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Just Say It

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Word count: 991
Estimated read time: About 4 minutes

Article: Just Say It

 "Good Morning!" says the extremely cheerful meteorologist on my local radio station. "This is today's edition of an Eye on the Sky weather forecast!" And with that, he launches into an enthusiastic and detailed account of the upcoming weather patterns. He speaks of low pressures coming from the Arctic that are colliding with high pressures from the mid-west. He talks excitedly of uncertain weather systems sliding here and wedges of cold air there. He goes on and on about developing fronts and potential storms that remain to be seen. He clearly loves his work. He is knowledgeable.

But by the time he gets to the actual weather forecast several minutes later, my mind has wandered. I never actually hear what I want to know: is it going to be hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, rainy or dry? I'm as in the dark about the day's weather as when I started listening. And I'm frustrated.

I sometimes feel the same frustration when I read reports, evaluations or other materials that nonprofits want to share with key audiences.

Often authors don't take the time to think about the audience they are trying to reach. They are so engrossed in their own field that they don't take a step back and ask themselves "What would be the most useful information for people we want to reach? What will encourage them to care about gaining this information? What's in it for them?"

That's too bad because these products contain worthwhile and important information that people can benefit from. And the people who produced them are often at the top of their field. While maybe not as outwardly enthusiastic as my local meteorologist, they clearly care about their work. 

Without careful consideration of the audience's needs before the words hit the page, the  important and useful work done by researchers (and paid for by foundations and others) may end up getting fully read by only a handful of people.

Here are three approaches that can help make your reports, speeches and programs immediately useful to key audiences.

1. Tell People What to Do

If you have a message that encourages the audience to take action, make it clear from the beginning what you want them to do.

The Ford Foundation commissioned a 2010 Census Tool Kit to encourage foundations to take action to support an accurate 2010 census count. The Kit was to provide background on the need for an accurate count and contain tools for foundations to use. But at more than 100 pages, the original tool kit needed to be cut way back--to about 15 pages.

When Ford hired me to revise and shorten it, I suggested we take some other steps to make it easy for people to use. First, we needed to make sure that readers quickly grasped the actions they needed to take within the first page, and as a result, realized the value and purpose of continuing to read the tool kit information. 

In consultation with the Ford communications staff, I revised the report and developed three actions for foundations to take right away. We put those actions right up front, so no one would miss them. Click here for the 2010 Census Tool Kit to see what I mean.

2. Give People a Teaser

Take an extra step and think about what would be interesting to your audience and what would entice them to read more. It might seem like a marketing approach or even an unnatural technique. But the ultimate goal is to help your organization's good work reach a broader audience.

The Atlantic Philanthropies is fortunate to have a dynamic, interesting and funny speaker in its CEO and President, Gara LaMarche. His speeches are full of insight about working in the world of philanthropy and how to make positive change. The Atlantic regularly posts his speeches on its web site.

But the first thing a visitor saw on the site was only the first sentence of his speech--which was often just simply thanking the audience for being there. This would not typically compel someone to click forward and read the rest of his speech.

 As part of a web redesign, Atlantic staff wanted to fix this problem. They asked me to write one-sentence blurbs for LaMarche's speeches as well as its research reports, case studies and other publications. 

I suggested that we make these blurbs do double duty. They could both describe the speech and highlight something interesting to entice people to read more.

Here is an example:

 Newspaper reporters, baseball pitching scouts, and art dealers all provide models to help philanthropy find and cultivate talented program officers, said Gara LaMarche, The Atlantic Philanthropies' President and CEO, in this speech. Click here for the speech. 

 3. Tell People How They Will Benefit

 What's in it for them? Why should they take the time to read through this report or take action? If you have funded or offer a program that will help people, don't be shy in telling them exactly how it will help them. Spell it out.

The Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), a nonprofit organization that in part works to protect the environment, needed to fill seats at a training academy it was launching in China. The academy trained mid-level manufacturing managers on environmental, health and safety compliance. ISC wanted a brochure to make the case to U.S. and Chinese companies about why they should send their busy managers to the course.

It was critical to state exactly how a company and its managers would benefit from investing in this training. We listed those benefits clearly and directly in the brochure. That way, decision makers could easily recognize the importance of the training to their company and seek more information.

For instance, we pointed out that manager participation could significantly reduce a company's risk of incurring hefty fines for safety violations. Saving money is always a compelling benefit.

Everyone has their version of a weather forecast that they want to share. Try one of these tips to make sure that your message is one that your readers will sit up and pay attention to.

Call us for help in making sure your research or program will spark the interest of your key audience. We'd love to talk with you. You can reach us at or (802) 748-3070.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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