Writing Under Fire

When Passion’s Not Enough

I met with a woman recently who gives a fair bit of money away, some of it to charities I know well. We talked about a talented young fundraiser we both like. I began praising him, congratulating myself on doing him an invisible favour. Suddenly her expression changed from warm to sceptical.

“Oh, but these fundraisers,” she said. “They all have a passion for their cause. And then they all leave or get fired and go somewhere else, and then they turn up again with a passion for another cause.”

She has a point. Almost every day, LinkedIn tells me that somebody else has got a new job. People usually have good pragmatic reasons for change. Perhaps they have to move on if they want to move up, or they want a shorter commute. Or … something’s gone badly wrong at their old place of work.

Above The Parapet

At five o’clock one day you get an all-company email warning you that you won’t like the headlines in the morning. Your director’s been fired. You’re closing the much loved regional programmes for lack of money. Your field staff have been found guilty of wrong-doing. Your programmes, those programmes you wrote about with such passion, have done harm as well as good. Some people say they’ve done more harm than good.

You now find out what your friends really think. The charity sector’s corrupt, top to bottom. Staff shouldn’t be paid. All of the money raised, every penny, should go straight to the people who need it – and that’s not you. Criminal charges should be filed.

I’ve heard all these things, especially recently. Maybe you have too.

Meanwhile, those kind donors who support your charity are cancelling direct debits or refusing to answer your calls. Managers close their doors when they meet, and when they open them again they don’t look you in the eye. Paradoxically there’s less to do even when there’s so much more to worry about, but now doesn’t seem the time to book a holiday.

How do you find the right words in the face of trouble like this?

High Roads and Flood Rivers

We used to be told, back in the days of typewriters and rotary phones, to take the high road when things get rough. Never apologise. Never explain. We also had water-tight rules about who speaks to the press. (It wasn’t me.)

Rules about press contacts are always wise, but it’s hard to believe, in an age of 24-hour online news cycles, that anyone ever counted on silence.

As our online world grew, we learned to summon up empathy. I teach the “stepping stone” mnemonic “Feel Felt Found”. (It’s a variant on the crisis manager’s mantra ABC – Acknowledge, Bridge, Control.) If somebody’s upset, first you listen, so you know how they feel. Then you build the bridge. You can say that you, or others, have felt the same way. Then you reassert control. What you, or others, have found is…. By then you’ve theoretically jumped across the flood-rivers of blame to the safe far bank, leading the other person step by step. You can get back to your core message about all the good you do with other people’s money.

Real empathy is pure gold. You can work at it if it doesn’t come naturally. But if you’re sitting on a prickly pile of shame and defensiveness, your discomfort will leak out. It might be an exasperated off-the-record comment that goes viral anyway, or a weary smile on camera. It might be the moment when you say (or write) “I’m sorry if you feel this way” – the tell-tale “if’ shifting the responsibility to the other person — instead of the simpler, harder “I’m sorry I did this.”

Two Choices

If you feel you can no longer find the right words for your charity, let alone any passion, then your first choice is to leave. If you’re faking it, you won’t fool anyone. You’ll also develop some bad writing habits: procrastination, trying to sound like somebody you’re not, and hiding behind mealy jargon like “passion” and “world-class” and “unique”.

So the sooner you leave, the better for you as a writer, and the more likely it is that you’ll find a worthier job. Also, the sooner you leave, the less likely you are to be fired yourself. You might even change careers and become whatever it is you really wanted to be, before you became a fundraiser.

Personally, I always wanted to be a war correspondent who writes novels on the side. Anyone who knows me will laugh. I’m a complete wimp. The only time I witnessed somebody shooting somebody else (outside Beirut Airport in a heat wave, admittedly) I fainted dead away, while everyone else crowded closer for a better look. As for writing novels on the side, I’ve learned the hard way that novels take stamina, and mine is limited.

But I realise now that if you make the second choice — stay with a charity through the tough times – then that’s kind of what you’ll be: a war correspondent.

Pick your battles

Never mind the battles in the boardroom: let others fight those. Instead, put on your emotional flak jacket and go to the edges where people are taking risks and learning to live with loss.

Hang out with the scholarship kids. Talk to people with cancer. Walk through the forest that mustn’t be cut down. Drink coffee with the rough sleepers. Interview a scientist and don’t rest until you understand why those test tubes are spinning inside a laboratory centrifuge. Be a mystery shopper at the theatre or the art gallery. Ask the people around you why they’re there, what it is they love so much they’d freely give money to defend it.

