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 (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.
4. Use the language of feelings. How many ways can you demonstrate that a person is scared? Let them be alarmed, anxious, startled, terrified, petrified, horrified, paralyzed, rattled, stunned, frozen in place and unable to scream for help. See other great ideas here. Then make your own lists of words and phrases that make readers feel more than simply understand.
5. Convey emotion through action. Which is more powerful: "I was incredibly sad," or, "I put my fingers against the glass and bowed my head and cried"?
6. Be willing to be uncomfortable. "If you don't cry while you're writing it, the reader won't cry while she's reading it," says romance writer Debbie Macomber (amazing the places you can find good advice, huh?). But it's true. You can't fake other people's emotions any better than you can fake your own. It takes real empathy to try and communicate someone's pain or fear or relief or jubilation. So be brave, and take the risk of really imagining what it feels like to be the person you're writing about.
One challenge of writing fundraising copy is that a single communication needs to do many different things: describe the need, make the ask, deliver the offer, tell the donor how his or her gift will be used, and more.
In that context, the right story, like a good haiku, uses a few poignant details to bring the reader into a whole different world. So listen for the alley cat knocking over a trash can, smell the dusty air, see the shiny brown cockroach scuttle across the table, taste the water from the rusty pipes.
In other words, find the words that stir your readers' senses. They are the first step toward touching their hearts.
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.