A story in 14 words

You know, I write a lot of stories designed to inspire people to give to nonprofits and causes. Then I read a headline like this:

Patagonia’s CEO is donating company’s entire $10M Trump tax cut to fight climate change.

An entire story of cause, giving and inspiration in one sentence. Not bad.

Why copy should always come before design

Would you buy an outfit for someone you’ve never met?

Of course not. You’d likely miss the mark, buying a men’s romper when they prefer a skinny suit or a size XL dress when they wear a petite small. In the end, the design outside wouldn’t fit the personality inside.

The same thing happens when a marketing team jumps right into the visual design of a project and expect to drop in the message later.

And just like the outfit, this approach to creative work won’t result in the best fit for you or your client.

Let’s explore two examples.

“MCON is for people who give a damn about social change and are ready to take action.”

When the Achieve agency team began to think about branding for MCON, a conference for social movements, we spent the most time on developing the messaging first.

Why? We wanted to make sure our audience knew two things: MCON was the biggest, baddest conference for people who want social change, and it would never be your normal, stuffy, we’ll-talk-at-you experience. That’s how we came up with “MCON is for people who give a damn about social change and are ready to take action.”

If we’d started with our designers, they undoubtedly would’ve created web and promotional graphics that would catch your eye. (They were very good.) But with the words “people who give a damn” and “ready to take action” as clues, they were able to hone in on the personality we wanted to convey and attract: People who don’t wait for permission or take no for an answer. People who are doing rather than talking. Innovators. Activists.

Pictures speak a thousand words, it’s said … but you want potential supporters to know exactly what you’re saying and what action you want them to take.

In fundraising campaigns, powerful visuals can help drive donor behavior by enhancing an emotionally compelling message. One of Achieve’s clients, Big Dog Ranch Rescue, saves dogs from being euthanized at animal shelters (they’re called last-day dogs) and had a goal of raising $50,000. Visuals for a fundraising campaign seemed a no-brainer! What’s better than cute puppies and doleful dogs staring into the camera?

However, we’d already determined that the client needed to communicate a clear message and a strong call to action. So we started with copy. We told the story of how a donor could save a dog’s life with a $100 gift, and “Save 500 Last-Day Dogs in 30 Days” became the theme and call to action.

Only then did we determine visuals. No sad, desperate animals here: Our photos were of happy dogs and puppies enjoying (perhaps their last day of) life.

The story and visuals were used in a multichannel campaign that resonated with donors – exceeding the client’s Great Give 2016 fundraising total by $175,000 and its #GivingTuesday total by another $150,000.

Design before copy can inhibit or limit a copywriter’s creative thinking. Writing the copy first can set a talented designer’s brain on fire with ideas. Best of all, when writers and designers are allowed to work together without the constraints of clients or managers inexperienced in writing and design, they can produce work that astounds, inspires, moves – and leads to achieving your goals.

I originally published this post at achieveagency.com. Photo by RawPixel.

How ‘PR spin’ helps communicate clearly

Among everything we as a society are (hopefully) learning from last week’s confrontation among high school students, Native Americans and Black Hebrew Israelites, I hope one of them is this: Using a PR firm to communicate clearly with the media and the public at large is not, in itself, a bad thing.

The family of Nick Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing student in the initial video, hired a public relations firm to help him write a statement to share his version of what happened that day. This action ignited a tweet storm of criticism, equating PR with “spin, spin, spin.”

This reaction is nothing new. The public is most often aware of PR when a celebrity or organization is trying to sidestep responsibility for a mistake. Because the stereotypical PR pro is a bullshitter, the public blames them for the obfuscation.

Telling the truth as we know it

In reality, nearly all PR pros advocate for transparency and accountability, especially in a crisis. However, we’re not the client or CEO; we can only advise, then support whatever decision is ultimately made.

In the case of Sandmann, this is a high school student and his family – people like you, or your sister’s kid, or your next-door neighbor whose teenager is always doing dumb, teenager stuff. All of a sudden, this kid is bombarded with experienced reporters on deadline, each scrambling to get the story first. 

Can you imagine what that’s like? And can you imagine any other situation in which we’d expect a high school student to represent himself in such a high-pressure situation without professional advice?

Now, I’m not naive. Maybe Sandmann is an absolute jerk, and his family sought help to mitigate his behavior. My point is that the fact of simply hiring a public relations firm does not necessarily mean we’re getting a story that’s inaccurate from their point of view. 

Regardless of how you feel about the social issues at play in this situation – and believe me, I’m not defending anyone on those grounds – give the family a break on trying to communicate clearly and keep the situation from getting worse.

3 Reasons Why a Professional Should Write Your Cause’s Story

Chalkboard: What's Your Story?

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Your communications and development teams are brainstorming approaches to your next fundraising campaign. Fueled by collaboration and the smell of multicolored markers, they’re excitedly filling big Post-It wall pads with phrases and sketches, reconfigured and brand-new ideas. Then a development staffer chimes in with, “Why don’t we ask one of our clients to write the appeal this year? I know the perfect person to do it!”

You feel the room almost physically divide as co-workers mentally retreat into their departmental territories.

To the development employees, the idea makes a lot of sense. People become donors to help solve a problem. What could be better than hearing directly from someone whose life they helped change?

Meanwhile, the communications side of the room is tense. They thought their development friends were finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging, the principles of great storytelling. In a panic, they think it’s all headed out the window.

I couldn’t agree more with the development staff: Nothing’s better than hearing from someone whose life a donor helped change.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with the suggestion for executing the idea.

Storytelling is an art, and not everyone is an artist. So, here are my top three reasons why a copywriter, not a client or donor or board member, should craft a beneficiary’s story for your nonprofit’s appeal:

1. Most people are not strong writers.

By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive, compelling story about a crucial event, you’re asking them to use a skill most won’t possess. What do you do when their story needs significant editing at best or, at worst, is unusable? Do you grit your teeth and go forward because you can’t afford to offend the writer or the person who suggested them?

2. They know their story, but not your message.

A woman who escaped years of abuse through the help of a nonprofit shared her story with me in a two-hour phone interview that was emotional, raw and all over the place. If she’d written the appeal, the point would have been lost in the details of her experience. My job as a copywriter was to share her story (her authentic, emotional story) in a way that showed how donors saved her and rescue women just like her every day.

3. You lose advantages inherent in an interview.

When actively listening to someone tell a story, you can guide them with your questions. You can gently move them along if they get off track, ask for details about a particular aspect to make it more vivid, or explore a comment they gloss over but you know could drive home a crucial point. As the writer, you can make sure you end up with the information you need.

One argument I hear often is, “But I’ve seen videos of clients talking about themselves, and people love them!”

Yes, videos can be powerful motivators. However, the most effective ones are planned, shot and re-shot over hours and hours, and carefully edited.

A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This happy ending is possible because donors like you stepped in, and we can create more stories with your support. The result will be a much more powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit targeted audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals, without any loss of authenticity.

Read my 4 Steps to Great Nonprofit Storytelling, too.