Precision Plain English - LucidProse

Good Writing For Good Causes

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© 2006 by David Thomasson

Accentuate the negative

If you want to motivate donors, you must present the downside of your cause.

Remember those applause meters on TV talent contests? The contestant who got the loudest applause won. Imagine a similar meter that measures your motivation. The stronger your desire to act, the higher the needles goes on the dial. Keep that dial in mind as you read these:

Scenario 1. Your 9-year-old daughter has been looking at pictures of the Grand Canyon. Enthralled by its beauty, she comes to you and says, "Mom [or Dad, as the case may be], I would love to visit the Grand Canyon. Could we go there, maybe next summer?"

Scenario 2. Last week your 9-year-old daughter went for a routine physical exam. This morning the doctor stopped by your house. Your daughter has incurable cancer. She has about one more year to live. You're trying to absorb this blow when she comes to you with her book. "Mom, I would love to visit the Grand Canyon. Could we go there, maybe next summer?"

What happens to your internal motivation meter in each scenario? Which circumstances stir the strongest desire in you to fulfill her wish? Of course, the second by far.

Why does this heartbreaking version of the story motivate us so powerfully? Understanding the answer will help you craft messages that resonate with readers and motivate them to support your cause.

The stuff of great stories

What's makes the second scenario more powerful is the same force that energizes every powerful story. In fiction or fact, from ancient times to the present, stories that endure are driven by dramatic conflict. And dramatic conflict boils down to three main elements:

  1. Somebody wants something.
  2. They encounter some obstacle.
  3. They then take action to remove the obstacle.
Why does Indiana Jones venture into the Peruvian cave? He wants that golden idol. Then he encounters one horrifying obstacle after another. It is the conflict between those two forces — desire and obstacle — that stimulates the action and holds our attention.

We pay attention because we care what happens to Jones. We care because we identify with him — and that gives us the second clue to how the negatives in a story can motivate.

It's all about values and threats

If we were designing a motivation meter such as I mentioned earlier, it would have to measure two variables: In both scenarios above, you want your daughter to live a happy life. You value that highly. But in the second scenario, this value faces a perilous threat: She has very little time left to live. If you want her to be happy, you'll have to act now.

Some of the most successful fundraising campaigns ever devised are the ones that aim to feed and clothe children in need. They succeed because they skillfully combine these two elements:

Values. Everyone loves children. We all want to see them loved, cared for, and happy. That's a given.

Threats. The magazine and TV ads for these campaigns don't show children who are well-fed and happy. That's the desired outcome, yes. But they don't show that. They show ragged children living in squalor. They show them up close. They show us the forlorn expression in their large eyes as they stare into the camera. They accentuate the negative.

In his book Making the Case, fundraising consultant Jerold Panas offers this advice:

Appeal first to the emotions — then to the intellect.... Write about a specific heart patient or a girl who was able to continue her education only because of the scholarship she received at the college. Tell about Mary, a child born with cerebral palsy who takes her first step.

Negatives are prime motivators

At a roundtable discussion with fundraising writers, international consultant Brian Tracy talked about accentuating the negative. Here's what he said:
Your organization is addressing some problem. When you write fundraising letters, describe that problem in such a way that the reader will slam his fist on the table and say, "That's outrageous! Somebody needs to do something about this!"
Do something. When a reader reaches that point, he is experiencing — at that very moment — the motivation to act. The desire to act is not an intellectual event: It is an emotion triggered by a conflict between a value and a threat. No threat, no conflict.

When a reader experiences that desire to act, then he will want to know about your plans to solve this problem. So, this is precisely where you should turn to the positive side of your story. Convincingly and enthusiastically describe how your organization will make a difference. If you get that part right, the reader will say, "Martha! Where is my checkbook?"

Problem descriptions should not drag on and depress readers or bore them with what they already know. But the problems must be there. They must be presented vividly and specifically if the message is to trigger in the reader that desire for action.

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