Dusty Chunks of Plaster Lit by a Bare Light Bulb
‘Tell a story” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to fundraising writers. “Add emotion” is another. Everyone knows an emotional story engages readers and leads to stronger results. But not everyone knows how simple it is to tell one. (But remember, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy). Here are six tools that help:
1. Get close to the story
Too many fundraising “stories” sound more like caseworkers’ intake reports than dramatic narratives. One reason this happens is because the writers often get their background from caseworkers’ intake reports. So start by getting information from sources as close to the story as you can. Ask to interview the client who received the services. Or the site manager who directly helped him or her.
2. Show, don’t tell
Don’t simply outline events. Paint a picture. It’s not enough to say, “Hanna lived in a rundown apartment.” If you ask, Hanna will give you a lot more than that. How did she grow up? What was the turning point that led her to her present situation? What did the apartment look like? What shape were the walls in? Did the plumbing work right? Look for bare light bulbs, peeling paint, splintery floors, broken refrigerators. Find out how she felt by asking what she did (see No. 5).
Get physical descriptions, and probe for specific details. A thin girl with hollow eyes who cries at night because there’s no formula in the empty refrigerator invokes more emotion than faceless kids who don’t have enough to eat.
3. Look for the revealing detail
A squeaking hinge means ghosts. A torn screen door denotes rural poverty. A creaking floorboard sounds like suspense. Some images are archetypes and can set a scene for the reader in just a few words. When you collect details for your story, look and listen for the ones that create the most emotion in the fewest words.
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.