Creative writing saves lives


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Presented at the American Pets Alive No-Kill Conference 2014.

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Creative writing saves lives

  1. 1. Creative Writing It’s not just for people who failed math. (It can save lives!) Elizabeth Doyle
  2. 2. Where do we need stories? • Website content • Marketing in magazines, newspapers and books • Fundraising appeals • Stewardship, newsletters, email news and updates
  3. 3. Each of these has a different surrounding structure • Magazine articles are longer stories • Web stories need lots of white space • Fundraisers are surrounded by “ask” language • Stewardship may be filled with “thanks” language But within all of them is a story.
  4. 4. So, what’s a good story to tell?
  5. 5. One name, one face
  6. 6. One animal is more memorable than 1,000 Last week, 1,328 cats were admitted; 423 of them had FIV, while 219 had feline leukemia. A total of 146 were adopted. Muffin arrived last week with FIV and feline leukemia, and without a friend in the world. But today, he’s been adopted into a happy home. In fact, he’s just one of 1,328 cats whose lives we saved, thanks to you, in the past seven days.
  7. 7. The pyramid technique Grab them with one animal: After he was hit by a car, Sebastian came to our vet clinic for healing, and now he’s prancing into a new home. Then mention more animals that you help: In fact, he’s just one of 243 animals with life-threatening injuries who counted on us last year. Then talk about the rest of the animals you help: And of course, we also run a comprehensive spay/neuter program that’s helping to save thousands of lives. One Sebastian at a time. (Bring it full circle, back to one animal.)
  8. 8. Another look at the pyramid • Emma is one of 350 animals … (narrow wedge) • The firetruck had been set alight by a disgruntled … (thicker wedge) • Our group conducts rescues like this regularly … (thicker wedge) • And that’s just one small part of the work we’re able to do with your support. We also run spay/neuter programs … (base of the pyramid)
  9. 9. What if I don’t rescue animals? If your work touches the lives of animals, you have a story. Find that cat who had litter after litter after litter of kittens and was nearly dying from it — until your trap/neuter/return program spayed her so she could have her life back.
  10. 10. Why tell stories of our success? Why not tell the painful stories? • Because you want people to open your mail and read your website. • Because you want to emphasize that you are making things better. (Everyone wants to join a winning team.) • Because depression immobilizes people.
  11. 11. Animals are suffering, and we’re miserable. You should be, too. Join us!
  12. 12. Animals are being helped, and we feel GREAT. Join us!
  13. 13. But what about the sad parts? It’s fine to include them, but not like this: Bambi was hit on the head, run over by a car, and then left in a dumpster. People do that kind of thing all the time around here, and it’s only getting worse! Join us to help stop it. Same facts, different emphasis: Bambi must think he’s woken up in heaven! He was run over, hit on the head, and left in a dumpster. But then something miraculous happened. You. You brought him back from the brink by being a part of this organization. Today, he’s alive, snuggled up in a blanket, and having his little chin rubbed. He’s going to be just fine. There are more Bambis out there. More animals who think it’s all over. And together, we’ll continue to help them.
  14. 14. But what if I don’t know any stories? Then you have to ask.
  15. 15. Don’t let the stories focus inward on the organization These are not good topics for stories: • The animal that we would like to see adopted • An animal a staff member adopted • The new executive coordinating director of networking
  16. 16. Keep the focus outward and on animals This is not really a story about an animal: One night, our volunteer coordinator, Jackie, was driving into town when she noticed a bundle of fur on the road. She hit her brakes and discovered it was a shivering black cat! She wasted no time getting a blanket from her truck … It’s a story about a volunteer coordinator named Jackie. This is a story about an animal: One night, Malcolm the cat was shivering by the side of the road. He had just been hit by a car and couldn’t move! But then, there were headlights coming toward him, and a truck pulled up. Before he knew it, he was wrapped in a blanket and on his way to the safety of our facility.
  17. 17. Dump the details Nobody needs to know that it was actually a friend of his grandmother’s who dropped off the dog because he had work that day and his grandmother had promised to bring the dog in, but then she had a health issue and couldn’t make it at the last minute, but her friend, who also rescues basset hounds, by the way, said that she would bring the dog just as soon as she drove the grandmother from the hospital (and the grandson could pick her up after his shift).
  18. 18. Just tell us that the dog arrived! Every sentence should do one of the following: • Move the major plot forward • Make the story more compelling • Connect the story to what’s good about our organization and/or why you should be a part of it The rest can be left out.
  19. 19. Character development Your chosen animal is the hero of your story! Develop his or her character. Remember to SHOW — don’t TELL. Don’t describe him with adjectives. Describe him with actions he took. We never start a novel with “Maximus was very brave and rather nonchalant.” We say, “Maximus lounged casually on the deck of his pirate ship, petting a crocodile as lightning struck his ship’s mast.”
  20. 20. Create an emotional image of your organization Joey didn’t just come to your state-of-the-art clinic, which performed 50,268 emergency surgeries last fall. (Nobody will remember that number anyway.) Your clinic is also a place of healing: a building filled with bright light, like a beacon of hope to animals suffering with injuries in the darkness. People remember the “feel” of your organization better than they remember the facts (though it’s fine to include them).
