Tutorial 16: how to write in a warm personal style.

A professional writer knows that a letter must have more than technical exactness.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
February 13, 2019

1. Let your personality shine through

A professional writer knows that a letter must have more than technical exactness. Personality has to radiate through the words. But what kind of personality?

The only acceptable ‘personality’ for a fundraising letter is that of a warm, friendly, compassionate person who strongly identifies with the donor and the people receiving help from the charity.

It’s dangerous to communicate any other type of personality. I don’t care if your boss is witty, argumentative, a crisp businessperson, or full of elegant phrases. His or her letter personality must be warm and personal.

2. Write in a narrative style

This technique is almost always employed by professional letter writers. Narration is simply telling a story. For example, instead of writing:

Poverty is a very real threat to the people in the village, preventing them from the purchase of tools for agriculture.

Use the narrative style:

I woke up this morning, thinking about the hungry villagers and wishing I could share my garden rake and hoe with them.

3. Share deep inner feelings

When you combine a warm personality with a narrative style and write on a deep, feeling level, the result is a warm human style. Your problem, once you start doing this, is fighting the myth: ‘anyone can write a letter’.

Almost everyone in your organisation fancies himself or herself as a writer or an editor. When you hand in a letter for approval, everyone who reads the material feels compelled to make changes to the copy, eliminating your key words, expanding the short paragraph you felt necessary to emphasise a major point.

The boss says, ‘That just doesn’t sound like me.’

And you have to deal with the dedicated amateur who runs a supermarket and offers his or her services to help write letters. Or the newspaper reporter who is chairman of the publicity committee and thinks a good letter should read like an editorial. Or the board member who has a secretary with a flair for creative writing...

All these people are out to prevent you from writing in a warm and personal style. You have to overcome them.

Perhaps you can be subtle, indirect, educational. Perhaps you can prove your point in copy testing. Perhaps you can get your boss to read this tutorial. But you may have to be direct, hard-nosed. You may have to leave; find a job where your professional expertise is appreciated. Do whatever is necessary to protect your letters from well-meaning people who unwittingly destroy your warm and personal copy.

That includes your boss and your board.

As a general rule, when your boss and your board like a fundraising letter, you have a failure on your hands.

Why? Because they are comfortable with business letters. They seldom understand the average donor. When you find a board who does understand, you usually find a successful organisation.

The secretarial school conspiracy: you may have reason to feel paranoid. Not only will your boss and your board destroy your letter – your boss’s secretary is out to get you. Her, or his, sole mission in life is to protect the boss from sloppy writers like you.

She, or he, knows that a contemporary letter should be flushed left and that a paragraph should not be indented.

And he knows the proper business words and phrases… how to reduce the margins and lengthen the paragraphs in order to keep a letter from exceeding a single page. How to punctuate and how to marshal the power of colons and semi-colons, subordinate and insubordinate clauses, perfect and pluperfect verbs.

And your boss? She trusts her secretary’s judgment. After all, he’s been with her for 15 years. He composes her letters for her. She says, ‘Write Mr Jones a note about the retirement fund meeting.’

She feels comfortable with her secretary’s letters. No one has ever criticised his work, in 15 years.

Aha! You see your problem? So you put your fundraising letter on her desk. It just doesn’t sound like her. ‘Mr Smith, will you please take a look at this letter?

He raises his eyebrows.

Your letter is dead.

Forget moth-eaten grammar

When you learn to write in a warm and personal style you will need to forget just about everything you have ever learned about formal letter writing.

You won’t be using textbook grammar. You will be writing in an oral style with little concern about the rules of school composition. Your goal is to motivate people, not impress them with your grammatical skills.

You will be using run-on sentences, dangling your participles, splitting your infinitives – all this in an effort to make your letter read like you talk. You will be using a majority of one-syllable words. When you pack a row of multi-syllable words together, you block the flow of communication.

If your sentence construction is grammatically correct but sounds awkward when you read it aloud, don’t be afraid to twist the grammar to serve your purpose.

Six temptations to avoid

  1. Don’t think that just because you have stated a fact, you have communicated.
  2. Avoid clever or humorous approaches. Humour is often thinly disguised hostility and what may be funny to you, could anger another person. Except for special applications, humour leads the reader in the wrong direction.
  3. Avoid arguing theology or philosophy. A letter is not a sermon. You can’t persuade a reader to take action if you build up antagonism.
  4. Avoid moralising. This tends to block communication; the reader may feel you are patronising.
  5. Avoid analogies. An analogy, carried out to its logical conclusion, is often ridiculous. Sometimes you can use analogies, especially ordinary, generally accepted analogies, but just in passing. Don’t start elaborating.

    For example:

    To eliminate this vital programme is like taking away the crutches from a crippled man.’

    Stop with that statement. When you go on and say, ‘How can he then walk across the room’ you force the reader to start imagining the crippled man crawling, using a wheelchair, breaking the leg off a chair for a crutch – and so on.

    And soon the analogy becomes more important than the original idea.

  6. Don’t use acronyms. Your acronyms mean something to you because you deal with them each day. Your donors don’t think about you that often!

© 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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