"Is a cliché bad for your letter? Nope, because a cliché turns a light on inside your reader's mind. Avoiding clichés leaves the reader in darkness." — Jerry Huntsinger
Avoid clichés like the plague, says the old writer's joke.
It's good advice, but it's mostly directed at beginning writers. Its point is to teach mental discipline: to force the neophyte to think about the words he or she uses and not rely on trite phrases as a substitute for original ideas.
But, as with so many things in direct marketing, the rules apply only when they apply. So while it's true that clichés generally fall flat as pancakes, there are plenty of other times when they work like a charm.
- "We've got our work cut out for us ..."
- "We have to watch them every minute ..."
- "It's now or never ..."
Your comp 101 teacher would slap you silly for using phrases like these. But in fundraising, they can be emotional shorthand for your reader. And that's more important than you might think.
That's because fundraising copy is not meant to reason, but to persuade. And as any effective politician will tell you, persuasion and reason have next to nothing to do with each other.
You want your readers to think a little. But you want them to feel a lot. That's where clichés can come in handy.
Carefully chosen and strategically used, they save the reader from having to intellectualize about what you're saying. They help deliver urgency and emotion without a lot of distracting explanations. (That's why, despite the conventional wisdom, citing compelling statistics can often do more harm than good. But more about that in a future post.)
Giving your reader those shortcuts leaves you more real estate to tell a story, show a picture, and generally communicate in ways that bypass the head and go straight to the heart.
BUT ... using clichés effectively takes judgment. It's one thing to shimmy past your reader's prefrontal cortex. But quite another to use worn-out phrases to phone in your copy.
Think of it like juggling rattlesnakes: If done right, a properly chosen cliché can be as good as gold. But done wrong it'll go over like a lead balloon.
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.