Fundraising Copy and the Challenge of Heuristics
On July 23, 2009, a hard rain was falling in Long Branch, N.J. Police Officer Kristie Buble got a call that a suspicious person was wandering around in a nice neighborhood peeking in the windows of a house with a "For Sale" sign in the yard.
When she arrived on the scene, she found an old man, still in the front yard, "wearing black sweatpants tucked into black rain boots, and two raincoats with the hood pulled down over his head."
He definitely did not look like he belonged in the neighborhood, so she put him in the back of her squad car and began to question him. Based on his appearance and eccentric behavior, there was no way she could have known that she had just detained Bob Dylan.
She couldn't have known because people see what they expect to see. If they don't have other contextual references, they rely on heuristics and cognitive bias to fill in the blanks.
This is tremendously important for copywriters to understand, because what we write is designed to generate strong emotions. And it's why we have to be certain that what we write takes readers into the world we want them to be in. Consider:
Some words are two-edged swords. To one person, a "homeless man" is a struggling veteran trying to find his way back into society. To another, he is a frightening derelict. To one person, a single mom is young woman doing the best she can for her family. To another, she is a freeloader, skating along on your tax dollars.
Take a moment to look at your copy with a jaundiced eye. How can it be misinterpreted, even deliberately? When you pull out your hot-button words, be sure they are in contexts that provide precisely the impression you want them to. If you leave room for a reader to assign his own values and preconceptions to your message, you may regret the results.
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.