Imagine if you knew the perfect words to inspire your donors and prospects. How much more successful could you be? How much more would your organization be able to accomplish?
Whether you communicate with donors or prospective donors via direct mail, email, website, telephone, advertisements, or face-to-face, the words you use are of critical importance. Words and images build the messages we convey. Carefully selecting the words that are most meaningful to your intended audience will ensure that your messages are correctly understood and have the desired impact. By contrast, choosing the wrong words could result in disaster.
International pollster Frank Luntz, Ph.D. has built a career studying communications. He’s passionate about words. In his book, Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Luntz wrote about the importance of powerful language:
….the power of poignant language is immense, but the destructive power of an ill-thought sound bite is unending and unforgiving. Successful, effective messages — words and language that have been presented in the proper context — all have something in common. They stick in our brains and never leave, like riding a bicycle or tying our shoelaces. Not only do they communicate and educate, not only do they allow us to share ideas — they also move people to action. Words that work are catalysts. They spur us to get up off the couch, to leave the house, to do something. When communicators pay attention to what people hear rather than to what they are trying to say, they manage not merely to catch people’s attention, but to hold it.
Let me give you an example to illustrate Luntz’s point. For a Millennial or Generation X audience, the word “innovation” is powerful. While “new and improved” was a phrase that once created excitement, today it is tired and worn-out. By contrast, “innovation” is a word that is fresh, future focused, active, and desirable. However, among older Americans, “innovation” is not a word that often resonates. A better word choice for older folks is “renew.” Actually, there are a number of “re-” words including revitalize, rejuvenate, restore, rekindle, and reinvent. Each of these words is rooted in tradition, but conjure forward thinking thoughts. On the other hand, a younger audience might think words rooted in tradition are simply old fashioned.
Luntz’s research company has invested literally a million hours to interview individuals and conduct focus group studies to identify a list of the most important words for superior communication now and through at least 2020. While his list was developed with commercial and political purposes in mind, I was able to apply much of it to the fundraising world in my book Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. Here are just six power words identified by Luntz in his book Words that Work:
Imagine. When you ask prospective donors to “imagine,” you engage the prospects and get them to willingly take action. This is, of course, one small step. However, to close a gift requires the prospect to take many small steps. When you ask a prospect to “imagine,” you do not simply engage the prospect, you engage the prospect on his or her terms. If a college asks a prospect to “imagine” a future where no student is turned away for financial reasons, different prospects will “imagine” quite different benefits of that scenario. For some, the scenario will lead to lower unemployment and a stronger economy. Others will see a future full of innovation from an increased number of college graduates. The future that is imagined will vary from prospect to prospect. The result is that the message will be effectively personalized to each individual by each individual. If the college were simply to state that “alumni gifts will provide scholarships to all students in need thereby ensuring fuller employment in the future,” the college might lose the interest of those who do not see fuller employment as the real benefit. Instead, asking alumni to “imagine,” engages the prospect, gets them thinking of the impact most meaningful to them and, therefore, allows the appeal to be personalized to the interests of the prospect rather than the institution. Nevertheless, it promotes the institution’s mission.
Hassle-free. No one wants to be hassled, about anything. If organizations can show prospects how the philanthropic process can be “hassle-free,” prospects will be more willing to pay attention to the idea of giving. When it comes to product sales, this is so important that people would rather have an item “hassle-free” (62 percent) than less expensively (38 percent). For development professionals, for example, this means making the giving process as easy as possible for prospective donors to navigate at every stage and, then, conveying that message.
Results. Donors want to make a difference. They want to see evidence of how their gifts will positively impact the organizations they support; this is particularly true among the Baby Boom generation and those younger. You can speak of “results” in three ways: 1) You can show what has been accomplished thanks to prior philanthropic support. 2) You can illustrate what can be accomplished with future support because donors want to give to outcomes and not just ideas. 3) You can speak of “results” in terms of the impact the gift will have on the donor, his estate, and his loved ones.
Efficient. Donors want to know that the organizations they support will efficiently use their hard earned dollars. Donors know that an “efficient” organization will have more of a positive impact than an inefficient one. If “efficiency” is combined with “innovation,” an organization can deliver a high-impact message. For example, donations might allow a hospital to acquire new, “innovative,” minimally-invasive surgical technology that will enhance patient outcomes and shorten hospital stays thereby improving “efficiency” and lowering healthcare costs.
Investment. This is a word with multiple meanings in the philanthropic context. For example, while prospects should ideally make a planned gift based on philanthropic intent, some gifts do have an “investment” component. While a Charitable Gift Annuity may not pay as well as a commercial annuity, there is still an income it provides and, therefore, an “investment” feature. Depending on the needs of the individual donor, you should not be shy about discussing the “investment” benefit to the donor. The other application of “investment” is as a synonym for “spending.” Simply put, organizations should not “spend” money. Spending implies waste. It implies handing money out that will never be seen again. By contrast, “investing” implies wise stewardship and a return or benefit. For example, instead of spending money on new appliances, a soup kitchen might “invest” in an upgrade to its kitchen facilities in order to serve more homeless individuals.
Financial Security. Given the great recession of 2010 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble before that, Americans want “financial security.” They want to make sure that they and their loved ones are protected. A planned gift might help a donor in this regard. For example, a CGA might provide the donor, as well as a surviving spouse, with a retirement income. Knowing that a gift will continue to provide an income stream to a spouse, thereby providing “financial security,” could help inspire a prospect to make such a gift.
When you communicate with your donors and prospects, carefully proofread your work to choose the best words not just the right words. The best words will be the ones that convey your meaning while enhancing engagement with and value for your audience.
That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?