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Copywriting

The Nature Conservancy, perhaps the world’s largest conservation nonprofit, had a problem. Its groundbreaking Development by Design initiative was finding success engaging government and business leaders in countries at the beginning of economic development, taking a more holistic view over a longer period of time and over a broader set of projects. The result, more often than not, was development done in the right way in the right places.

The challenge was to introduce this relatively nuanced approach to donors, peers and the public in a clear, brief and – gasp! – entertaining way. The Nature Conservancy teamed with Hairpin Communications to script, design and animate a two-minute video as the centerpiece.

The result was a 90-second animation that combined illustration with photos to tell Development by Design story. And like all good stories (the interesting ones anyway), it takes viewers briskly a narrative arc of problem-catalyst-resolution. It sneaks in a little humor and ends with a call to action, driving people to the website.

Today, the video is posted on the group’s website and YouTube Channel, and used during in-person presentation with donors and foundations.

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Thanks for sharing: Caryn Stein and Network For Good.

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Paul Westerberg is reuniting the Replacements, or at least he’s playing again with the bass player which, for wistful fans of a certain age like myself, is enough.

Why is that? Westerberg writes songs that stick with you. Catchy, yes. Clever, sure. But as he explains in a recent New York Times essay, the trick is to keep it simple.

“My own creed is simple or impossible,” he explained.

I’ve become a Simple person (not be confused I trust with simpleton). The more I think about how to communicate, the more I want to strip things away.

Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity is a new book that makes the case. The authors, Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, Siegel and Etzkorn define simplicity as the rare sum of convenience, clarity, usability, timeliness and beauty.

Unfortunately, they see a world where simplicity is in short supply. Needless complexity, especially in language, is holding back our economy and our democracy.

Take the disclosure statements from banks, or terms of service from web services, or instructions from tax agencies. They are poorly worded and jargon-filled.

It’s as if the writers intended to confuse you. “Complexity is a failing,” Siegel and Etzkorn write, “unless it was intentional — in which case you’d really better watch your step.”

The long word counts of disclosures, service terms or tax instructions, supposedly needed in the interest of transparency and disclosure, serves neither. People just tune it all out.

“When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention,” Siegel and Etzkorn write. As an example, they point to the growing length of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which have reached an all-time high in words but also are notable for failing to provide clear guidelines for lower courts, according to judicial experts.

Another new book, Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein, uses the author’s own experience guiding the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to champion the benefits of going simple, especially in government.

Sunstein is a liberal and progressive but of a certain kind. He believes that government must play a significant role in society to protect safety, educate children and provide the infrastructure for modern life. But he believes that it must do so in ways that nudge people as often as it mandates. Government must “ease people’s choices” to do things like apply for a license, get food assistance or sign up for health insurance.

He believes language is key to achieving these goals, but also key is what he calls “choice architecture,” defined as the “social environment against which we make our decisions.” For example, a book store’s choice architecture includes which books are on display when you enter the store. For a website, it would include the labels given to the main pages in a site navigation.

The Simple Movement — and let us hope that indeed it’s a movement — obviously applies to the work of nonprofit and cause communicators as it does to government bureaucrats and corporate lawyers. You may spend most of your waking hours thinking about nuclear arms control, but your audience most definitely does not. Same goes for climate change, or labor rights, or education reform.

So keep it simple, or it’ll be impossible to hum your tune.

 

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I love the opinion pages of newspapers. Even in this day of blog comments and Facebook posts, a point of view expressed in print has a power that only comes with that bit of independent validation. After all, an editor passed judgment on it.

Of course, readership isn’t what it used to be. You can’t assume that the people who might act on your opinion will read your letter. So the letter must be re-delivered via the distribution channels you or your cause control.

Push it out with a Tweet, a Facebook and Google+ post or a blog post. Don’t forget that old standby: email. Send a short, personal note with the letter text pasted in the message with a web link to find the original on the paper’s site to a targeted list.

