Is surprising supporters good or bad?

nonprofits, messaging, language, words, messaging
Yawning’s cute when it’s a baby doing it. Not when it’s a supporter.

There’s a really interesting blog post called, “How to Improve Your Writing: 5 Tips from Hollywood” by Eric, “the guy behind the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog“.

Tip #2 was: Surprise your readers.

Why surprise? Because we remember things that surprise us.

This got me wondering: Do nonprofits surprise their supporters enough? 

If we’re looking at the words nonprofits use, the answer would be absolutely, positively not! Our research shows that nonprofits are doing a downright miserable job of surprising their supporters and a very good job of boring them.

Nonprofits are only using 5% of the words in the English language. And 1% of the words nonprofits use account for 65% of all the words they use.

No surprise–it’s a linguistic yawnfest.

It begs the question: how do you effectively surprise supporters?

Back to Eric and the blog post:

Surprise comes from knowing the expectations of your audience — and then turning them on their head.

In order to do this effectively, you first have to know your supporters inside and out. That means creating personas. (If personas are new to you, read this, this and this.)

Once you know the types of words that will resonate with a given persona, brainstorm words that are similar but have a bit more oomph.

There’s a fine line between startling and surprising. Surprising is good. It wakes up the brain. It’s engaging. Startling can be off-putting. So don’t go overboard.

Some ideas for generating words that surprise:

Bored supporters are rarely happy supporters. Happy supporters are usually stupendous supporters. So, for their sake and yours, mix up your language. Surprise them. (Whatever you do, don’t ever send them a boring thank you letter.)

Marketing Main Street

Yesterday, I joined 13 of Washington state’s Main Street Managers in Mt. Vernon. Our task was to figure out how each could engage their communities in the unique awesomeness their downtowns offer.

At most trainings I do, each organization has a different Belief Proposition. In this case, they shared a common one–a belief that downtown revitalization leads to lasting, positive economic impact.

That’s what made it so interesting when we started working on messaging. It was tempting to think that since they believed the same thing, they could talk about that belief in the same way and have it be compelling in all communities. Not so!

Since each downtown was so unique, their messaging had to be as well. Here’s a smattering of the Lean-In Lines (otherwise known as Elevator Pitches or a response to the question “What does your organization do?”) the participants created (or at least a close proximity based on my recollection):

We’re leading the charge to make downtown THE place to be!

We’re helping our community rediscover downtown.

We energize small business and celebrate our small town charm.

We bring Meeker Days and so much more right to the downtown core. (Note that this also rhymes which makes it fun to say and easy to remember.)

All are about downtown yet not about any ol’ downtown–THEIR downtown. The lesson: frame your messaging in a way that highlights what’s unique about your organization and what’s most compelling to those you need to engage in your mission.

This group of dedicated, fearless Main Street mavericks made me pine for a Main Street in my (not-so-small) town that was as amazing as theirs. To find a Main Street community near you, check out the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s handy listing of Main Streets around the state.



Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?