Sheena Greer recently joined us for a webinar in which she explained how to transform your copywriting from stale and stodgy into spectacular and stunning.

In case you missed it, you can watch the replay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right. Well, good afternoon everyone if you are on the East Coast and good morning if you are on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for joining us for today’s Bloomerang webinar, Writing for Humans: 10 Tips to Defeat Robot Overlords of Copy.

We don’t like robots. We’re going to be anti-robot today. So welcome everyone, my name is Steven Shattuck, and I am the Chief Engagement Officer here at Bloomerang. And I will be moderating today’s discussion, as always.

Sheena:He’s the chairperson. He’s the chairperson, sorry.

Steven:I am the chairperson.


Steven:It’s very fancy. Just a couple of housekeeping items before we get started officially. Just want to let everyone know that we are recording this presentation. So have no fear, if you have to leave early or perhaps you want to review the content later on, if you can’t take notes fast enough, don’t worry, I’ll get that recording to you this afternoon as well as the slides, just in case you didn’t already get those.

As you’re listening today, please feel free to use that chat box right there on your webinar screen. We’re going to save some time at the end for Q&A, so do not be shy at all, if you have any questions or comments, we’re going to try to answer as many of those as we can before the 2:00 Eastern hour.

If you are a Twitter person, if you are into Twitter, please follow along on Twitter. Please send us some tweets as you’re listening along. I always like seeing those as I listen along as well. You can use the #Bloomerang or tag us @BloomerangTech.

One last bit on the technical side, these webinars are usually only as good as your own Internet connection. So if you have any problems, check that Internet connection. One easy way to overcome audio issues is to dial in by phone. If you’re listening today through your computer speakers and it sounds a little weird, try the phone. If you can, if you’re willing to do that and able to do that, there is a phone number for you in the email from ReadyTalk, and the sound quality is usually a lot better by phone.

One last bit of introductions, if you are new to Bloomerang, if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I just want to say a special welcome to you. We do do these webinars just about every week, every Thursday. But in addition to that, if you don’t know what Bloomerang is other than webinars, we actually provide donor management software.
So if you are interested in maybe new donor management software or just checking us out, you can do that, you can visit our website. You can even download a quick video demo, don’t even have to talk to any robots or anything like that.

With that, I am just so excited to introduce our guest, and Sheena, I think I had the most trouble writing an introduction for you because I don’t really know how to accurately describe your, sort of, flavor of genius.

So Sheena, I’m just going to say welcome, thanks for being here, we’re really happy to have you. If you guys don’t know Sheena, you’ve got to follow her, you’ve got to read her blog. She actually has two blogs. She now has sort of a cooking and lifestyle blog as well. So If you need any tomato tips or beet preparation tips, you can get that as well.

Sheena:If you like to drink too much beer and process tomatoes, I’m the girl to follow.

Steven:She’s your gal. But . . .

Sheena:I’m your gal.

Steven:. . . for the most part, she is a writer, she’s a strategist, she’s a fantastic nonprofit copywriter. I had some looks into some of her work. I’ve listened to her speak, give presentations, give webinars. You guys are really in for a treat, so I hope you took your vitamins, because this one’s going to be a lot of fun. Sheena, I’ve already taken too much time away from you. Why don’t you go ahead and get us started, my friend.

Sheena:Oh my gosh, you guys, you guys. Okay, and right now I have to do the switching of the slides. So oh my gosh, everyone, hello and welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. Of course, a huge thank you to Steven and the crew at Bloomerang for hosting me. Oh my gosh, I hope you don’t live to regret this.

This is Writing for Humans:10 Tips to Defeat the Robot Overlords of Copy. I’m Sheena Greer, and I run my own writing and consulting business out of Saskatchewan, out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

That’s a mouthful, but luckily for any of you listening who probably aren’t in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, I work with nonprofits all over North America, mostly writing stuff like direct mail and annual reports and cases for support and that kind of thing.

I’m super fricking serious about writing, but as you’ll learn today, and probably maybe already have, I’m fairly silly about everything else. So if you’re serious about wanting to get better at writing for your organization but also enjoy photos of Captain Kirk screaming, this is the webinar for you.

I really love my job but I must tell you that I face, as a nonprofit copywriter, I face incredible danger every single day. In fact, I think we all come face to face with this danger. This danger, this certain peril that awaits is the most dangerous thing in the universe.

The most dangerous thing in the universe, what could it be? Is it unspeakable horrors from outer space? If you haven’t seen “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” you need to. That’s an aside. Is it human bats, robot gangsters, for some reason? Is it that? No.

Is it, is the most dangerous thing a woman scorned? Well, as a woman who’s sometimes often scorned, I advocate for that. Is the most dangerous thing in the universe a sketchy seafood restaurant? Or perhaps is it your in-laws? Or maybe it’s Ted “I’m totally not an evil robot” Danson. Let’s be clear. We should never underestimate the wiliness of Ted “I’m definitely not plotting

[sounds like 00:06:42] the downfall of humanity” Danson.