You’ll hear details that will break your heart, metaphors that make sense of mystery. You’ll also have something to fall back on besides mnemonics or tight-lipped denial: great, authentic stories. When you’re writing under fire, those stories will come to your rescue. If the time is right, you can share some of them with donors or friends. If not, you can keep them to yourself for now. They’ll help you feel good about doing good with words.


PS This is my 24th and final blog post. It’s eight months late by my own self-imposed deadline. I used to boast that I never missed a deadline, but self-definitions that include the word “never” in them are never true, at least in my family. In any event, that’s it for now. Stay in touch and keep an eye on my website. I won’t be moving on anywhere, and I’ll be posting details of future workshops, speaking engagements, and new ideas about writing for good.







Getting Creative

First a personal word.

I wrote my first post two years ago. I promised myself I’d write 24, then stop.

This post is the 23rd.

It’s on a subject dear to my heart: the five creative writing techniques everyone can use at work. The next and final post (in early September) will be on something dear to your heart.

Do you have a question about grammar you don’t dare ask at work? Are you struggling with emails to major donors? Do you have a life-saving tip that you’d like to share? Are you coaching a nervous young writer who makes niggling mistakes – or are you that writer?

Whatever’s on your writing mind, drop me an email over the summer (to [email protected]) and let me know. I’ll respond in my next post. And yes, I’ll keep you, my source, anonymous.

The 23rd Post

In the meantime, here’s something I hear all the time: you can’t be creative at work.

Well, I’m a creative writer, and I don’t agree. But I do understand. If you’re an after-hours novelist or poet or stand-up comedian, you’d probably rather watch paint dry than check for typos in the annual report.

Take heart. You’re needed! You’re behind every great charity video, every successful appeal or funny blog or snappy headline. You can make people laugh or cry, you can explain complicated things, and you can melt away prejudice.

You can do that because you know the five fool-proof techniques that stand every writer in good stead. Here they are.

  1. Start strong

Your first sentence, first line, first chapter: lose your readers here, and you’ve lost them for ever.

Here’s an example of a strong start:

When you gaze upon the brown muddy waters of the Thames you could be forgiven for thinking that this, the busiest urban river in the UK, is dirty and lacking life. But you couldn’t be more wrong. 

That’s from a blog on the Zoological Society of London’s website. The writer uses a powerful creative technique. She (or he – the byline is simply “ZSL”) makes us ask a question. Why are we so wrong? What are we going to learn? The challenge creates suspense.

This writer also uses adjectives: brown, muddy, urban, dirty. Adjectives get a bad press. It’s a shame. They’re part of the creative tool-kit. They help to create scenes that we can visualise.

Here’s another opening, this time with no visual adjectives, from an unexpected source for this blog: the Deseret News (a faith-based newspaper in Utah):

It was a slow news day when Cara Jones was assigned to cover a fatal car accident and was sent to the victim’s home.

 When she arrived at the address, a teen girl sitting on the porch rushed up to her. “What happened to my mom?” she asked. “My dad called and told me to wait here.” Jones watched in horror as her camera crew’s presence confirmed the girl’s worst fears.

 It was the beginning of the end of Jones’ journalism career — she no longer wanted to document fear and tragedy. 

It’s a classic creative approach beloved by journalists: you start with a dramatic moment that changes somebody’s life. In a long article or a novel, you might include more detail. But even in this quick sketch you probably “see” the teen girl and the porch in your mind’s eye. That’s because our minds are hungry for stories. As soon as we’re offered a juicy one, we start to collaborate with the writer in our imaginations, filling in the gaps.

You don’t need to describe everything at the beginning. You just need to get out of the gate.

  1. Teach, don’t tell

We have to write about complicated things at work, from targeted gene therapies to tax rulings on gifts in kind. How do we do that creatively?

The first rule of creative writing is love your subject (no matter how flawed). That means writing with enthusiasm. The second is trust your reader (no matter how invisible.) And the third and most famous is: show, don’t tell.

For charity writers, I prefer: teach, don’t tell. Here’s why.

First, donors want to learn from us. We’re the experts on our cause. When you write like a teacher, you’ll naturally write as if you love your subject.

Second, when you teach (rather than tell), you have to trust your readers to share your passion. Again, that means you’ll write better.

What does teaching rather than telling look like on the page? Here’s an example from the Whales and Dolphins Conservation website:

If you’ve ever watched whales or dolphins out at sea, or even just seen photographs of them, you’ll know that there’s often much more to look at than just a fin poking out of the water. Heads, tails, sometimes entire bodies are thrust above the surface, in a glorious mixture of behaviours, each of which signifies something special.

