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Keeping it simple
Deborah Block and Paul Karps

June, 2010

Quite often, it seems, we find ourselves in a situation where we’re asked to write about a relatively complicated subject or issue. This may range from detailed programmatic information to a rather technical piece of legislation, a complex lawsuit, or sophisticated medical equipment.

But whatever it is, we always try to keep the description as simple as possible. After all, we don’t want to put any of our readers to sleep or lose their interest along the way . . . and lose that coveted donation in the process.

So here are a few tips you can use so you, too, can keep it simple:

Remember who you’re writing to

First and foremost is the need to recognize that the people to whom you’re writing—prospects and donors alike—simply don’t have the same level of interest or understanding of your work as you or your colleagues do. While there may obviously be some long-time members or supporters who are particularly well-versed in the details, they’re probably more the exception than the rule. In our case, therefore, we assume nothing and work from there.

But don’t be condescending

Of course, in your attempt to keep it simple, the last thing you want to do is talk down to your reader or make her feel inferior in any way, shape, or form. So it’s okay to explain. It’s not okay to lecture. Or to come off as preachy.

One way we like to draw the reader into an explanation of detail is by beginning with the proverbial “As you may know . . .” Or, if we’re talking about a current event or some development at the organization, we may say, “As you may have heard . . .” One nuance: replacing “may” with “probably” for more committed donors. This allows you to explain whatever it is that needs explaining, while not insulting the intelligence of someone who may indeed be in the know.

Avoid bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo

Once you get into the nitty-gritty of your explanation, at all cost, avoid reverting to the technical language that only a real insider would be familiar with. Words and phrases that might be second nature to staff members of an organization may sound like a foreign language to a donor or prospect. So steer clear of bureaucrat-ese. We, for example, try to stay away from the use of acronyms, which tend to come off as particularly cold and unfriendly. Just the opposite of the tone we’re trying to set. Part of keeping it simple is to replace those fancy, schmancy 10-dollar words with the 50-cent words we all love and cherish (and understand!).

Add a person . . . give it personality

If you’re writing about a complicated piece of legislation, make sure to balance your letter by adding the human touch whenever possible. Describe how the law will affect real people’s lives and their futures. If you’re filling donors in on an innovative medical technology, try to find an example of a patient who’s been treated successfully using the new equipment.

Keep the letter flowing

Sometimes when there’s too much detail, it’s hard to create a friendly, easy-to-read flow to your letter. So don’t forget the fundamentals of direct mail. More than ever, you’ll want to keep your paragraphs short—mostly about four lines or less—and vary their length. Subheads and bullets can help make your copy less intimidating.

And if all else fails . . .

What if it’s written in stone by the powers-that-be that you must include complex information you’d rather leave out? Our suggestion is to do all you can to save the emotional punch of your letter. Instead, consider relegating the mandated copy to an insert or to the reply form. You can even hide it on the back of the reply form. Go ahead. Tell your boss we said it was okay!

Copywriters Deborah Block and Paul Karps are partners in BK Kreative, 1010 Varsity Court, Mountain View CA 94040, phone (650) 962-9562 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (650) 962-9562      end_of_the_skype_highlighting, email


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