But there is a far greater danger that we face every single day. And that, my friends, is a boring story. There is nothing more dangerous than a boring story. You don’t believe me? Okay, here’s why you should. Boring is a bit of a continuum, starting with confusion.

Think about it. Your buddy Brad is like, “Oh, man, I’ve got this amazing story to tell you, bro,” and you’re like, “Okay, I totally want to hear this.” And then Brad reads you basically his Home Depot shopping list and you feel confused, maybe even betrayed. Not today, Brad. Not today.

Because Brad’s story makes you feel nothing, but confused and feeling like you probably need to make some new friends. But when you read, hear, experience a boring story, it can leave you wondering what you’re supposed to feel.

Now think about our donors. We do not want to leave our donors, our readers, our community members confused and feeling nothing because, this strands the reader, it leaves them behind. You set off in a direction, and having convinced your reader to go along with you, he remains on the side of the road, while you’re miles away in jargony pie-chart land. It’s not a journey your donor wants to take, and so he doesn’t.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there wasn’t actually any war at all. Everyone just hung out, drank blue space milk, and sat around looking at two suns. It was pleasant. Nice, even. Like white Wonder Bread, the world was neither spectacular or horrible, it just was. And so everyone schlepped along like bowls of tapioca pudding, who happened to be graced with skin and eyes (though no one ever questioned why), ho humming their way through space as if nothing actually mattered, and they kind of liked it that way.

Meh. With that single meh, we inch closer to danger territory, the danger of apathy. Apathy, apathy hurts our democracy, our way of life, daily. It disconnects us from each other and the world. Look, gun violence, war, discrimination, disease, poverty, all the world’s biggest problems feed off our collective apathy. Our tendency to be meh and moderate just feeds this fire.

Because, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” He looks pretty bored, doesn’t he? I tried to find, I was like, I Google searched “Albert Einstein looking bored” and this is what I came up with for you.

But when we tell great stories to our donors, our supporters, our communities, we invite them to fight apathy with us and do something. That’s why boring is dangerous

So what does boring look like? Well, it’s long-winded, ego-driven, jargon-filled brain diarrhea filled with cold-fish salesspeak that is predictable yet nonsensical because it tries to make too many points and somehow manages to make no points at all.

It’s probably in Comic Sans with ridiculous design. But how ever it looks, it leaves the reader asking one deadly question. So what? So what? So what? This is what happens when bad copy, when bad writing happens to good organizations. The readers ask, “so what?”

We’ve all been around the block, we can all recognize the usual boring subjects. A mind-numbingly boring letter from your mind-numbingly boring leader. Some particularly concerning statistics along with the bullet points that are probably important. Maybe, I don’t know, I didn’t read them. Numbers that don’t make sense. A photo of a giant check or a ribbon cutting.

Of course, we all do that, right? Of course, we have so many giant checks. Bad stock photos with captions that don’t connect to your content at all. This is all wound into the narrative of, look how freaking awesome we are and now give us your monies.

It’s so boring, it’s so boring, it’s making my brain explode. But hey, why am I here today? I’m here to help. But most importantly, you are here to help. You can fix this. These stories won’t fix themselves. So let’s get started.

Here’s the official 10 list of things that you can do to make your stories not suck. First of all, know your audience. This seems so obvious, but oh my gosh, it is all too often skipped over.

So step outside your bubble and get to know who it is you’re talking to. Who’s reading your stuff? Why are they reading your stuff? How will they react to it? But how do you want them to react to it? Don’t make any assumptions. Boring and crap starts with just making assumptions.

I’m sorry. I should pause, just briefly, and say I’m going to say words like crap and BS and that kind of thing, so if you’re not comfortable with that, you should leave. No, you should stay. I think that it’s worth it.

Anyways, okay, so my first point of who’s reading this, it’s probably someone like this. Oh my gosh, isn’t she adorable? She’s so sweet. This is who’s reading. Maybe someone like this. Someone like this. Oh my gosh, I just want to like, I want to hug her grandson so hard. It’s the mom in me. Maybe someone like this. Look at this guy, he’s in a hat, he’s not wearing a shirt, he’s got kind of crazy eyebrows. Look at this. He’s reading your stuff.

This is not, this robot is not who’s reading your stuff. These aren’t the donors you’re looking for. These aren’t humans. They’re robots. These are donors. They’re humans. This is not a human, but to be fair and perfectly nerdy about this, it’s actually not a robot either, but that’s a conversation for Steven and I off this because, we could talk to you about hours, hours and hours about this.

Even this old dude who’s trying to give beer to a chicken is a better prospect for you to write to, than this robot who, he’s pushing a baby in a stroller, looks pretty responsible. It’s still a robot.