Perhaps you’ve seen dolphins swimming along the pressure wave caused by a boat: this is known as bow-riding, which must be great fun for them. At quieter times they might be seen ‘logging’, the term given to floating on the water’s surface, a great energy saving position.

Then there’s lobtailing, sometimes known as tail-slapping, which is just what it describes: a hard smack of the water by a whale’s fluke, or tail. One of the reasons this might be done is in order to cause a loud sound to stun or confuse prey. When the other end of the body appears – i.e. the head – for a good look around, then this is known as spyhopping.

These paragraphs brim with enthusiastic teaching. The use of “you” makes us feel that the writer is speaking to us. She (or he – another blog with no byline!) keeps it clear with simple transitions: “Then there’s lobtailing…” The verbs — poking, thrust, floating, stun – convey her delight in the animals’ energy and playfulness, and her adjectives (glorious, hard) add just the right vivid touches.

When you write with enthusiasm like this, you’re writing with love.

Like all good teachers, she also uses down to earth language. The phrase “which must be great fun for them” might skate a bit too close to anthropomorphism for hard-core biologists, but animals do have fun, and I wish more conservation charities reminded us of that. “A good look around” is another homespun phrase that makes us feel that she’s speaking directly to us. She even gets away with the casual “this is” opening — something I usually advise people to avoid.

You can do all this, too, if you’re really teaching us something.

  1. Use analogies

Creative writers love analogies. A good analogy (comparing two different things) makes people say, Oh, I get it!

Here’s an example:

Just think of your car. If you get a flat tire, you might fix it yourself. If you need an oil change, you might know the drill. But if your engine starts smoking, it’s time to call the mechanic.

 It’s the same with wells. That’s why we believe in funding maintenance programs and employing skilled mechanics to handle larger breakdowns.

That’s from Charity:Water, who’ve been praised high and low for their fabulous communications. It’s in the middle of a piece about well maintenance. Instead of a technical explanation, we get a metaphor we can relate to – again, with a warm “you” and everyday language (“know the drill”).

Thanks to the analogy, the point is made. They need money for maintenance as well as for digging wells. Got it.

  1. Embrace short sentences.

You probably write long sentences. You might have loads of information to pack in. You might also write everything in two or three different ways (see my post on doubling and tripling) just to be on the safe side.

Long sentences can be beautiful. But nothing packs a punch like a short one. Short means seven words or less.

Here’s a quote from the UNICEF website:

“We’re now refugees. People don’t like us. Everyone lies. I was a kid before. I am older now. I know more.”

Raiwan, 12, refugee from Aleppo

I believe a real 12 year old said this. The short sentences capture her despair – and her hard-won wisdom. She doesn’t embellish because she’s hurting and she’s honest.

Creative writers know that heartfelt quotes like this are golden. We listen for them all the time, we write them down, and we keep them short.

That can be hard if somebody sends you a written quote full of long sentences (including semi-colons!). You might think you can’t change it. You can. Slice long sentences into shorter sentences. You can always run it by your source if you’re nervous. I promise you: they’ll like the edited version better.

Here’s a different use of short sentences, from the WorldVision website:

People in Turkana are pastoralists. It’s a beautiful life when there is rain to grow grasses for their camels, cows, donkeys, sheep, and goats to eat. They live simply. Children play. Their parents dance and sing. Families are close. They pray together. But after a succession of droughts, life is no longer beautiful. It’s a nightmare.

Creative writers don’t worry that stripped-down sentences like these aren’t “professional”. We know that for a charity like WorldVision, with a broad supporter base and an emotive appeal, short sentences can conjure up a whole scene – a bustling city, a crowded refugee camp, or the pastures of Turkana.

Short sentences aren’t only for blogs. Here’s another example, from the Anthony Nolan website:

We cure blood cancer every single day. Help us cure it more often.

You could use these lovely, direct sentences (one with seven words, one with six) in a proposal, a letter to a major donor – just about anywhere.

Write short sentences as often as you can.

  1. Don’t give up

In workshops, I give people on-the-spot writing assignments. Then I watch what happens.

Most people quickly cover pages. They crouch over the paper, shaking their hands when they get cramp. They don’t want to stop when time’s up.

But some people freeze and write nothing.

Writers who freeze are usually conscientious people who hate to make mistakes. They’re waiting for inspiration to save them.

Wait on. Inspiration visits us creative writers only when we’re already writing. In the meantime, all of us  (including successful published authors) fight anxiety every day.

