Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A charity ad that worked

Earlier this week, I made a donation to charity - my first, apart from the odd handful of change tossed into a collecting tin, for some time, I'm ashamed to say. The piece of persuasive writing responsible was one of those annoying loose inserts that fall out of newspapers when you pick them up. On the cover, it showed two small children huddled together, with the line:

"We're sleeping in your newspaper because we're cold."

What was it about this that prompted me to pick up the phone when so many other charitable appeals had left me unmoved? Firstly, I was feeling guilty; conscious that, over the previous few months, I'd given virtually nothing to charity. Secondly, the insert spoke to the parent in me. The idea of children suffering distresses me a thousand times more than the thought of cruelty to animals - or even, I have to admit, old people living in poverty. Thirdly, it arrived in my newspaper on the day after I'd returned from Glastonbury, which made it easy for me to imagine the reality of trying to sleep somewhere cold and miserable.

So far, then, so fortuitous. None of these three factors involved any skill on the part of the writer. But the fourth, and most important, certainly did. That introductory line I quoted above reached out and grabbed me by the lapels. By the apparently contrived device of making the children talk to me directly from inside my newspaper, the writer left me nowhere to hide. The distance between their cold hillside in Afghanistan and my warm kitchen in the south west of England was, momentarily, obliterated.

Of course, on another day, I might well have ignored the same appeal. If I'd been in a bigger hurry, or had just received an enormous gas bill, it's perfectly possible that I would have chucked it straight in the recycling bin, with barely a second thought.

But, on this particular day, a very good piece of persuasive writing demonstrated how the right words can turn response (compassion) into result (cash).

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How not to spread the word

I walked through Broadmead - Bristol's lingering-death-of-the-soul 1960s shopping centre - on the way to the station yesterday. As ever, outside Boots, there was one of those shouty evangelists loudly exhorting passing shoppers to abandon the paths of unrighteousness and forswear evil-doing.

Usually - and I hope my anti-fundamentalist prejudices aren't too visible here - these zealots are fairly unsavoury-looking characters. But yesterday's preacher was a bit of an exception: a very tall and notably good looking black guy, with an immensely powerful voice.

I wonder if he made any converts? (Certainly, nobody took the slightest notice of him, while I was passing.) And, actually, I wonder if anyone has ever fundamentally changed their belief system as a result of being shouted at in the street by a stranger?

On the plus side, I guess it's possible to argue that our friend with the fervently held convictions wasn't really trying to win anyone over with the strength of his arguments. Instead, perhaps, we might see his performance as an attempt to demonstrate the power of faith: "Look, my belief is so strong that I'm happy to get wet and cold, while making a total twat of myself!")

But I don't really buy it. Overall, I believe that any form of persuasive communication that involves hectoring, haranguing or harrassing the audience or reader is doomed to fail.

A more effective way of spreading the word? Perhaps our evangelical friend might have stood quietly and calmly in front of a placard reading:

Jesus changed my life.
Let's talk about how
He could change yours.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

What's currently making me spew blood-flecked bile. . .

Well, I exaggerate slightly; but there's an ad campaign for Alfa Romeo that's definitely been getting me a little aerated lately. Perhaps you've seen either the TV commercial or the press ads, which present us with a series of lies that we might tell ourselves in order to justify spending some ridiculous amount on the shiny hunk of metal pictured.

The lies are far too boring for me to remember, but they are all concerned with dull technological gizmos and worthy-sounding safety features sported by the car in question. And they are followed by an endline which informs us that "The truth is, it's an Alfa Romeo".

What exactly is so hateful about these ads? Their insufferably knowing smugness. The advertiser and their agency not only assume that we are so enslaved by desire for their product that we're prepared to engage in elaborate self-deception to acquire it; they actually have the nerve to tell us that we feel that way - clod-hoppingly spelling it out for us. ("Here are the pathetic lies you tell yourself, you poor besotted fool, and here's what we all know to be the undeniable truth!")

In persuasive communication, it's important to be as clear as possible about what readers think or feel. But it's always a bad idea to tell them what they think or feel. They prefer to think or feel it all by themselves. And, even if they do harbour the thoughts or feelings ascribed to them, they tend to rebel - or even, as in my case, feel insulted.

The insight that there are people out there who passionately desire an Alfa Romeo, but feel they need to rationalise such a major purchase, may or may not be a valid one.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Who or whom: who cares?

Do you know when to use "who" and when it should be "whom"? If you're not sure, you might like to test yourself:

Roger introduced me to a plumber xxxxx, I felt, was trustworthy.

At the party I met a woman xxxxx I really liked.

The bloke xxxxx said that was clearly a cretin.

xxxxx would you like to take to the ball?

If you got them all right (who, whom, who, whom), you can feel bit smug. But I'm afraid it won't do you a lot of good. Because I'm pretty sure that, along with the apostrophe, whom will have disappeared from all but the most learned written English 10 years or so now.

Why? The usual reason. It's bit fiddly, it sounds old-fashioned and it doesn't really serve any useful purpose. "Who would you like to take to the ball?" just sounds more like a normal person talking; and, almost always when we write persuasively, that's the effect we're aiming to achieve.

I wonder if there's anyone out there to whom what I say is sacrilege?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Why making it longer is always a bad idea

In my book, I have a bit of a rant - well, more of a whinge, really - about the way that designers are always asking me to cut what I've written. Not because there's anything wrong with it, but because they don't want too many nasty squiggly little words cluttering up their nice clean layouts.

But the other day, I received a much rarer request from a designer: for typographical reasons, she wanted me to increase the length of what I'd written by about 20%. For once, I dug in my heels and refused (I'm renowned for being amenable to the point of spinelessness).

Cutting a piece of persuasive writing will nearly always have some beneficial results. True, you may lose something, in terms of tone or content, if you cut too much; but the loss will probably be at least partly off-set by greater economy of expression. But increasing the length of a piece of writing - for any reason other than to add something of value to the reader - will always make it worse.

As I might be tempted to demonstrate, by writing another paragraph here, when I have nothing else to say, just in order to make this post look a bit more substantial than it really is. But I won't, because I'd be wasting your time. And mine. Sorry. I'll stop now.

Or maybe now, actually, because I always think a short para looks better to end on.