This is a human. This is a guy who has a checkbook and he cares about stuff. This is a robot who is just . . . I just heard someone say rooster. I don’t think it’s a rooster because there’s no crazy comb. As a farm kid, and maybe this is some kind of like different rooster than I know in Saskatchewan, but pretty sure that’s a chicken. But rooster, chicken, this old man who is giving beer to this bird, this farm bird, is still a better prospect than this robot giving a push to a nice baby.

I know, okay, I’m sorry. I’m super silly. I’m super silly, but once you decide that your donors are, in fact, human, you can begin to dig a bit deeper.

Getting to know who is giving, that they’re humans, is just the beginning of being able to drill down further. I’m sure that we’ve all heard of and done a bit of segmentation, and I know that I’ve worked with organizations who haven’t. They’re small and they don’t really know how to get into it.

Generally speaking, this usually start with simply looking at giving levels and demographic stuff, but we can go deeper on this. What are their world views? What are their pains and their gains? Your donors aren’t thinking about your organization all the time, so what are they thinking about?

A tool that I really love for getting into this is called empathy mapping. I could totally do an entire webinar on this tool, but I just wanted to briefly introduce it here. It’s one of the many tools that I use, that you can use to get to know your donors, by digging into their own stories.

If you’re interested, and my web address will come up later, but you can go directly to this blog that I wrote a while ago about empathy mapping if you want to know more, or you can Google it. It’s a pretty common thing.

Once you’ve started segmenting and mapping, you can create some donor personas. These are simply brief outlines of different archetypes of people that you’ll be communicating with. Here is a fairly typical-looking one. Jeanie is retired, she’s 75. She gives annual gifts between $250 and $500. She’s widowed, she’s got kids and grandkids, but she doesn’t trust technology. You’re not going to send her your email appeal, are you? She loves cats and tea and Alex Trebek.

Here is a not so typical one. This is 3D monster robot. He’s 392 years old. He’s three-quarters machine and his only emotion is rage. He has been programmed to enjoy stealing women from picnics on the beach, and strangely enough, he enjoys Alex Trebek as well. Again, I like to joke, I’m so silly.

Once you’ve created this collection of real personas, you can use them to form your imaginary editorial board. And I suggest that you keep this board someplace you can see them while you’re writing. Spread them out on your desk or hang them on your wall. This is going to help keep your audience front and center in your writing because, we need to start exactly where our donors are and not where we’d hoped them or like them to be. Jedis need training. You can’t just be like, “Hey Luke, go fight your dad on the first day you meet him.” It takes a bit of work, doesn’t it?

So I know that Lou Reed, I’m keeping in the theme of aliens in space. Lou Reed is not an alien, but he’s written some words that I always think of when I’m writing, and those are “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” We need to be mirrors and we need to be windows for our donors. So we need to show them their world view reflected back in the stories that we tell them. But we also need to show them what lies ahead when they walk with us on the wild side.

No, I’m sorry, I can’t do a Lou Reed impression, I’m sorry. We need to show them what lies ahead through that window, making the world the place that they are imagining. We’re mirroring it back and we’re showing them through the window what they can do.

So throughout our time together, I’m going to leave you with little bits of homework. You don’t need to do these. I’m one of those moms. Like yeah, you totally don’t need to do your homework. But these are just little things that you can do if you’re interested to practice and think about writing and telling better stories. And the first is just to, it’s a . . . sorry, selfless plug.

You should go to my blog and read about empathy mapping and give it a try. If doing that for a donor seems too tough at first, try it with someone else. Your spouse, your friend, your cat, a tree in your yard, whatever. Just do something to try to get into the space, the emotional and thinking space of other people.

Once you know your donor, you can focus on putting them first. Focus on your donor first, and always. Your donor is the hero of your story. They are making incredible things happen. Not you, not your organization, your donor. So start by addressing them directly. Put them in the middle of the action. And fill that action with gratitude for their gifts, gifts that they’ve made or gifts that they will make.

My hero, my hero, Tom Ahern has the greatest tip for ensuring your donor shows up in your copy, and that is to get out a red pen and circle the “yous.” Your page should be pretty red by the time you’re done, and if it’s not, you need to get out your salt shaker filled with “yous” and sprinkle it on and try again.

Keep in mind, though, that the number of “yous” should always outnumber the amount of “wes,” that is the royal we, we are so amazing, we as an organization do this and we have done this incredible thing. “Yous” always need to outnumber the “wes.”

Addressing your donor directly means getting personal. It’s about talking person to person about something you both care about. Look, you would never start a letter with the salutation “Greetings Earthlings.” So I’m sorry, but why the hell would you start it with “Dear Friends of ABC Organization”? Why would you do that? Nope.

Kick things off right away by getting personal. You all have mail merge. Like if you have Office, you have mail merge. You can use their names. Their first names, their last names, whatever salutation you want. Please, no more “Friends of ABC Org.”

