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:
“Currently, we’re very excited about our newest program … We’re giving all Americans the opportunity to understand … To thank you for joining promptly, you’ll receive … with your continued support we can remain vigilant … ”
There’s nothing really wrong with this language. But don’t you think it’s missing a little, you know, liveliness?
Here’s what I think happens: In our heart of hearts, we know that casual, conversational language gets results. But when we’re proofing copy, all sorts of other concerns crowd into our heads:
* “What if some people think we don’t know how to write any ‘better’ than this?”
* “Will the board understand that it’s supposed to sound this way?”
* “It’s just not the way I was taught to write in school.” (Never underestimate, by the way, the power of a teacher to live in your head forever!)
All legitimate concerns. But as a fundraiser, you also have to ask, “What kind of language has been proven to have greater emotional impact and bring in more money?”
Maybe this will help. If people lean on you about the grammar or structure of your sentences, try using this story. It’s one of those gazillion Winston Churchill/Lady Astor anecdotes that people use to illustrate points just like this.
This one has Lady Astor scolding Churchill for ending sentences with prepositions, and Churchill replying archly, “Madam, that is precisely the kind of insult up with which I will not put!”
Getting back to Watergate, here’s my favorite part of the Nixon quote: “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.”
Hear the urgency? See how the repetition intensifies his point? Except for the redundant first three words (oh yeah, don’t forget there’s a BIG difference between repetition and redundancy) it’s a perfect direct-mail sentence.
Now, a lot of people think that you need to write differently for e-mail and the Web. Maybe so. I’m not married to the idea that what works in the mail works in the new media. It’s a dialogue I’d like to be part of. But ours is a results-driven industry, and a lot of details about using the new media still need to be tested over time.
Meanwhile, the thing to remember is that straight talk — simple, informal and conversational — has been proven to work in the mail and in DRTV and in telemarketing.
If we want to motivate readers — get them to the emotional state we want them be in when we ask for money — that’s the way we have to talk to them. “We’ve got to. It’s all we can do. We have no other choice.”
Willis Turner is a senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 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, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.