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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Watch Your Language
Why not craft a message worth communicating?

by Joseph Barbato

Here’s a tip from a dinosaur who can remember a time when fundraisers used manual typewriters and rotary-dial telephones to communicate with donors. Technology changes, sometimes in the sexiest ways; but old-fashioned word-smithing never goes out of style.

A poorly crafted message - whether sent by smoke signals, the U.S. Postal Service, or the Internet - will always fail to communicate.  

This came to mind recently when someone asked about the latest trends in nonprofit marketing. He probably expected me to talk about the advances of the past two decades in communications technology - from cable TV and teleconferencing to websites, blogs, and email newsletters. Instead I reminded him of the need to craft a compelling message. Like a rumor about Paris Hilton, a focused, riveting, and persuasive message will spread immediately, no matter how you send it.
But you must say something. Institutional blather about new strategic directions will be lost on even the most committed donors. But put it in plain and compelling language that anyone can understand, and you have something to beat out on your tom-tom.

of related interest OF RELATED INTEREST: In Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves, Joseph Barbato offers field-tested advice to help your organization gain greater visibility, a broader constituency and raise more money. Without shouting.

Consider a few examples.

The other day, I found myself inundated with two years worth of strategic thinking from a nonprofit client. Dozens of staff members across the country had contributed to complex plans to tackle an important environmental issue. Now my client wanted me to take that six inches of reports and memos and inspire major donors to part with millions of dollars in support.

Of course the only way to do that effectively was to tell some compelling stories. So we found people who were engaged and passionate about the key issues, and had them  relate concrete personal experiences that conveyed how the new initiatives would improve the quality of all our lives. Those brief vignettes formed the heart of the message. We relegated the strategic actions to bullet points.

In another instance, I was asked by a hospital to communicate expansion plans to donors. The hospital was in a growing suburban community where demand was skyrocketing for medical services. My client planned to add new patient and surgical rooms, increase ER capacity, and step up its outreach and prevention programs. And their draft marketing communications consisted of hospital bureaucrats talking about new equipment and increased space. Borrrrrr-ing!

The trick was to capture voices where the action was. Lives were being saved in the ER and the surgical suites. Children and the elderly were receiving compassionate care. Those benefits formed a message that could resonate with donors who might one day need the same services.

When you are helping to manage an organization day to day, it is easy to lose sight of the gripping aspects of your nonprofit’s story. Completing a tedious planning process may be such a relief that you mistakenly think the actual plans will excite your supporters. Not so. The task is to translate planning concepts into flesh-and-blood human outcomes. The individual receiving your message - no matter how it is conveyed - wants to know, what’s in this for me? How will this make my life better?

If you can make your audience hear and see and feel your message, you are on your way to communicating. If all you can do is post a 10-point plan on a website, you are meeting your internal needs (look what we did!) but not those of the people prepared to support your good work - if only they knew what it was and why it meets their needs.

On occasion, I am invited into a client’s offices to meet with the men and women who write the copy that goes out in direct mail, websites, proposals, newsletters, and so on.  They are often young, deeply committed, and graduates of the MTV school of communication. I suspect they are surprised when I say that I recognize the importance of top-notch graphics and sound bites. Indeed, both are essential to good communication. 

But the sound bites - if you insist on the expression - have to be telling. They are made up of words, and you have to watch your language. If today’s readers, viewers, and listeners don’t have time for lengthy messages, that makes the few words that go into your materials all the more important. Waste a donor’s time once with words that don’t matter, and you may not get a second opportunity to make your point. 

Recently, a program officer at an urban think tank was quoted in a New York Times feature on the revitalization of cities on the East Coast. In two sentences, she explained that many older industrial cities in the U.S. are now trading on newly fashionable cultural and other assets to attract young singles and recently retired people. Her words expressed the central findings of a massive new study that had just been released by the think tank. And there she was, planting the message in a big story on one aspect of the urban renaissance.

As fundraisers and communicators we have innumerable new vehicles for delivering our messages. Each can be enormously useful in its way, as long as we are working hard to keep our messages clear, simple, and memorable. And when possible, tell a little story.

People need and love stories. Many years ago, most Americans turned to the colorful features in their daily newspapers for them. Today, the stories most people talk about the next day are told on television. Even then, every word matters. Tony Soprano without David Chase’s dialogue is just another hood.

Last summer, the Chicago Tribune appointed a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter as its new editor overseeing staff writing development. Louise Kierman is an exceptional writer who will mentor her colleagues in “compelling storytelling,” the paper said. The aim? To foster vivid writing that will “distinguish and differentiate” the Tribune.

Like that newspaper, we in the nonprofit community also want to stand out and communicate effectively. Let’s keep an eye on the very latest technologies - but, please, use them to communicate stories and information that make prospects say, “I want to be part of that.”  

Joseph Barbato is the author of How to Write Knockout Proposals and Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves, by Emerson & Church, Publishers. He is also president of Barbato Associates (www.barbatoassociates.com), a consulting firm in Alexandria, VA, that produces case statements, brochures, and other persuasive pieces for nonprofits. His more than 20 years of experience include stints in major capital campaigns at NYU and The Nature Conservancy. He can be reached at 703-379-5441

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