Show them the impact they make or could make with their donation. What good is their donation doing? What good could it do? What are they accomplishing? This is a bit of a report card. How well placed is their trust in you?

Are you helping them see all that they’re accomplishing or are you just bragging about the cool stuff that you’re doing? Taking your writing to the next level really requires focusing on the donor.

So you need to think like Oprah. So I tried to find a photo of Oprah online in a Halloween costume or something, and all I could find was this amazing, ridiculous cover from “Weekly World News.”

I could actually dive deep into how we could learn a lot about writing headlines from this cover alone, but I’m going to stick to my point. Oprah is a great listener. She’s a conduit for connecting people to ideas they care about. She’s a helper. She anticipates news. Look. You are a conduit. You are a helper. So to do a better job at writing, you need to be a better listener.

My homework for you is to practice your listening skills. Are you an active listener? Maybe sometimes, but most often we are competitive listeners, as in when people are talking to you, you’re really paying attention? Are you really paying attention? Or are you thinking about how to respond, are you poking holes in their argument? Are you remembering that you forgot to take out the trash?

Or you’re thinking about like if my head were veal. If my head were veal, how much would it be worth? Pardon me, sorry. Take time to listen. Sorry guys, I just had to pause and cough and have a little bit of water there.

Don’t be afraid to get emotional. If you’ve been counting, that is three screaming Kirks so far. Three screaming Kirks. Kirk and Spock, emotional and rational, fiery and calm, illogical and logical. Who’d write the better appeal letter? Would it be Spock, who for all his intelligence and reason and beautifully groomed eyebrows, thinks humans are emotional and irritating? Or would it be Kirk, who goes with his gut, or sometimes, well, very often, another body part when it comes to making a decision.

No matter how Vulcan your executive director may be, emotions trump logic every time. Humans are emotional creatures who sometimes attempt to use reason and logic. Not logical creatures who sometimes get emotional.

Stirring emotions will help your donors connect with the work they are doing and the people they are helping. Not everything has to be about making your reader go for their Kleenex boxes, either.

It’s more about portraying authentic, emotional stuff. Sadness, fear, anger, and yeah, even humor. Stats, jargon, biz speak, that’s not authentic. In fact, it’s confusing, it’s boring, and it can leave your reader feeling suspicious.

So I want to try to prove a point. Here is a picture of me and my dad. Ah, my dad. Actually, it’s totally a picture of me and my mom and dad, but I cropped out my mother to make a point. Mom, making a point. The point is this. Authentic, emotional copy always strikes a balance. It’s not all business. “Dear child, we appreciate you and your continued efforts towards excellence. Respectfully, Management of the Miller Family.”

It’s also not over the top. “To my glorious and last-born and only daughter, my heart sings and swells with pride when I reminisce on the many ways in which your stupendous talents overwhelm your mother and I with wondrous joy!”

No, it’s just right. “Sheen Beans, I love you and I’m you’re number one fan. Your mom and I are so proud of you! Love ya, Dad.” It’s personalized. Hey, Sheen Beans. That’s me. That’s been me since as long as I can remember. It’s authentic. And it’s from one person to another.

This is, just as an aside, this is an actual note from my actual dad, who actually made me cry in a coffee shop with this. #cryinginacoffeeshop.

So this is a note from my dad, but what does this look like in an actual letter? And here’s an example of something that I’ve written. Obviously this letter is shortened but to fit it on a slide. “Dear Joan, you helped me beat cancer in just 15 days. And it’s all because you made a donation to ABC Hospital. Thank you!”

You get the idea. It’s personalized, it’s authentic, and it’s from one person to another. This authenticity stems from something so critical to great fund-raising, and that is empathy. Google tells me, as Google tells me so many things, Google tells me it’s the ability to understand and share feelings of another.

As writers we need to take this basic and important characteristic even further because, if we are being that mirror for our donors, we’re often helping them, giving them an outlet for their own emotions that sometimes they don’t understand.

Did you ever read something, watch something, hear something that made you feel like “Wow, I felt this forever but I never had words for it,” or, “‘I’ve felt this before but never thought about it quite like that.”

That is where the power of empathy meets the power of observation. And I’ve used this photo of Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld dressed as bugs because observation and empathy are at the core of great comedy.

Any comedian who tells a great joke has typically nailed empathy and observation. Think about it. It’s funny because it’s true. Or in our case, I feel it, because it is my truth.

So this homework is super easy and it’s a great excuse to get out of your head, which you probably need. Get out of your head and laugh a bit, watch some stand-up comedy. Watch some good stand-up comedy and observe how great comedians use observation and empathy to set up, and knock down, a great story. Because that’s every joke. Every joke is just a really great story, isn’t it?

Be plain and simple. I promised myself that I wouldn’t rant on this, but I do have a few choice words. As a society, we are inundated with crap thousands of times a day — and yes, my friends, it is crap. Most of it is crap.

