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Friday, January 19, 2018

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Ahern 14.33 - Talk down to me. I like it.
Tom Ahern

January, 2015

It's just good customer service.
Talking down.
Low grade levels speed up comprehension.


Someone will object, of course


I have heard many variations. They all go something like this:


Fundraiser: "We've been told we should write our direct mail at the 6th-to-8th grade level."


President, dean, faculty member: "I'm shocked and dismayed. That would insult our graduates' intelligence. I will withhold my approval for anything like that."


Fundraiser: "Ummmm...."


But the bluster and fluster isn't quite over. "Sixth-grade level, indeed. Susan, I have to wonder." President, dean, board member: "We graduate scientists here. Engineers. Doctors. Lawyers. Some of the smartest, best-educated professionals on the planet. You don't need to dumb it down for these people. What were you thinking?"


Fundraiser: "Roger that. And thank you for setting me straight."


President, dean, another board member adds, "We had complaints because we were dumbing it down. I never told you."


Fundraiser: "Really? People complained because the grade level was too low?"




What is wrong with this picture?


What isn't?


First of all, that last comment about complaints was an out-and-out lie.


That was a blast of academic swamp gas, released in the hope it would confuse the enemy (you).


Don't hate your bosses. Pity them. They have no idea how transparent their motives are.




I could pass for an L.L. Bean model. And I'm telling you for sure: absolutely NOBODY complains about the grade level of your prose. That's horse-pucky. Science reassures us on that flank.


On the contrary: people LIKE and APPRECIATE prose they can quickly skim. More important, they are far more responsive to skimmable prose vs. unskimmable. Skimmable prose leads to action. Unskimmable prose leads to inaction. 


Modern western consumers fend off five thousand messages a day. That suffocating volume rises all the time.


Quick prose is welcome, trust me. See the two scores below, generated by the grammar-checking tools built into Microsoft Word.


Effective direct mail scores readability stats like those on the left. Readability stats like those on the right, derived from an actual university case statement, are guaranteed interest-killers. Direct mail scoring at such elevated levels will flop. On the left, the passing lane and your brain's driving a Lamborghini. On the right, the La Brea tar pits and your brain's a slowly sinking mastodon. 



Second: Susan, the fundraiser, ceded her authority by asking permission. She asked permission to write a professionally-competent letter; i.e., one written at a low grade level.


She shouldn't need to ask permission TO DO HER JOB. Bottom line. Loud and clear, one more time: the chief fundraiser MUST exercise dictatorial control over ALL donor communications, be they appeals, thanks or reports. In print and digital.


Nobody else's untrained opinion is needed nor invited. Why? Because applying untrained opinions and ideas to donor communications pretty much guarantees that those communications will underperform at best. Or simply reek. 


The inner beauty of outright ignorance


More dangerous, though, than Susan's ill-advised tactic of asking approval - when in fact she was fundamentally right and her boss was dangerously wrong - was the ignorance behind the easy conclusions of the "president, dean, board member."


You know, everyone talks about common sense like it was common.


I don't see it all that often around donor communications.


"Dear president, dean, board member" ... just because you use the Internet does not mean you know how the Internet works.


"Dear president, dean, board member" ... just because you receive direct mail does not mean you know how direct mail solicitations work.


"Dear president, dean, board member" ... just because you have an email in-box does not mean you know how to make money through email.


Without training, your assumptions are wrong. Your presumptions are wrong. Your bright ideas are in fact painfully, embarrassingly, dim. And you are unable to deliver predictable results, which is a mortal sin. 


Knowledge makes money. Ignorance costs money.


Neither brains nor academic credentials nor a law degree qualify a person for decision-making regarding the efficacy of donor and fundraising communications.


Training is all that matters. And you don't have it.


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