For example, your letter responding the NRA’s press conference should be forwarded to your Congressional aides assigned to gun violence issues. If you are identified in the letter as representing an organization, then that organization’s donors should receive a short courtesy note, too.

Simple stuff, true, but too often we fail to maximize the opportunity.

Getting published at all is no gimme. When my recent letter to the New York Times was under consideration, I was sent an auto-reply outlining the paper’s letter policies, which are representative or the industry and worth sharing:

Letters should preferably be no longer than 150 words and may be shortened to fit allotted space. They must be exclusive to The Times (no prior submission  to, or publication in, any other medium, including the Web). They should generally refer to an article that has appeared within the last  seven days. We reserve the right to edit letters.

To be considered for publication, letters MUST include the writer’s name, address, current  location (where you are writing from) and daytime  and evening phone numbers at your current  location (for verification, not for publication).

We generally do not publish more than one letter  from the same writer within any 60-day period. (This applies to the daily letters page, but feel  free to submit letters to the weekly  sections.) If we select your letter for  publication, you consent to our right to  republish it, in any and all media, and to license third parties to publish it as well.

If you submit your contact information as a result of this automated reply, please re-send  the letter with it. (In the subject line, please indicate the headline of the article you’re  responding to, and delete “automated reply.’’)

Because of computer security concerns, we do NOT  accept attachments; they will NOT be opened.  Please resubmit your letter pasted into the body  of an e-mail message.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email from the letter editor letting me know they were likely to publish my letter — but she had further questions:

Hi. We are considering your letter for publication in the next few days, either in the printed paper and the Web site, or on the Web only. Below is an edited version of your letter. A few standard questions we ask our letter writers:
Do you approve of the changes?
Do you have a professional  affiliation, or any other connection (including financial), that bears on the topic of your letter or that our readers should know about? (If you are writing in a private capacity and not on behalf of an organization, that will be considered in the decision on whether to use an ID.)
Did you write the letter, and is the letter exclusive to the Times?
Has it been posted on any Web site?
Was your letter sent in response to the prompting of a Web site or anyone else?
And, by agreeing to have your letter published, you are consenting to our right to republish it, in any and all media, and to license third parties to publish it as well.
Many thanks for writing.

In all media relations, I’ve followed a simple rule: follow the rules. Reporters and editors have stressed lives, and abiding by their guidelines almost always helps your case, be it pitching a story or getting your opinion piece published.

I wrote back: I approve of the changes. I wrote the letter. I sent it only to the Times. The letter has never been posted on any web site. I sent the letter unprompted by any one else. I consent to the letter’s publication and licensing by the Times.

The guidelines and editor’s questions reveal one of the paper’s main concerns, that letters are not generated from interest groups or businesses. They also augment Hairpin’s standard letter-writing advice:

  • Respond. Editors prefer letters that are responding directly to a previously published editorial, op-ed column or news story. Cite the piece by headline and date.
  • Move fast. Write and send your letter the same day the piece to which you are responding was published.
  • Keep it short. The Times’ preference for 150 words or fewer is a good guideline.
  • Stay focused. Make one, maybe two, points in your letter — that’s plenty.
  • Be concrete. A reader should quickly grasp your opinion but also your recommended action.
  • Add affiliation. If your letter’s topic and position aligns with your organization, include its name with yours. It might boost your group’s profile.

Happy writing!

UPDATE: Read my latest published letter following the same rules, this time in the Boston Globe, here.

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I became a fan of Live Arts, a performance theatre, soon after I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, when my oldest daughter enrolled in a summer acting class there. I loved the space, off the old downtown pedestrian mall, and I loved the infectious enthusiasm of the instructors and volunteers.

As a nonprofit marketer, I also loved the slogan splashed across the t-shirt my daughter came home with: “What role will you play?” Clever, I thought.

She still wears the tee, even after our move to Boston last year. And I still like the slogan, and I started thinking about why.

“What role will you play?” is short, memorable and a neat nod to the business of the organization. Better still, it’s a challenge, really, more than it is a question. It immediately puts you at the heart of the story Live Arts seeks to tell.