Here’s how we fight. We sit down until our back hurts, type until our eyes hurt, and rewrite until we think we’ll go crazy. Then we print it out, sleep on it, and read it all again. It might be mostly rubbish, but there’s usually something worth saving. We move that something to the top. Then we go through the whole cycle again.

That’s it. That’s our secret. We keep on writing. We don’t give up.

Don’t you give up, either. Ever.

I’ll be back after the summer, with news from your front lines. I look forward to hearing from you. Write to me soon!


Words to live by

This post isn’t about writing. It’s about the world we all live in.

The Commission on the Donor Experience has pulled together wise and practical tips and insights from across the charity sector. Ken Burnett and the good team at SOFII have sent out this wonderful Blueprint for fundraising — it’s a summary of the principles enshrined in the Commission’s report. It’s a work in progress, but we don’t need to wait for every last crossed T and dotted I to get going now on doing a good job. I love what this summary says, and I love how the SOFII team say it. I hope you do too.

Happy reading, and I’ll be back soon with a post about creative writing techniques that anyone can use at work – and that work for donors too.

Stay cool, stay tuned.

Five Life-Saving Tips for the Anxious Writer

A manager at a leading cultural organisation came to me for help with her writing. In person, she’s a warm, witty expert in her field. But something mysterious happens when she writes. She gets all tied up in knots. Why?

The culprit – as I suspected – lies deep in her past. She’d been traumatised by a scolding English teacher who took a red pen to every “mistake” without even explaining why.

If we’re punished for making mistakes, but nobody tells us what a mistake is in the first place, we’re likely to go crazy. The only way to protect our sanity is to walk away. Sadly, walking away isn’t an option when it comes to writing. Left to battle on alone, we panic. Our drafts don’t get better. They get worse.

This is what was happening to my client. If it’s happening to you too, you’re not alone. Even people who write easily (and well) at home tend to write less well at work, where they’re under pressure from critical managers or donors who can say no.

The symptoms of a stressed-out writer are easy to spot: long sentences that don’t make sense, punctuation slips, and passive verbs. These symptoms all make your writing less clear.

The first thing you should do is look after yourself (get some tea, log onto BorrowMyDoggy – whatever works). When you go back to fix what’s on the page, you have one goal. You’re not writing to impress. You’re not writing to protect yourself from criticism. You’re writing to make something clear.

Here, then, are five things you can do, right away, to give your writing more clarity. If you slog through all five you get a bonus at the end, which may cheer you up.

Top Tip 1: Dump the semi-colon.

The semi-colon (;) is the one with a comma and a dot above it. It has two uses. The first is to separate two sentences; it’s slightly weaker than a full stop, but basically it’s the same (as in this sentence).

The second, more formal use is to separate longer items in a list, or in bullet points.

I have a radical suggestion. Stop using it.

It’s not necessary. It probably makes you (and your reader) anxious. It looks old-fashioned. You’re also more likely to write an incomplete sentence when you use it.

For example:

These brilliant early career researchers are the engine of knowledge creation; providing solutions to major issues of importance to science, engineering and society.

See how the semi-colon tripped the writer up? The bit after the semi-colon should be a complete sentence. If you read it aloud, you’ll hear that it isn’t. If the writer had used a comma, however, it would have been fine.

So stick with full stops for separating sentences, colons (:) for introducing examples and explanations, and commas for everything else, including lists. (And if you’re excitable like me — dashes whenever the spirit moves you and exclamation points when you’re feeling lively.) Easy!

 Top Tip 2: Never agin use the word “This” as the subject of a sentence.

Using “This” as a subject isn’t a mistake. I did it a few paragraphs ago, and I do it all the time in creative writing.

You’ve got to be a pretty controlled writer, however, to get away with using “This” as the subject in professional writing. I’ve seen hundreds of sentences that begin with the single word “This”, and almost every single one was unclear.

Here’s an example, fresh from a report on a direct response TV campaign:

As we move into the new financial year we will optimise the campaign by honing station selection and gaining a greater understanding of our audience – initial signs show a highly engaged audience keen to know more. This will enable us to improve our communication with them from the time that they sign up and beyond.

We readers must know exactly what “this” refers back to. So what does “This” in the second sentence refer back to? Does “This” mean “honing station selection” or “gaining a greater understanding”? Or both? It’s almost clear, but it’s not 100% crystal clear – and crystal clear is our goal.

