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
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 was revered in direct marketing circles as the ‘dean of direct mail’. Many years ago, Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII. All 57 of them are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide that covers everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising. Sadly, Jerry passed away in August 2023. 

These tutorials were edited and presented to SOFII by Gwen Chapman. Gwen 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 of these tutorials here.

Related case studies or articles

Tutorial 18: Magic words – the formula for success

What do Shakespeare, the Bible, the Gettysburg Address and a successful fundraising letter have in common? Magic words. And what makes certain words magic? Their length. Any common word of five letters or less is magic. Therein lies a formula for success.

Read more

Tutorial 16: How to write in a warm personal style

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?

Read more

Tutorial 8: Making the reply device work

When should you omit a reply device? Almost never! The two major exceptions are...

Read more

Tutorial 6: The power of a letter

To be successful in this business, you have to recognise the power of a letter. Why? Because there are now so many people in fundraising who understand computers, finance, business management, or work flow systems. All of these skills are basic to competent fundraising organisations. But what’s happened to the letter?

Read more

Also in Categories