Nearly Half a Dozen Ways to Improve Your Numbers
In just 149 days, Betty will walk out of prison, a free woman.
Veronica will be stuck in prison for nearly five more months.
At a glance, which is how readers read fundraising communications, it seems like Betty will be free pretty soon, while Veronica still has a quite a stretch ahead of her.
If you calculate it out, of course, Betty and Veronica will get out of the joint at exactly the same time. But that's not what your donors and prospects will do. They'll be influenced by linguistic cues in the copy that will let them know whether or not four months and 14 days is a long time.
The use of statistics and supporting figures can be dicey. It's an area where the ability to see through your donors' eyes can affect results. Nonprofit organizations can rise or fall on hard numbers. Response percentages, average gift amounts, costs to acquire a donor — these are hugely important to what you and I do every day. As a result, we get very excited about numbers.
That can make it easy to forget that most people don't have the same emotional investment in numbers that we do. In fact, for most people, the more numbers they read, the sleepier they get. There's even research that indicates that introducing figures and statistics into readers' minds actually makes them less generous.
But for the most part, numbers are a fact of life in fundraising. We feel we have to tell people how many of their neighbors are homeless tonight, how many billions of dollars are being wasted, how many innocent people were injured and so on. There may be no good way to eliminate numbers from appeal and acquisition packages, but there are ways to position them that will nudge readers back to the right sides of their brains again.
- Forget the "1 to 9" rule. "Proper" English, if there is such a thing anymore, tells us to spell out numbers one through nine, and write numerals for 10 and above. Forget it. In direct marketing, use the form that fits your emotional message.
- Numerals highlight, spelled-out numbers diminish. Write numerals to draw attention to numbers, spell them out to bury them. Not only does "nearly five months" sound longer than "149 days," it even looks longer. In this particular context, the mere fact of being written out enhances the feeling of boredom and time dragging on.
- Tell the reader how to feel about them. Sometimes readers are on your wavelength, sometimes they're not. Since facts and figures can reduce their emotional involvement with the message, use qualifiers like "just," "more than," "only" and "up to" to help the reader see a number from your perspective so she knows immediately whether it' big or small.
- Round off effectively. "Nearly 500 people" sounds like more that "a little over 400 people." Rounded numbers work with other qualifiers to help readers think about numbers they way you want them to.
However, when you do round off, make sure the numbers are actually round. "Nearly 100" of something is emotional shorthand. The reader knows instantly what you're trying to indicate and she doesn't get diverted from your larger message. On the other hand, "More than 97" is a distraction. It's neither specific nor rounded off. It forces the reader to stop and think about it, and in that moment, the emotional continuity of your message can evaporate.
Ironically, the technique for using concrete numbers effectively is not very concrete. It requires judgment, empathy, euphony, context and experience. But it can mean money in the bank if you take the extra time and thought to make sure your numbers add up to more emotion in your message.
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.