What did you say?

I knew I wanted to write about dialogue this month, so I picked a non fiction book off my shelf, pretty much at random. It’s Scattered Sand, a book about China’s rural migrants by the courageous journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai. Here’s an extract:

When I began to talk to one of them, others surrounded me and curiously asked me where I was from.

“Taiwan? The treasure island!” a man said.

“I wouldn’t mind going to Taiwan to work!” another man added.

The crowd grew bigger still, and I suddenly found myself in the centre of a large circle of job-seekers, all eager to talk. I asked if any had worked outside of Sichuan before.

“We worked in Beijing!” a man pointed at himself and his friend.

‘Taiyuan! For two years!” shouted another.

“Shanghai!

In a few simple strokes, Pai uses dialogue to bring to life a jostling, noisy crowd of poor Chinese men who’d go just about anywhere for work.

You too could write lively dialogue (or “direct speech” as opposed to “indirect speech”). And yet at charities, most of us avoid it, even though we love snappy dialogue in fiction or film. We think dialogue belongs in novels, not at work. We also depend increasingly on videos, which can capture people’s voices and relationships so much quicker than words on a page.

But we still need to write down what we do and why — and a good video needs a script. So this month, here are six reasons why you might try writing more dialogue at your charity, and some tips on how to get it right. (And if you’re an after-hours novelist or screen writer, what better way to practice?)

1. Dialogue helps you write better stories

You and I have heard it a thousand times. Stories bring our work to life. They show our mission in action, raise money, and influence policy-makers.

The basic charity story looks like this:

First, a description of somebody who needed the charity’s help, perhaps with a quote or two.

Then, a description of what your charity does to help.

Then a close quote about how much better things are for the person who was helped.

There may be a photograph as well.

What if you used dialogue?

Last month I was walking through Hammersmith when I ran across a Human Library project in full swing. This fantastic charity pairs “readers” up with human “books” in safe public spaces. Each book is a real person with a “title”: homeless person, refugee, Muslim, lesbian, single mother, recovering drug addict, and so forth. The reader can check out and “read” any “book”, meaning you can ask any question you want.

There are good safeguarding rules for both “book” and “reader”, and moderators keep a close eye on things.

I sat down with a recovering drug addict. Here’s how I might write up our conversation if I didn’t use dialogue.

Mike* started using drugs in his early twenties and then found he couldn’t stop, even though he woke up sick and desperate every morning. After thirty years, at the age of forty-eight, he was buying drugs from dealers who were as young as fourteen or fifteen. By then, he had a thirty-year-old daughter himself. He found the young dealers really intimidating. It was his fear of the dealers that finally drove him to quit.

* Mike’s not his real name by the way.

And here’s how I might tell the same story using dialogue:

Mike told me how he started using drugs in his early twenties and then couldn’t stop, even though he woke up sick and desperate every morning.

“So what made you finally quit, after thirty years?” I asked.

“It was the dealers,” he said. “Nowadays they’re just kids. Fourteen, fifteen years old, even younger. I’m a middle aged man with a thirty year old daughter. They saw me as old and treated me with no respect, and I just couldn’t take that. It was getting really scary.”

Of course we’d need a bit of context for the dialogue above – but personally I’d rather follow a real conversation any day. Fourteen year old dealers! I hadn’t expected that! Mike’s words surprised me, and I want to share that surprise.

2. You can help fundraisers have better conversations

“If a charity wants to attract and retain those key supporters, charities need first to enter into a dialogue with them…”

So says a leading branding agency. What a shame, then, that so many fundraisers, including Trustees and senior managers, are tongue-tied when they have to “enter into a dialogue” with “key supporters” – i.e. “talk to people with lots of money”.

You can help by scripting some sample conversations. Explore how phone calls or asks for money actually unfold. People appreciate down to earth phrases and plain talk. Here’s an example:

You:
I’d love to meet with you in person. I promise I won’t be asking for money. I really do want to find out what interests you most about our work.

Key Supporter:
We can talk about money too.

You:
Thank you! That would be great, if you’re ready!

You’d be amazed how many people will talk about a gift if you’re the first one to say the word “money”. That’s one reason why writing out dialogue can help. It means you’re more likely to be upfront.

Fundraisers get rejected a lot, so you need to write out those scripts  too:

You:
I’d love to meet with you in person. I promise I won’t be asking for money. I really do want to find out what interests you most about our work.

