It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It

I learned a long time ago, as a development professional, that having a great case for support is nearly meaningless unless you also develop compelling messaging.

Later, when attending the Association of Fundraising Professionals Faculty Training Academy, the workshop leader made this same point in the context of making presentations. The AFP/FTA takes good speakers and turns them into the best.

Unfortunately, a great many nonprofit organizations continue to send the same dull, institutional-focused direct mail that prospects easily bypass in the paper shuffle. Charities continue to make uninspiring calls, publish informative articles few read, run ads that donors will only glance at and soon forget.

GCheeseiven the pressures we face in our daily lives and the enormous demands on our time, I understand first-hand how simple it can be to take the easy way. Knowing the content of our message is important, we’re sometimes lulled into the belief that that is enough to make the message compelling.

Well, it’s usually not. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it that counts.

Let’s step away from the nonprofit sector for an example that will make what I’m suggesting crystal clear.

My wife and I are foodies. We live in Philadelphia, a fantastic restaurant city. We’re choosey about where we eat. And we’re even pickier about which restaurant email lists we subscribe to. However, like I said, we’re foodies. So, we’ve ended up on a lot of restaurant email lists, though just the good ones.

Recently, my wife received an email from Tria, a wine, cheese, and beer café that we enjoy. It read, in part:

Cheese, Please

With due respect to our current cheese menu, variety is the spice of life. We’re introducing a brand new list of summer fromage that we’re excited to brag about share with you.

Announcing! The Tria Spring Cheese Menu

Out with the old list, in with the new. Starting today, we’ll be replacing every single cheese on our menu with a new alternate for the summer. No, we aren’t throwing out tons of delicious cheese (the horror!) from our current list – as one is finished, a new one will take over the former’s place on the menu. Pop by and scout out the arrival of a new ultra-creamy Crottin-style cheese from Georgia, a funky thistle-rennet cheese from Spain that redefines luscious, the best cheddar in the world, and much much more. We promise drool-worthy images on our Twitter and Instagram feeds as the curds switch up.

When: Today through the rest of the summer

Where: Tria Rittenhouse and Tria Wash West”

You can see the full message here. 

Tria used humor to capture our attention, and great descriptions that engaged our senses to hold on to our attention. The message also gave us important information about the new offering including when and where we can find it.

The café could have imparted the same core information far more simply. Tria could have said:

Tria has begun offering its summer cheese menu. Visit our Rittenhouse or Wash West location to try the new cheese selection.”

Both messages impart the same basic information and address the what, when, where questions. However, there is no doubt that the original message is far more engaging and, therefore, far more effective.

My wife, also a development professional, agrees on this point. She liked the email so much, she took the unusual step of sending this response:

This is a really clever and funny email.

Now, if you’d just said, ‘We have some great new cheeses this summer. And we have some great Reislings to sample.’ I don’t know that it would tug at me to go see you the way this bit of winsomeness has.”

Continuing the good marketing and solid engagement, the café’s Jonathon Myerow responded:

Wow, this marketing stuff works. Thank you for writing, and glad you liked the email, Lisa! Cheers!”

Yes, this “marketing stuff” does indeed work, if you do it correctly.

Here are three tips for crafting more compelling content:

1. Cite Fewer Statistics, Tell More Stories. I’m a bit of a nerd, so I get the appeal of statistics. However, most people’s minds glaze over when they’re bombarded with numbers. Besides, numbers are abstract. Real stories or illustrations are, well, real. Tria did not tell us how many cheeses are on its menu. Instead, the café painted a verbal picture of some of them for us.

Consider the Wounded Warrior Project. I have no idea how many wounded military veterans there are or how many of those heroes WWP serves. What I do know is that the individual stories they share are compelling. Whenever I see a WWP commercial on television, I’m drawn in. The stories are an almost magical blend of pain and hope. Prospective donors can easily understand the impact they can have. Rather than overwhelming us with the enormous need, WWP shows us how we can help an individual.

Your organization also has stories to tell. Tell them.

2. Use Humor. In the nonprofit world, we tend to take ourselves too seriously. This is especially true when it comes to planned giving marketing materials. Gift planning materials are often worse than institutional; they’re funereal. You can use tasteful humor without sacrificing professionalism. The Remember a Charity campaign in the United Kingdom used humor to great effect. In a simple, tasteful way, Tria used humor to engage its readers.

Several months ago, Fundraising Success magazine ran an article about using humor. Author Nancy Schwartz pointed out, “A classic 1993 Journal of Marketing study on the impact of humor worldwide found that humorous messages are ‘more likely to secure audience attention, increase memorability, overcome resistance, and enhance message persuasiveness.’”

Depending on your organization’s mission, finding humor might be a challenge. However, with a bit of effort, it’s almost always possible. And it’s usually worth the investment of that effort.

3. Choose Your Words Carefully. The author of the email from Tria did not just announce the new summer cheese menu. The author told us about some of the specific cheeses and chose adjectives that allowed us to have a very real sense of what those cheeses might be like. We began to think (engage) about smell, look, taste. That’s what a few carefully chosen words can do.

Pollster Frank Luntz wrote the book Words that Work. In the book he identifies a number of power words that successful marketers and communicators use. In my own book (Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing), I highlight 16 of Luntz’s power words that are most appropriate in the fundraising context. Luntz writes:

[T]he 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.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make plans to go to Tria. There’s some great cheese and wine waiting for me.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

7 Responses to “It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It”

  1. Good advice, Michael. You used an excellent example to share. Btw, I hope you are enjoying your summer, and give my best to Lisa.

  2. This was a great way to see the difference in catching your interest vs. being boring. Thanks. L

  3. Terriific example and tips to us on how our non profit communications can light up the sky rather than be a big dud. Happy 4th of July Michael!


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