You could add a word after “This”. You could say “This understanding”, for example. Or you could rewrite it all, getting rid of the jargon too:

In the new financial year, we will work more closely with stations in regions where we know we have a highly engaged audience. We will discover more about how best to communicate with these people, from the moment when they first sign up.

Top Tip 3: Make your verbs active  (and be more personal).

By now you’ll have noticed a pattern in my rewrites. I like the words “I” and “we”, and I like active, not passive, verbs.

Maybe you don’t know the difference between active and passive. It’s worth knowing, because anxious writers almost always fall back on the passive, like nervous puppies rolling over. Passives look more submissive, but they don’t help when the big dogs – your readers — come along.

Just to be clear: a passive verb means the subject of the verb is having something done to it, rather than doing something. (That’s why they look submissive.) Passive verbs use the verb ‘to be’ and can be followed by the word ‘by’, as in this sentence – “can be followed” is passive.

Here’s an example:

  • Passive: The dog was patted [by me].
  • Active: I patted the dog.

There’s a time and place for passive verbs, especially in technical writing, but if you can change your passives to actives, then do so. You will then be much more likely to have a human being (rather than an abstract noun) be the subject of your sentence, which will warm up your writing. Here’s an example:

The programme is delivered through workshops and classes across the county.

Perfectly correct, perfectly passive – and weak. “The programme” is bland and impersonal, and we don’t know who’s doing the work. You could write:

We deliver the programme through workshops and classes across the county.

If you don’t want to say “We”, then you might throw away the word “programme” and make the verb active:

Workshops and classes take place across the county.

Top Tip 4: Learn what a ‘dangling modifier’ is.

These weird sounding creatures crop up in almost every longer proposal I see. They are mistakes and they’re annoying for the reader, so you need to know what they are and how to fix them.

Many of your longer sentences will have two parts: the main sentence, with a subject and verb, and a part that’s added on. The added on part is the “modifier”. It’s not essential. It just adds extra meaning.

If the modifier is “dangling”, then it isn’t safely anchored to the stronger main part. It’s about to drift away into the open sea.

Here’s an example:

Evaluating the project after one year, the benefits were obvious.

The main sentence is “the benefits were obvious”. This sentence can stand up all by itself. If you read it out loud, it sounds like a proper sentence.

If you read “Evaluating the project after one year” out loud, you’ll hear that it’s not a sentence. It’s the added on bit.

In this example, you (or some other human being) are doing the evaluating – not the benefits. Benefits can’t evaluate anything. The word “evaluating”, which comes from the verb “to evaluate”, is dangling off the edge of the sentence without a subject to anchor it.

Here’s an easy ways to fix this problem:

Evaluating the project after one year, we could see obvious benefits.

“We” did the evaluating as well as the seeing, so in this version everything’s now properly linked to one subject: we.

Here’s another example of a dangling modifier:

Driven crazy by all these rules, school became a nightmare for Jane.

Obviously, the school isn’t driven crazy. Here’s one solution:

Driven crazy by all these rules, Jane found school a total nightmare.

In these examples, the subject of the added-on bit of the sentence – the “modifier” – MUST be the same as the subject of the main sentence. That’s because the modifier begins with a word that’s formed from a verb (“Evaluating”, “driven”).

There’s another way to fix sentences with dangling modifiers. You can use stronger linking words like “when” or “because” for the modifying bit:

When we evaluated the project after one year, the benefits were obvious.

Because there were so many rules, Jane went crazy.

Modifiers that begin with words like “When” or “Because” can have their own subjects and verbs. The subject of the main sentence (“the benefits” or “Jane”) no longer has to do the hard work of carrying the whole sentence. The modifier takes some of the weight off by allowing a secondary subject and verb to drop in.

Top Tip 5: Beware of too many sentences that begin with “As”.

There’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “as.” I’ve done it in this post (see the last sentence). But “as” is a difficult little word. It has a lot of grammatical functions, which makes it slippery and hard to control. And when writers use it repeatedly to open sentences, it’s almost always a sign of defensiveness and anxiety.

Also, use it too often, and you’re  more likely to trip over and suffer from a “dangling modifier”. Here’s an example of a sentence containing a dangling modifier that was launched by a reckless “as”:

 As a supporter that receives our magazine, we hope that you enjoyed our article on the new wildlife centre.

The problem? “We” isn’t the same person as the “supporter”, but they’re sharing just one main verb: “hope”.

There is a verb in the modifying bit – “receives” – but it doesn’t have one of those stronger linking words like “when” or “because”. (And “that” should really be “who” – my guess is the writer was worried about the difference between “who” and “whom” so was avoiding the word altogether.)