And like the best slogans, taglines and mottos, “What role will you play?” is a snappy way of explaining a deeper truth.

“It speaks to what we put on stage, sure, but more it speaks to the real core of our business, which is engaging people,” Matt Josyln, Live Arts executive director, told me last week. He explained that the slogan is tied directly to the mission statement: to forge theater and community.

“It’s an invitation to come with us on that journey,” Joslyn said. “Our business model is based on increasing commitment. First people buy single tickets to a show, then they become subscribers, then they subscribe and volunteer, then they subscribe, volunteer and donate.”

In many ways, Live Arts productions are a means to the greater end. Today, the slogan is paired with the more prominent mission statement, “Forging Theater and Community,” that serves as a de facto tagline on the Live Arts website and other materials.

San Francisco-based Tides took a different approach to its tagline: it’s both a question and an answer.

“What’s Possible,” which is paired with the simple “TIDES” typeface in the visual identity, lacks a question mark, true. But one can’t help but read it both ways.

“It’s a question about how we can help make the world a better place and a promise of how we act as innovators to help our clients do more with their money, ideas and ideals,” explained Tides Communications Director Kate Byrne.

Tides — a network of organizations made up of Tides Center, Tides Foundation and Tides Shared Spaces — adopted the tagline in 2008.

“We wanted a tag that would encourage donors, social entrepreneurs, investors and visionaries to dream big and aim high,” Byrne wrote me. “Tides is the conduit for making expansive, ground-breaking social programs possible.”

I like it because it’s short (you knew I would say that) but also because it’s aspirational. The best taglines, slogans and mottos are emotional, not rational. They aim at the heart, not the head. Just like the brands they represent.

Any questions?

Visiting central Virginia? Catch a show at Live Arts. Learn more.

Check out some smart branding here at Tides.

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The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence represents virtually all of the statewide coalitions in its field, yet suffered from low profile in Washington DC — troublesome, since the alliance is focused solely on federal legislation. To punch above its weight in a crowded marketplace of inside-the-beltway players, NAESV needed a fresh start.

The organization’s stakeholders needed to believe in the identity and help us shape it from the get-go. So Hairpin surveyed volunteers and allies, interview board members, studied their peers before any design. The identity had to follow bedrock principles of good branding: be authentic, be relevant to target audiences, be clear and above all, be different. Projecting the identity had to succeed within very real constraints for our client, since it operated within a limited budget, staff time and an environment that required cooperation among allied nonprofits.

We virtually banished the use of the group’s unmemorable acronym and focused on the name’s action words — “end sexual violence” — a mission statement and call-to-action in one. On a whim, we checked on the phrase’s availability as a URL and, surprisingly, it was available. We re-wrote the organization’s stock descriptor and elevator pitch to echo that language and cut out unnecessary detail. We designed a simple square mark built around the bumper-sticker phrase that formed a natural wedge while reflecting the activist, tenacious personality of the organization.

We embraced the color teal, adopted by the broader movement of anti-sexual violence activists as their official color — a nod to the organization’s desire for cross-organization solidarity. We took full advantage of the block design by creating a brochure and business card as squares. The website, too, melded the signature teal within a no-nonsense, black-and-white design.

 

 

Website set to launch in February 2012:

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This just in from Inc. magazine: a lot of business writing stinks. And I’m betting that a lot of nonprofit writing has the same odor.

“When you write like everyone else,” says columnist Jason Fried, “and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you’re saying, ‘Our products are like everyone else’s, too.’ “

Exactly. The words you choose to describe your cause and your organization should set you apart — the goal of any good brand.

Jason continues: “One of my favorite phrases in the business world is full-service solutions provider. A quick search on Google finds at least 47,000 companies using that one. That’s full-service generic. There’s more. Cost effective end-to-end solutions brings you about 95,000 results. Provider of value-added services nets you more than 600,000 matches. Exactly which services are sold as not adding value?”

Helpfully, Inc. has posted the entire piece on its site.

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