As fund-raisers, it is our job . . . No, it’s our duty to cut the crap. Not only do we need people to care because their donations are vital to our causes, and of course, keeping our jobs, but people should care because there is a lot of hurt in our world that needs healing.

We need to, as a sector, and as individuals in this sector, decide that what we need to accomplish is more important than the institutionalized language we’ve long used to describe the work we do.

Rant over, drop mic. I actually, I can’t drop my mic because it’s attached to my head right now.

Be plain and simple always. Simplicity wins. Destroy your jargon. Not sure, not sure if it’s jargon? Get an 11-year-old to read it, and if they don’t get it, try again. My daughter, my daughter’s 13, actually, but I get her to read some of the stuff that I write, and she’s so literal minded and she’s so sweet and so smart, but she’ll read something, and if she’s got two, “I don’t know what that means,” I’m like, “Oh my God, if she doesn’t get it, I need to rewrite this.”

Vary your sentence length. Your writing shouldn’t read like Dick and Jane, “see Spot run” kind of stuff, but the shorter sentences, they’re always better and easier to read than the longer ones with multiple commas and that kind of thing.

Limit your characters, not just in terms of those ridiculous multi-syllabic words, but in terms of the people you introduce into the story. Remember, keep it person to person, keep it simple.

What really grinds my gears is when we try to write for our audiences the way we tried to write for our university professors. I’m very grateful that I had university professors who called me on this kind of bullshit. Pardon me. BS, BS. “It has come to the attention of the management that an excess in ultra-contemporary diminutive humanoid garments for lower body extremities has unfortunately resulted in increased pressure to downsize due to inadequate performance.” Nope. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” You’re going to touch a lot more hearts with this kind of simplicity, always. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

For your homework, I want you to rewrite your latest appeal letter as a haiku. If that’s a bit too hard or wild, I’d like you to try just think like Dr. Seuss, and try rewriting your appeal like Dr. Seuss might.

I’m not suggesting that you send it to your donors, though that could be a fun Facebook post, which we’re always looking for, aren’t we? I just want you to challenge yourselves to get to the simple root of what it is you’re trying to say.

On a similar note, don’t cover too much, right? Says the woman who’s been rambling on now for like 40 minutes. My hero, my hero, Tom Ahern, who tells me that this comes from an Australian firm, whose name I can’t pronounce and won’t try to pronounce, but he has taught me and taught others to focus on the SMIT. And that is what’s the Single Most Important Thing you need to tell your donors? I know there are dozens of things you’d like them to know, but you need to pick just one.

Think in terms of singularity. To a single person from a single person about a single thing. One single thing? That seems tough. Well, think about why you’re writing in the first place. Are you trying to engage donors?

Are you asking them something? Are you thanking them for the thing that they’ve given? Are you reporting back to them? Or are you circling around and doing one of these things again? Pick one, pick one and do it well.

Before you ask, no, I don’t believe in the “thask.” Steven knows what the thask is. The thask is the thank you, and also I’m asking again at the same time. I know that a lot of people, a lot of really very smart people who I respect deeply say that this works.

And you know what? That’s really cool. But you know what else works? ShamWows and Slap Chops and those blankets with arms and the laser hair removal kits that you can use at home. I’m happy that people have found that they worked for them, but that doesn’t mean that I will ever personally use it. And that’s all I have to say about thasks.

We need to be clear about the action or the intended action of what we are writing. What is it we want our donors to do? Why are you telling donors the stories in the first place? I take this back to this little rainbow list. Purposely a rainbow, rainbows are awesome.

If you are asking, you need to ask. Don’t be all fluffy and say stuff like, “Oh, gee whiz, it would be really nice if like you could support us,” or whatever. No. Say, “Jeanie, will you stand with me and other moms, fighting cancer by making a donation of $50 to ABC Hospital today.”

Have a point and get to it. A lot of people ask me about, how long should my letter be? What’s the best length for a letter? And I know again, there are a lot of ideas out there about the best length of letters, but my response is always, the length of the letter, the best letter, is the letter that says exactly what needs to be said. No more, no less.

I know that’s the kind of answer a tricky mom gives you when you ask her, “How many cookies can I have?” But you know what? You’ll know how, you’ll know that you’ve had too many cookies when you’re curled in the fetal position with a bellyache. That’s the tricky mom answer to that.

So before you write anything, write the “why” on a piece of sticky notepaper or on your forehead backwards, and have a mirror handy. Why are you telling this story anyways? And refer to it often.

I know that we need to use numbers. I get it. I get it. I was mathlete in high school. I’m not any more. But I know that numbers are important and I know that numbers are meaningful. But we need to make our numbers mean something.

We’ve all seen this before. “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.” But what does that mean? This is a stat slightly adjusted to be more anonymous from a client that I worked with recently.

Fifty percent of the 790,000 children under the age of 11 in Big City will develop diabetes. That 50%, a big number, under this age, in a big city, it does seem pretty wild. But it also makes me, the lone person reading this, feel pretty powerless. How might we give this meaning?

