The Watergate Guide to Straight Talk
No one has taught me more about effective communication than Richard Nixon.
I was 21 when the White House tapes were published. And as much as I loved the inside view of the politics, I was even more taken by reading those verbatim transcripts of actual speech. Listen to Nixon speaking about Vietnam:
“ … we have to take the hard line now. We’ve got to — we’ve got to keep our guys flying out there. It’s all we can do. We have no other choice. And if you start indicating anything about ceasefire or coalition government or anything like that we’re not gonna dominate the course. Good God Almighty, you realize what happens to your negotiating position; the Peaceniks and all the rest are gonna — it’ll be hard enough anyway. We’ll just keep cracking in there, keep him … ”
Growing up as I did, diagramming sentences and learning all the complicated rules of the King’s English, it was jarring to see actual speech written down like that.
I knew you couldn’t write like that. But I couldn’t get over the immediacy of the language. Of how reading that casual speech really gave you the feeling of being in the room.
My career as a writer was just getting started, and The Watergate Transcripts became a template for the kind of “real” writing I wanted to do.
Today, writing the way people speak is a pretty well established principle in direct marketing. All the gurus recommend it. Everybody understands that it works.
So how come you end up seeing so little of it in actual direct-mail letters?
Despite the common knowledge that direct mail is a conversation, it seems like way too many actual appeals sound like a lawyer writing to a banker.
I pulled a few random phrases from a couple of letters in my swipe file. See if you don’t think this kind of language is pretty typical:
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.