Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Writing for the Head Is "All Wrong"

Frank Dickerson, a fundraiser and researcher, recently published an article whose title gives away his thesis: "The Way We Write is All Wrong." His piece, which is specifically about fundraising language for American nonprofits, linguistically analyzed 1.5 million words from 2,412 online and direct-mail fundraising documents using a series of computer programs developed by a linguist named Douglas Biber.

The article is interesting and is written, deliberately, in the easily accessible, anecdote-filled tone that Dickerson recommends fundraisers use--which has the side benefit of being quick and easy to read. Essentially, Dickerson's analysis reveals that the vast majority of the fundraising pieces he looked at have a tone and format linguistically consistent with dry, scholarly writing; fundraising discourse "failed to connect with and involve readers on a personal and emotional level" and "failed to tell stories about real people whom readers might actually care about."

The most interesting part of the paper, for me, was his hypothesis on why nonprofit fundraisers fall back on overly written, overly edited, dry asks that rely on statistics, measurable outcomes, etc. Dickerson argues that development professionals in the nonprofit world are super educated, with advanced degrees, etc., and that being brought up in that style of scholarly writing affects their ability to write. In his words:

"They write as if they were still graduate students. They continue to produce a style of discourse appropriate to a past-bound setting, dedicated to a past-bound task, created for a past-bound audience…In contrast, [fundraisers should] follow writing rules or laws of composition that enable discourse to achieve pre-determined rhetorical aims…[like] interpersonal involvement and narrative discourse."
(Italics his…all of them.)

After taking a short side trip into the neurological underpinnings of his argument, which is interesting but sort of out of left field, Dickerson does provide some examples from the 2,412 pieces he analyzed that scored really well on his Biber scales. One is a letter from the Catholic charity Covenant House that tells a story about giving a meal to a young hooker on the street. The other is a rather gripping tale from a Jewish charity that helps forgotten Holocaust heroes. In both cases, what really got me is that Dickerson is advocating the type of storytelling that I often reel from--I find it manipulative and frustrating. At the same time, it's not terribly surprising that direct-mail pieces that appeal to the emotional, empathic part of a person's brain do better in asking them to support a cause.

We in the arts may have a shorter way to go to get to that type of fundraising writing, since we traffic first and foremost in an ethereal product that itself appeals to the emotional, emphatic part of the brain.

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