We give it meaning by making it about one person whose story we can actually care about, Alexa. Alexa has a 50/50 chance of getting diabetes. God, that’s horrible. That’s fricking horrible. Of course, throughout our story we get to know that Alexa loves tea parties and is a really awesome big sister and, and, and, oh my God, I want to help Alexa. I want to help Alexa.

Anytime you need to use numbers, consider how those numbers affect a story of a single, relatable, lovable, admirable, savable person or animal or picnic spot on a polluted lake or whatever. Give it meaning every time.

While you’re at it, show us what you mean. Every creative writing teacher’s mantra, show, don’t tell. For this, I wanted to enlist the help of another one of my writing heroes, Jeff Brooks.

I tried to find a good picture of him online and of course, like Oprah, there’s no good picture of him dressed up as an alien, so to keep it in the vein of sci-fis and maybe overlords and etc., I’ve poorly Photoshopped a space helmet on Jeff.

Space-helmet Jeff Brooks has a lot to say about using images in your fund-raising, and you should look up his blog, which is, I believe, if you haven’t already.

But here are just a few stellar points that he makes over and over again. Color photos are always better than black and white. Eye contact, that is like Jeff in his space helmet, is looking deep into our souls right now. Eye contact is really important. One person is better than many.

People work better than things. Stock photography, like that weird watermelon hat thing I showed you, that was, I actually Google searched “weirdest stock photo” and I found that. I bought it with my own money to give to you as a gift.

Stock photos seldom work. And as an addition, Jeff didn’t say this, but I’m assuming that you probably shouldn’t draw a space helmet on your subject.

So take the time to really think about the images you use. Study why some things work and why they don’t. And if you happen to write but don’t design, get in the habit of making some notes about what images might accompany your piece.

Oh my gosh, there’s stuff falling off my desk as I’m trying to get a glass of water. More stuff keeps falling. Sorry, guys.

This is another little mini-rant. Writing by committee sucks. It just sucks. It’s sucky and it produces sucky results. Blah, sucky. Mini-rant over.

Because it detracts from all the other stuff we’ve been learning in this session. Because committees say things like: “I don’t like that”, or, “I don’t think our donors would like that”, or, “it’s too emotional”, or, “it needs more facts”, or, “it’s too different”, or, “my opinion matters.” Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Ah, hell, nope.

Get out your Sharpie and your mirror. You are the expert. Write “expert” on your forehead. You were hired to fund-raise and kick ass and take names and record those names diligently in your Bloomerang database, or other database, and then keep kicking ass. That is what you were hired to do. I tend to take it seriously.

I could scream about this for a long time. But if your committee is like, “No, we don’t want to listen to you.” Tell them to email me, because I will argue with them about this until they get sleepy and cranky and give up because, that is another one of my mom superpowers.

Sorry, brief water break.

But you are the expert and it’s up to you to keep constantly learning and reading. Attending webinars like this is important. I hope you’re learning something and not just like laughing and being like this woman is crazy. I know that as someone who’s committed to lifelong learning myself, there’s so much, so many ideas, and a lot of them are competing out there. It can make your head explode.

So here are just a few suggestions of things that I read on a daily basis. We’ve got Jeff Brooks in his space helmet. You should check him out. There is of course my hero, the amazing Tom Ahern with weird brain tentacles. Of course, there is Mary and her last name, from what I asked her is pronounced “cologne.” Mary Cahalane, who has a laser in her space crown, and of course, there is the amazing Gail Perry in badass teleportation armor.

There are so many more incredible blogs and ideas out there. And of course, you could always look me up, too. I consider myself a writer first, but really I am a midwife for good ideas and I’m always here to listen and help. So if you’re stuck, use the email or the Twitter or the phone number that you’ll see at the end of all this to get in touch.

Make a commitment to yourself to do something, to read at least for 15 minutes every day. Please do this.

And finally — okay, I’m finally, oh my gosh, you guys, I’m almost done, I swear to you, I’m almost done. Enjoy yourself. This is huge. If you hate writing and you hate this task and you’ve always hated it, you’re never going to get better at it. So learn to love your stories. Learn to love the stories you’re telling, and learn to love your audience and their reactions to your stories. Above all else, learn to believe in your ability as a storyteller.

It’s trying to click and it’s like I do little arrows. Be curious with the shape of the stone. We’re all on a journey. Your organization is on a journey to make its vision a reality. Your donors are on a journey of engagement with your organization, and you are on a journey of connecting the two, constantly.

Today all you’ve got is this one story. This is one stepping-stone along the way. So instead of worrying about how far you’ve got to go, and why not become deeply curious about the stone that you’re on today?

Sorry, that was like a super Tony Robbins motivational speaker crap that I’m not normally into, but I truly believe that curiosity, your curiosity and mine, is going to lead us to do better work, and be more fulfilled by the work that we’re doing.