Key Supporter:
I’m sorry, but I’m really busy. Just send me something in writing.

You:
Of course. I’ll keep it to one page too. And may I ring back in a few weeks to follow up?

Fundraising means asking for that little bit extra, and asking again until you get a final no. Developing dialogue scripts like these, for use in personal meetings as well as on the phone, gives you and your colleagues a chance to rehearse conversations until they feel natural as well as effective.

3. You can help front line staff do a better job

Just as I was writing this paragraph, my phone rang. The call was from an international relief charity.

The caller’s first words? “I need to tell you this call may be recorded for training and monitoring purposes.”

That’s hardly the way we’d open a conversation with a friend. And while it may be necessary for legal purposes, it does highlight the inhibiting environment in which many conversations take place.

Every single employee at a charity is an ambassador for the charity. Every single conversation – every scrap of dialogue – counts. All the more reason to write dialogue scripts that help people at your charity who have to get on the phone to do surveys, invite people to events, thank them for direct debits, ask them to take action, and so on.

Here too, write out alternative scripts. Most people following a script tend to rush, so add in “SLOW DOWN AND LISTEN TO ANSWER” after every question.

Remove negative words such as “but” and “not.” Callers tend to say tentative things such as: “We understand that you can’t sign up for a direct debit today but we hope we can stay in touch.” Instead, they could say, “You’ve done so much by speaking up. Is it all right if we stay in touch, and maybe later you’ll be able to support us financially too?”

Most people talk too much under pressure. With scripts, as with all dialogue, cut as much as you can. Then read your scripts out loud until you’re comfortable with the words yourself.

4. If you write dialogue, you have to ask questions

You can’t write great dialogue if you don’t ask searching questions. And questions are by far the best way to get to the heart of a matter.

Here are some searching questions you might ask if you were developing stories about your charity’s mission:

What do you most miss about the country you’ve been forced to leave?

How did being bullied at school affect you later in life?

What were your first thoughts when you learned you have cancer?

Assume you’re going to write your conversation up as dialogue, because then you’ll listen better and people will say more revealing things. Even if you end up using the more traditional indirect speech, you’ll have strong stand-alone quotes. For example, here’s a quote from Scattered Sand:

“You work like a slave every day”, he said, “You contribute your cheap labour to this country. But when you’re ill how does this country treat you? I’ve seen the true face of the old capitalist country that I’d imagined to be civilised”.

Pai’s interview subject might never have said something so heartfelt if she hadn’t been treating her interviews as real conversations.

5. You can write roundtable scripts

A roundtable script? Huh? What’s that?

I’m always trying to get charities to do these and I hardly ever succeed. It’s a bit laborious, but it’s a powerful format that really wakes people up. Give it a try some day.

First you draft about six or seven open-ended questions related to your charity’s mission and future plans.

Then you ask a bunch of people to sit round a table and respond to these questions together. They should have lots of knowledge or first hand experience of the charity. They should care. They should also be articulate and opinionated. You might want a mixture of staff, trustees, donors, external experts, and beneficiaries.

You might also want a moderator, especially if it’s a sensitive subject.

You will need to record them, with their permission, needless to say. (You might even film people and use the footage in a video.)

Then write up the transcript, including the questions, showing who said what. Do some tough editing to make the script run smoothly. Take out the empty “fillers” like “You know” and “If I may be so bold”. Use contractions: “we’re” instead of “we are”. A good rule of thumb is that you need to pare away at least half of what people actually say.

Real conversations have a way of jumping around. You may also need to change the sequence in which people said things.

Punctuate people’s words into short sentences, and wherever possible show how they react to each other. For example, one person might say, “That’s true, what X just said. And it’s even more true now that…”.

Run your copy by everyone who took part. Beware: not everyone likes seeing their spoken words on the page. On the whole, if people ask you to change something, change it.

Then lay it all out in a centrefold to give your key supporters a rich flavour of how real people talk about your charity’s mission behind closed doors.

You get a big bonus point if you can include a beautiful photograph of all the people together.

6. You can have more fun

There’s no better reason for doing anything well. Writing dialogue, like reading it, really is fun. And the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more fun it is.

This has been a long blog post. Thank you if you read all the way to the end, and I promise: November’s will be short. Talk to you then, and stay in touch!