How to fix this? You could write two complete sentences:

You will recently have received our magazine. We hope you enjoyed our article…

That’s OK, but you’re stating the obvious. They know they’ve recently received the magazine. So you might write:

As a supporter that receives our magazine, you will have enjoyed our article on the new wildlife centre.

Hmm. Now the subject “you” is the same as “the supporter”. But it sounds bossy, doesn’t it? Maybe they didn’t enjoy it. So then you might try:

 As a supporter that receives our magazine, you may have noticed our article on the new wildlife centre…

And that sounds pompous.

When you can’t find a rewrite that works, I recommend going for the simplest solution of all. Cut everything you can. In this case, cut the opening and just write:

We do hope you enjoyed our article…

BONUS! Start sentences any way you want!

For some peculiar reason, school teachers told a generation of innocent children that there are certain sacred words with which you can never begin a sentence. That’s silly. It’s also wrong.

Some words, such as “as” and “this”, do tend to get writers into trouble, but there’s nothing wrong with using them at the beginning of a sentence if you know what you’re up to.

You can start your sentences with any word in the English language. Even “as”. Even “because”. Even “even” — just as you can write incomplete sentences, or use contractions like “it’s”. It’s your writing. Your teacher is long gone. As long as you’re clear, you’re fine.

Day of Judgement

Like it or not, if you raise money for charity you’re going to be judged. People throw your beautiful letters away. You didn’t raise enough. Your manager’s taken a red pen to your copy. Your best mate’s uncle doesn’t understand why you’re even paid. I mean, it’s a charity, right?

At the moment, we’re being judged especially harshly. Eleven of our biggest and best have just been fined. The fines aren’t ruinous, but that public slap on the wrist hurts.

Good Judgement

Judgement isn’t always a bad thing. “Judgement” can also mean the ability to make wise choices.

In that brighter spirit, a client asked me last month to look at four funding proposals that he’d written. Each proposal asked for a very large personal gift. Three had already been sent out. One was still in draft form.

The writer’s a pro. He knows what he’s doing. So he was a bit surprised that of the three he’d sent out, one was funded in full, one was only partially funded, and one was turned down flat.

The pressure was on. This writer really wanted to hear “yes”. What could we learn from the three earlier proposals, and could we apply those lessons to the fourth?

(This is a great way to use a consultant, by the way. We don’t have magic wands or all the answers, but we should at least be good sounding boards and experienced fundraisers who know something about what makes people tick.)

The winner

We started with the “winning” proposal. The writer had begun with a snappy executive summary and a lovely beneficiary quote: “If you want to get the most out of life, you have to grasp every chance you could possibly have, and [this programme] is definitely one of them!”

He used the warmer, inclusive “we” throughout (rather than “Charity X will…”), and short, readable sentences. He was clear about the need for the programmes without over-stating anything (which can sound like whining), and he was specific about how they would grow. All this made him sound super confident.

The evaluation section was also great. Most evaluations are too vague. In this case the writer shared plenty of detail, and was honest about what couldn’t yet be measured – and how they planned to do even better measurements the following year. Then he ended with a sparkling case study. Job done.

The “second best”

In the second proposal, the writer began with a long, general sentence and quickly fell back on “doublings”: “advance and accelerate”, “attract and nurture”. He kept returning to what the charity needed rather than what the beneficiaries needed. There were some punctuation errors as well as tentative conditionals (“would” instead of “will”).

These symptoms all showed that he was nervous – and with good reason. He was writing to a formidable and well-known donor. He didn’t know the donor that well. He was asking him to fund a programme that would demand a great deal from the charity, too. The match between the charity and the donor’s interest was strong enough that he got something, but not as much as he’d hoped.

The “also ran”

On to the third proposal (the one that raised zero). It was perfectly correct and flat as a pancake, with passive language throughout and no reference to the particular donor. The evaluation section was mostly about “outputs”, or what the charity would do, rather than “outcomes” – how the charity would change lives.

The writer might have got away with it except for one thing. The donor is a dynamic entrepreneur who loves to make exciting new things happen. The gulf between the proposal’s style and the donor’s was just too wide. She said no.

Know Thy Donor, Part 1

The big takeaway for us was: know thy donor. The closer the writer felt to his reader, the better he performed. It showed in the writing, which became more confident, and it showed in the results.

He admitted that he hadn’t really thought  enough about his donors’ needs and personalities, even though he and his colleagues knew them all. With that in mind we looked at the fourth proposal – the one still in draft form.

