiny brown cockroach scuttling across the kitchen table, taste the acrid water from the rusty pipes. The words that awaken your readers’ senses are also the ones that touch their hearts.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.