Tutorial 22: whatever happened to real stories about real people?

You are probably going to have more successes than failures if you begin most of your letters with an illustration. Your readers are usually in neutral when the letter is being scanned; but once they get involved in the story, then suddenly you have captured their attention.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
Added
February 07, 2019

This is simply because everyone loves a story.

So you are going to have to build a file of human-interest stories; and when you ask for information from your people in the field or your organisational officers, you will have to tell them about the importance of human anecdotes.

The story brings your appeal out of the board room, out of the philosophy formulated by your staff, out of the intellectualism that curses so much philanthropic work – and directly into the emotional consciousness of a donor who wants to reach out with love and help real, live, needy people.

Instead of quoting figures about starvation in East Africa, tell the story of one mother who is watching her family starve. Emotional? Yes, but starving to death is quite an emotional experience.

A 10-step formula for writing about people

Any formula is dangerous if it is used as a crutch. But often a beginner can use the structure of a formula as a guideline for learning to develop a letter.The following formula provides such a structure. Each point can cover one or more paragraphs according to the subject matter:

  1. Tell the story of an individual. Establish geography, sex, relative age, etc –in other words, human characteristics that will form a sympathetic picture.
  2. Show need. Describe an incident illustrating the specific needs of the person.
  3. Show a solution. Tell how the problem could be solved if your organisation comes to the rescue.
  4. Show how your organisation can come to the rescue. Illustrate one programme that would solve this particular problem.
  5. Make it universal. Here’s the place for a few facts and figures about how this person is only one example and how your organisation is helping many similar people.
  6. Tell how the donor can have a share in this great work. Show what a specific amount of money will provide for the person in the opening illustration.
  7. Make an irresistible offer. This can be emotional – the person will be dead in two weeks unless he receives help. Or the offer can be a premium. Or it can be various levels of emotional and intellectual satisfaction, according to the nature of your mailing list.
  8. Give exact instructions for sending in money. Explain how to use the reply device, the reply envelope and how to receive the premium, if one is offered.
  9. Compliment the donor. Most people do not respond to charity appeals. Thank goodness for the ones who do! Tell them how great they are.
  10. Add a PS repeating the offer. Or instructions on how to use the reply device.

After you try a few formula letters, you will discover variations on the formula, according to the nature of the subject matter and the appeal. Practise writing stories about people – brief, short sketches. You will not be a successful writer unless you learn to be a storyteller.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen_Chapman.jpg#asset:8990:urlGwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa. She explains the importance to these tutorials here.

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