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Downes Murray International News

That doesn't sound like me!

 The doctor I interviewed for the hospital’s next appeal was great. The doctor and I got into a discussion about recent neuroscience and how it bends behaviour. He uses neuroscientific tactics with his patients, to keep them on their medication. I use similar tactics with donor prospects, to gently guide them to give. Still, my doctor’s no direct mail expert.

He can fix my broken heart, using video-assisted, minimally-invasive thoracic surgery. That’s his training. Can he raise money via correspondence?
That is not his training. Yet I need him to sign my letter, a letter I wrote, to be sent out over his signature. Is there room for misunderstanding? Yes, there is.
Direct mail appeals are unlike any other writing on earth. So, to prepare him, I listed some of their ‘strange but true’ aspects in the brief below.

Maybe you’ll find it helpful the next time a letter signer looks at your draft appeal and exclaims, ‘Yikes! That doesn’t sound like me!’

Here are some of the odd things that make direct mail function well:

• Direct mail appeals are not brochures, with lots of details about the charity and its programmes. Insiders care about that stuff. Outsiders don’t. ‘Nobody is interested in what you do,’ Stephen Pidgeon insists in his essential book, How to Love Your Donors (To Death). ‘Fundraisers love to describe their charity’s wonderful work, the detail of what happens in the field or laboratory, what my small gift will buy if I donate, how their staff colleagues are organised to deliver the work, and so on. Nobody is interested in any of it; nobody is interested in what the charity does.’

• Good direct mail appeals have a few standard components. They always have ‘entertainment value’. They have multiple requests for a gift. They have a conversational voice: the letter signer talks directly to the letter recipient. The pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ are common. The pronoun ‘we’ is rare.

• Neuroscientists have observed in the lab that making a gift to charity lights up a pleasure center in the human brain. A good direct mail letter, therefore, ‘models’ that act for the reader, by suggesting it repeatedly. The reader begins to envision the gift, and in envisioning, starts to feel the pleasure.

• ‘You’ is the most important word. It is classed among the top 20 or so ‘power words’ in advertising because of its magical ability to raise more money.

• Effective direct mail appeals aren’t really about how wonderful the charity is. They are, instead, about how wonderful donors are. Making donors feel important is job #1. It’s called ‘donor-centricity’.

• Neuroscience has discovered a very useful thing about our brains: Even when people perceive that flattery is insincere, that flattery can still leave a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer. In other words, you cannot overdo donor love.

• You wear your heart on your sleeve. Sounding corporate or technical will not raise faintly as much money as sounding warm and welcoming. Read Jeff Brooks’s brand new book to get the picture. You’ll have no real defence against your overbearing boss unless you read somebody like Brooks.

• Or Dr. Adrian Sargeant. Researchers like Sargeant, who did his tests with National Public Radio, have found that so-called ‘social information’ – such as how much others have given – leads to bigger and more gifts from average donors. Who knows that from the seat of their pants? No one.

• Direct mail deeply respects reader convenience. Good direct mail is highly
‘skimmable’: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.

• Professional direct mail – littered as it is with sentence fragments, ellipses (. . .) and grammatical no-no’s such as sentences that start with a conjunction – would earn an ‘F’ in English class. But the teacher-approved products of an English class fail miserably in the mailbox. I write my direct mail appeals at the 6th-7th Grade level, as scored in Microsoft Word on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. It’s not ‘dumbing down’. It’s ‘speeding up’. The lower the Grade level, the faster the read.

• People tend to skim the underlines first, eyemotion studies show. So we underline key messages. You should be able to read just the underlines and kind of get what’s being asked of you.

• For the same reason, direct mail letters use devices like bullet lists and ultra-short paragraphs... because they make it easier to skim.

• Certain phrases, like ‘tax-deductible’ (which reminds readers that you’re a true charity), are repeated often, so they won’t be missed.

With acknowledgement to Tom Ahern

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