  21. 21. Relationships Remember, you are building a relationship with every word you write.
  22. 22. Relationship-building Once you have a good crowd of supporters, ask this question: Who does the average supporter have a relationship with?
  23. 23. Building relationships • Speak in a language the reader can understand. • Be the same person every time you write. • You must have a writing voice.
  24. 24. Words matter Speak in a language they can understand: • Not everyone speaks “rescuese” • Not everyone speaks “corporatese” Speak in plain English.
  25. 25. Re-sensitize yourself to your language! When we haven’t heard a jargon word before, we’re more sensitive to its more usual associations. • What do we usually associate with “transport”? • What do we usually associate with “intake”? Similarly, re-sensitize yourself to the cuteness of animals, and to the awesomeness of your work.
  26. 26. More on sensitivity • Poor writers think only in terms of what they would like to communicate. • Good writers can feel the heartbeat of the reader on the other end as they write. They’re aware of how they “sound” to that person.
  27. 27. Don’t use corporate dialect “Corporatese” is not an emotionally sensitive dialect. To people outside the corporate world, it seems impolite. • Casual: Could you c’mere for a sec? • Formal: I’m so sorry. May I borrow you for a moment? • Corporate: Your attention is mandatory. No exceptions can be made at this time. Thank you for your cooperation.
  28. 28. Voice consistency • You don’t have to have just one writer, but you should have just one voice or image. Writing is like acting: More than one person can play the same role. But all should embody the feeling and soul of the organization when they write. • Don’t let someone send “just one” little brand-destroying email for the sake of a short-term goal. • Don’t write by committee. There needs to be a narrator.
  29. 29. Your narrator: An inseparable part of your brand
  30. 30. What’s a brand? It’s just a way of saying your “image” or your “reputation.” You want to have a consistent, positive image. That way, when people hear your name (including times when you’re asking for money), they’ll think, “Yes! I like that group!”
  31. 31. What’s a narrator? A narrator is the invisible, unidentified character who is telling the story, and whispering in readers’ ears. Part of people’s automatic association with your brand is the voice of that narrator.
  32. 32. So make sure that there is a narrator! This story has no narrator: In conjunction with XYZ-M42 rescue group of the 2nd precinct of the 46th district of Narcoleptic County, in cooperation with and in compliance with Bill 46019, our rescue group assisted 20+ animals. Among them was a shepherd mix, a pit/lab/rottie mix, 12 cats, some gray, some Siamese mixes with black and/or gray markings, some orange tabbies.
  33. 33. Writing is music
  34. 34. Having a writing voice means that I can hear your writing, not just see it • You are a voice in my head, and that’s the only way to get under my skin. • To make me take action (come to an event, volunteer, give money, adopt an animal, etc.), you need to get under my skin. • For me to feel that I know you (you, as an organization), I need to have the sense that a real person is speaking to me.
  35. 35. Use punctuation to change the melody and rhythm • Sammie thought he didn’t have a friend in this world until he came here. • Sammie thought he didn’t have a friend in this world. Until he came here. • Sammie thought he didn’t have a friend in this world, until … he came here.
  36. 36. But not just any writing voice will do!
  37. 37. Problematic narrators Chelsea came to our rescue center because some jerk dropped her off at our doorstep. We are so sick of people like that. Keep future fundraising in mind. Is this somebody I’d give a million dollars to?
  38. 38. Problematic narrators Sarah arrived in desperate need of medicine and a hug. The poor thing was shivering in fear and covered with fleas. Fleas are wingless external parasites whose bodies are laterally compressed. Here, the narrator has changed partway through, so I no longer believe someone is talking to me. (May have been written by committee.)
  39. 39. Relationship-building tip Nobody likes a show-off! The trick is to brag without taking the credit. Thank everyone else but yourself. (Your staff is you, so don’t thank your staff.)
  40. 40. In summary … • In many cases, find a single animal to be the focus of your story. • Find your inner narrator and use your voice. • Be sensitive to your reader — watch your language. • Remember that every piece you write is both a marketing and a fundraising story.
  41. 41. Remember your image • Position your brand as you go along. As you tell your story and describe your work, make it clear what’s special about you, what makes you different. • Your narrator should know your brand intuitively, without having to stop and think about it.
  42. 42. Remember your theme The animal’s story is the plot, but the theme is the reason that you’re telling it. After someone reads the story, do you want that person to donate, consider adopting an animal, become a volunteer, get on your mailing list, or simply have a more positive impression of your organization? Think about the theme constantly as you write. Ask yourself: Does this sentence add to that theme? How about this one? Keep the question on one side of your brain while the other side tells the story.
  43. 43. Sit down at the keyboard with an attitude If you’re not having fun, neither is the reader! Writer’s block? What’s that? How come nobody ever gets talker’s block? You should be able to write as fast as you can type. Start with an INTENT: “This is going to move people.” Feel it in your veins.
  44. 44. Thank you for loving animals.