Let us review. My kids are all in school right now and they’re collectively rolling their eyes at my impression there. I’m sorry, you guys. Oh gosh, I’m so sorry.

So let’s review. Boring is dangerous because it leads to apathy. Apathy sucks. Too often, the content that we’re sending out into the world is boring and weird. So you need to get to know who you’re talking to, and you need to focus on who you’re talking to.

You need to not be afraid of being emotional. Emotions are our friends in fund-raising. But we need to keep it simple and try not to cover too much. We could go on and on and on and on.

Make the numbers that you use mean something. It’s hard, but try to make them mean something. And while you’re at it, make your images mean something, too. Because, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Be clear about what it is you want the reader to do anyways. Learn all you can and step into the role. And enjoy, enjoy what you do.

Your last bit of homework is to send me an email or a tweet or something. Tell me that this was helpful, ask me a question, tell me this sucked, whatever you need to say. But do a little bit of writing and get creative about it.

So, oh my gosh, you guys. I just rambled for what seems like way too much time, but I want to thank you for being here today, oh my gosh. Look me up, and I’m a friend, I’m an online friend, a good pen pal.

If you have questions or ideas or crazy stuff you want to talk about, I’m your girl. Get in touch with me. And thank you so much for listening to me ramble for the last hour. Thank you.

Steven:Hey Sheena, this is awesome. We’ve got a lot of questions that have already come in, but I want to encourage everyone, if you were sitting on your hands, now is the time. We probably have about, I’d say seven or eight minutes or so for questions.

Sheena:Okay. Hoping for longer, but I’ll do my best.

Steven:I know. That’s okay. It’s probably long enough to completely train them as copywriters, but we’ll try, I suppose.


Steven:Definitely check out Sheena, read her blog, follow her on Twitter. She’s got a lot of great advice in her blogs as well.

So Sheena, we’ve got a couple questions here. I’ve just been kind of flagging them as they’ve come in. Here’s one from Leah. You mentioned the “you” test, using lots more “yous,” “you” words, than “we” and “I.” Leah’s wondering should you even ever use “we” at all? Let alone making sure that “yous” outnumber “wes” and “I’s,” but is there ever a place for a “we” word? Is “you” always better?

Sheena:I’m also of the belief and I am a believer in the idea that we can use the “we” word when we are speaking of the collective. Like I’m writing to you and the collective we, like you and I together. “Dear Steven, I believe that we can do this together, you and I.”

I’m a big believer of that because it makes the connection of this idea that that donor, that individual donor — it’s person to person — but that donor is part of a bigger group of people who are awesome and doing stuff. So I’m a big believer of that “we.” Again, I could talk about that for probably an hour, on its own.

When you talk about your organization, try to always frame it in terms of how your donor is connected to the organization, or how the people you’re serving are connected to the organization. I’m trying to think of an example off the top of my head. I write for a lot of hospitals, small hospital foundations, and the “we” is often that collective “we”. In that, “We can provide this service because you make donations,” kind of thing. So there’s . . .

Steven:Makes sense.

Sheena:. . . one example. Email me if you want more, I can give you more.

Steven:Speaking of foundations, since you mentioned it, I’ll go right to Angela’s question. Angela is wondering how does all of this work for a foundation that does not write about their direct services. You mentioned you work with foundations, what’s kind of your advice for Angela there? She works at a foundation but it can be a little bit difficult to write about the direct services.

Sheena:Absolutely. Absolutely. So I would go back to my point about being a conduit and focus on the fact that your organization, your foundation is a conduit between donors who want to help their communities in different ways, whether it’s broadly or specifically around health or whatever.

Focus on being that conduit and connecting that donor to that better community, that better world that they imagine. Show how you, this foundation, and by using lots of “yous” and sharing what that world could look like, show how you, that foundation, are really that conduit, that mirror, that window into that world that donor imagines.

It’s a tricky thing, but I think, especially with foundations, we’re conduits for bigger ideas and we can really play that role very well.

Steven:Love it. Here’s one from Melissa. Sheena, you mentioned writing by committee, and Melissa agrees. She also thinks that writing by committee is awful. But how do you shut it down is her question. How do you get buy-in, how do you include them without maybe hurting their feelings? How do you kind of navigate those waters, Sheena?

Sheena:That is, oh my gosh. As someone who comes in and speaks to board members now and says, “You need to stop this crap,” it is a forever battle. One way is to have a conversation with your committee or your board or whoever that body seems to be, around the story that you want to tell.

We’re sending out a Christmas appeal and we want to let people know that, especially during Christmas, that the homeless mothers that we serve are especially grateful, and especially needy, this time of year. It’s a huge time of year. Everyone can agree, right? Everyone around the table can agree that Christmas is a huge time of year.

Introduce the synopsis, like the first paragraph on your Wikipedia article about your appeal letter, that first paragraph, introduce that to them, and try to force them to sign off and say, “Yeah, we’re okay with this.”