This proposal had plenty of good material and was beautifully laid out, but the bullet points had become random bucket lists, and there was a lot about other investors and donors.

We considered the facts. The donor is already committed to the charity. He’s a no-nonsense businessman who would want to see that he was making a practical difference. He wouldn’t want too much detail and he wouldn’t want to have to “work” at reading anything. That meant crystal clear sequencing, strong headers, organised bullet points, and short sentences. It also meant showing exactly why this donor was going to have an enduring impact on a problem he already understood very well.

Together the writer and I changed the order of things a bit and edited sentences down to the bare bones wherever possible. We emphasized the impact this particular donor would have.

Result? A happy donor who was glad to give everything he was asked for, and a happy writer who’d done his best and learned something too.

Know Thy Donor, Part 2

I’ll stay quiet on the ICO rulings. That’s not because I don’t have a dog in this fight, as folks say in the American south. It’s more because I have a whole pack of fighting hounds. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from dogs, it’s never reach into a dog fight. Your hand will get bit.

However, as someone who loves writing, I can’t help but notice that words like abuse, secret, chase, upset, and distress have dominated recent news stories about charities. These powerful words tell a dark story.

You’d think that people who actually work for charities would never use such language, but here are some words I’ve heard fundraisers and charity trustees say out loud, in the US as well as the UK. Stalk and chase. Deep pockets and filthy rich. Hit up and shake down.


I won’t think one whit less of you if you’ve said such things. When I was first raising major gifts, I met some staggeringly wealthy people. There I was in my high street polyester, feet hurting and far from home and my young daughter, and there they were with their nannies and super yachts or whatever. They could have paid my mortgage off without blinking.

Who can blame us, especially when we’re starting out, for feeling a tiny bit of resentment? And if that resentment leaks into our vocabulary – we’re only human, aren’t we?

Nonetheless, let’s all stop, right now. It’s not good for our donors when we use these words, it’s not good for you, and it’s certainly not good for the charity sector. Today especially, your words count, and so do mine. Even the ones we say in private. We’re playing into our critics’ hands when we use negative words, and we’re eroding our own professional integrity, which is our most precious asset.

Let’s remember that people who donate to charities do so voluntarily, out of the good of their hearts. That’s why they call it the voluntary sector, and it’s a point the ICO has certainly grasped. Whether people give a leadership gift that names a whole Institute or £5 a month through a direct debit, they want to do the right thing. Our job is to help these people, not put them down (or off).

We’re not stalking or chasing anybody. We’re listening and learning, respecting and honouring. Our donors aren’t filthy rich and they don’t have deep pockets. They’re able to make a difference and kind enough to do so. We don’t hit them up or shake them down. We invite, we ask, and we thank. These softer words aren’t euphemisms. They’re true.

And we never, ever beg.

See you next month.





Speak for yourself

Do well enough in your job, and sooner or later you’ll have to give a formal presentation or speech. No good deed goes unpunished.

A quick scout around the internet will unearth loads of practical tips for dealing with the stage fright that plagues us all, whether we’re podium clutchers who read every word off a script, or performers who like to ad lib. Breathe deeply and practise your speech out loud many times before you actually give it. Talk at half your normal pace. Over emphasise the key words. And if you’re using slides do not, on any account, read out what’s already on a screen behind you.

Good advice — but it doesn’t tell you much about how to write a speech.

A speech isn’t an essay or a blog post. You want to use very short sentences and the plainest possible language, and work within a super clear structure. (In a speech, I’d split that last sentence in two, beginning the second with a repeated “You want to work within…”) If you feel you’re “dumbing it down” you’re probably doing the right thing.

What does “super clear structure” mean? The classic advice is: say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said. Three-part structures are easy to follow — even for listeners who aren’t paying much attention. If you’re preparing a speech about a charity, you might therefore write:

  1. An opening that begins with something like “I’m so and so, thanks for asking me, and I’m here today to tell you about our vital work in protecting the puffin.” (Picture of cute puffin on PPT slide.)
  2. A longer middle bit about puffins and their history, and why they need protecting. (PPT pictures of puffins and puffin hunters, and some slides about numbers of nesting birds.)
  3. A summary that begins with something like “So that’s why we have to protect puffins, and that’s why we need your help.” (PPT picture of puffin looking protected.)

If you’re short on time or very nervous, I’d recommend this structure because it’s safe. But there are — fittingly — three problems with it. First, everyone’s heard it before. Second, it isn’t best for every speaker, every audience, or every subject. And third, the middle bit tends to be dull. (I’ve seen plenty of people catch up on their sleep halfway through these kinds of speeches.)

