Power Words that Inspire

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.

Wordle: Power Words

Power Words, drawn with Wordle.net

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?

19 Responses to “Power Words that Inspire”

  1. Excellent and informative post. Thank you.

  2. I read your article with great interest. I must say I did get stuck when you used the phrase, “older people.” I was wondering what age do you consider “older?” I’m just asking to understand and for clarification purposes. Thanks. I totally agree that we must reread what we write!

    • Carol, you caught me using nonspecific language in a blog post about communication! Well, I’m a bit embarrassed. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify. “Older people” refers to members of the Baby Boom Generation and older. Of course, there is no specific age of demarcation between young and old. The further one moves along the age continuum, the less the word “innovation” will resonate. In other words, Millennials and Gen-X folks will be receptive to talk of “innovation.” Early Baby Boomers (those in their 50s) will likely still be receptive to “innovation,” but they will be somewhat less enthusiastic than younger people. Late Boomers will be even less receptive. Members of the Silent and Great Generations will be even less receptive. While there will certainly be exceptions, “innovation” will have the greatest positive impact on Millennials and Gen-X, a bit less so with early Boomers, and little if any positive impact on Silents and Greats. I hope that helps.

  3. A well-spring of revelant information that will help us renew our resolve to effect more innovative communications with our constituents. Can you imagine that? 🙂 Can you guess what demographic I fall into? 🙂 Excellent post, Michael. Thank you!

  4. Michael,
    This article really hits home for me. I completely agree that choosing the “Best” words can make all the difference in how your audience responds to your message. Very insightful information! Thanks for posting, I will be sure to keep these things in mind. I have found that using the words “hassle-free” (as you mentioned above) can really help to engage my audience and help remove any preconceived notions they may have about the process. Great information!

  5. This was useful! I passed it on to a client who is talking to donors about changes to their program. This will be very helpful in how to phrase those changes. Thanks for posting it!

  6. Interesting and useful post. One caveat: Jon Tidd and others have drummed in to me that “investment” is a tricky word when it comes to the promotion of gift with lifetime payments, as this raises the specter of charities promoting/offering investment vehicles and possible regulation of the same. I know that the Philanthropy Protection Act of 1995 exempts charities from such regulation, but it does seem dangerous to call such gifts investments. We used to dance around this by saying that donors have made an investment in the future of our charity and the communities it serves while securing lifetime payments (not “life income”–another pitfall for various tax reasons) for themselves and/or loved ones. Alas, one can never be too careful (not to say imaginative) with words, especially in donor communications.

    • John, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Nonprofits should be cautious when using the word “investment.” What development professionals are seeking is a donation. Donors can receive a much better rate of return, for example, with a commercial annuity instead of a CGA. So, while a donation might result in income to the donor, it’s not a pure investment vehicle. We don’t want donors to lose sight of the the philanthropic component. On the other hand, when used properly, nonprofits can use the term “investment.” I appreciate your call for caution.

  7. Hi Michael,

    A great post. And the relevance of age to certain words is particularly important. I find the word “imagine” is incredibly powerful in copy. But more than just the word itself, is language that actively invites the donor to imagine the situation of the person they can help.

    I recently opened a fundraising letter like so:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Dear Joan,

    Through the cracks in the mud wall of the hut, little Silvia can see the other children running past outside.

    They used to be her friends.

    Silvia looks up at her grandfather, then down at her feet. They are twisted inwards and upwards at the ankle. Every step she takes is agony. So she sits and watches the children through the gaps in the wall.

    A child runs past outside, his feet thumping on the hard baked dirt, laughing raucously. And Silvia looses her fight to hold back her tears.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Allowing the donor to imagine being in Sylvia’s position goes several steps beyond simply saying: this is how hard Sylvia’s life is. The mailing was extremely successful.

    However, I still feel very strongly that the most powerful word in donor communications is the word: “You.”


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