Richard Nixon: Copywriter
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. Here's Nixon talking 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 in the generation that diagrammed sentences and was forced to learn all the complicated rules of the King's English, it was jarring to see actual speech written down like that.
I knew you weren't "supposed" to write that way. But the immediacy of that casual language was just so powerful. It really gave you the feeling of being in the room. My career as a writer was just getting started, and the White House 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 it works.
So how come so much messaging ends up sounding like this?
"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? Listen to Nixon again:
"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? It's a perfect direct-mail paragraph.
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 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.