Every board and every committee is very different, so it’s hard to give a definitive answer at how to combat that. But I would also say to trust that expert in you. You know these people and you’ve worked with them. Do your best . . . I’m sorry. Do your best to try to trick them into saying yes as much as you can. And push forward and say, “You know what? No, you’ve agreed to this, you agreed that we were going to talk about this and this is what we’re sending out.”

And yes, it’s, you know what? It’s an S show [sounds like 00:56:03] to try to deal with that, so my heart goes out to everyone who has to.

If you need some support, and like I don’t know, a drinking buddy, I can’t really drink with you, I’m in Saskatchewan, but send me an email and I can commiserate with you on that and I would be happy to specifically, to your case.

Steven:Sheena’s a good commiserating partner, I can vouch for that one.


Steven:We’ve probably got time for one more question and then we’re getting close to 2:00 and I don’t want to keep anyone much over that. I think a good way to end it is Juan has a great question here, and not surprised to see this question and I’m curious what Sheena’s insights are about it.

What about those sensitive stories? Maybe you work with children, minors, people who were abused. How do you tell their story while legally protecting them and being respectful? How do you use pictures when you don’t want to use pictures of real people, for example? Any advice for Juan there?

Sheena:Absolutely. You know what? That’s a tricky one and it’s one that I run into, as a writer coming into an organization, and talking to people about, “. . . we need to share more stories and the more stories that we talk about, the more support we can get”, and people of course are very protective of their clients, and rightfully so. We deal with a lot of sensitive stuff.

One of my suggestions is to focus on the archetype, and I just did one of these recently. I was working with a youth group, it’s an after-school program for kids who are in trouble and need somewhere to go, and otherwise they get into some really bad stuff.

But you can imagine what an archetypal story might look like. A kid, okay, you’ve got nowhere to go after school. This kid has the opportunity to either go home to an empty apartment where she’s lonely and she eats crap and she falls asleep on the couch and she doesn’t do her homework, or, she has the choice to go out onto the streets and maybe meet up with some friends, and maybe her friends aren’t the best of friends and they get into trouble.

That’s a typical archetype, but it’s something that probably a program like that would see a lot, a kid who’s faced with a choice to go home to an empty house, or go out onto the street.

So as a writer, look for those archetypal stories. If you aren’t able to focus on a real individual, look for the archetypes. And in terms of photography, use what you can. And if you can’t, look for good stock photos.

Steven:They’re out there.

Sheena:Stock photos are terrible. Don’t look for the business-suit man on the white background giving the thumbs up. That’s terrible. But you know what? You can find compelling images that help to try to capture what you’re doing.

If you can’t do that or obviously those are expensive and you can’t afford that, look to the images you have and think creatively around how you can connect that image to your story and really push it, if you can. It’s a tricky thing.

Stock photos suck and trying to find great photos, if you don’t have photographers and can’t take photos, is a tricky thing. But get creative and see how you can push that, especially around telling the story, definitely.

Steven:Love it.

Sheena:I hope that was helpful.

Steven:That’s it. This is great. Sheena, thank you for spending an hour with us. This was really awesome to have you, you’re definitely a breath of fresh air.

Sheena:Oh my gosh, thank you everyone for spending an hour with me. Oh my gosh, you guys all deserve hero cookies.

Steven:We’ll send some cookies. And if we didn’t get to your question, I am so sorry, but we’re out of time. Please email Sheena, send her a tweet. I’m sure she’d be willing . . .

Sheena:Send me, yeah, absolutely.

Steven:. . . to answer more questions.


Steven:I just nominated you to do that, I’m so sorry if that is not okay.

Sheena:I’m into it. I’m down.

Steven:I knew you’d be. Well, we’ll leave that [sounds like 01:00:41] that, everyone, thanks so much for being here. Look for an email from me, later on today, with the recording if you want to review some of the content. You’ll get the slides again. Lots of resources on our website, as I’m sure all of you know about.

I want to keep the webinar train going. We’ve got a great one coming up here in two weeks. I’m taking next week off, I hope you all don’t mind, but I’ve done about 15 consecutive webinars, so I’m going to take a break if that’s okay with you. But the good news is, is two weeks from now we’ve got Andrea Kihlstedt joining us. She’s going to talk about the in-person ask. So if you struggle with asking for money in person, which I think is hard and awkward and not easy, check out this webinar. Andrea’s great, you’re going to love it, I assure you.

We’ve got other webinars scheduled out through the end of the year if that one doesn’t particularly appeal to you. If you don’t even want to ask in person, that’s cool, I guess. But there are some other webinars you may enjoy. We would love to see you again on some other Thursday.

So we’ll call it a day there. Look for an email from me with all the follow-up material. Have a great rest of your afternoon, have a great weekend, and we will see you all again, hopefully in two weeks. So take care now.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.