So how do you write a speech that will keep people awake all the way through? I went on the hunt for some lively examples. Thank goodness for TED (http://www.ted.com). It took me no time at all to come up with my examples, and you can find many more. Here’s my starter pack.

  1. Carrie Poppy’s talk on the paranormal (https://www.ted.com/talks/carrie_poppy_a_scientific_approach_to_the_paranormal)

Sit back and make thirteen whole minutes, because there’s lots to learn from Poppy and her ghost story. (But no spoilers here.)

First off: I think she begins badly (you may disagree). She has a melodramatic first sentence that I bet she was really pleased with. She delivers it self-consciously, complete with dim lighting. It almost made me switch her off. Her second sentence should have been her first.

It didn’t matter. It’s hard to write a fantastic opening, and within one minute I was caught up in the story that followed. If you’re going to start with a great personal story my advice would be, just start with it.

Poppy’s story might make you uncomfortable. I found myself thinking, Is this woman a total fruitcake? When we discover that no, she’s far from a fruitcake, our trust in her is redoubled. She knew what she was up to all along. She was setting us up in order to surprise us, about one third of the way in, just when we might be falling asleep. We’ll now remember what she had to say. You too can take a risk with a story that makes us wonder about you – as long as you are going to address our concerns.

She’s also a natural comedian. She wears funky boots, she giggles, she paces back and forth, she flings her arms wide and swears, and towards the end of her speech she jumps, twice, both feet actually leaving the ground. It’s totally lovable. She reminds us that if we have a naturally bouncy style and a big friendly audience, it can work to our advantage. Forget being a “grown-up”, whatever that means. Spread your arms wide and share your enthusiasm.

Finally, Poppy’s a skilfull salesperson. Once she has her audience where she wants them, she slips in a reference to her podcast — two thirds in rather than at the end. She doesn’t even name it. If we like her, we’ll hunt it down. Then she has a more explicit call to action at the end.

A good rule that Poppy follows is: always know what you want your audience to do, think, or feel. Know exactly what your call to action is. Most charity speech writers place the call to action at the end, as she does. Make your call succinct as well as crystal clear, and it will have the power of a great punchline.

  1. Lara Setrakian’s talk on the news industry (https://www.ted.com/talks/lara_setrakian_3_ways_to_fix_a_broken_news_industry)

Shorter and more sober, Setrakian’s talk also begins with a personal story that’s situated clearly in time. “Five years ago I had my dream job,” she begins. It’s a much loved fiction-writer’s device, and for good reason. We wonder immediately: What happened to the job? Did she wake up from the dream?

She goes on to answer the question. From the personal beginning, she moves quickly to a sombre appraisal of reporting from the Middle East. Her willingness to give up her dream job means she has extra credibility, and that’s important because she too has something to “sell” – a website called Syria Deeply (https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria). She introduces it almost halfway through, as a bridge to her three closing recommendations.

In Setrakian’s speech there are two calls to action. The first is an indirect invitation to go to the website, which she displays on screen, as a trustworthy resource. The second is to take on board her recommendations. Her serious, direct style – no giggling or jumping here, hardly a smile – isn’t Oscar-winning natural, but it’s plausible and intelligent. We trust her. It’s the perfectly pitched speech for an intimate audience of politically progressive people.

  1. Jeff Kirschner’s talk on “literati” (https://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_kirschner_this_app_makes_it_fun_to_pick_up_litter#t-4624)

In some ways this is the most polished of the three, because Kirschner knows exactly what his structure is, and he lets us know too.

“This story starts with…” he begins, then shows a picture of his kids. Then, after a simple family story, he uses a question as a transition. “Why not apply that clean-up model to the entire planet?” he asks. He goes on to use charity words like “inspiration,” “vision” and “impact”.

If you’re going to dream, especially in the charity world, dream big. You might feel scepticism when Kirschner talks about the entire planet, but he has some great slides that show exactly what he’s up to. Kirschner doesn’t talk off his slides or tell you what’s in them. The pictures illustrate his story, but the story is all his.

His language, his questions, and his simple picture slides make you imagine what he can do rather than think about what he can’t. In many charity speeches, that’s the challenge: how can you persuade people that you can do something big, and are therefore worth supporting?

Kirschner has worked hard at the rhetoric of change. Individually you can make a difference, he says at one point. Together you can have an impact. Nice. For an aspirational, technically savvy audience who love solutions and may want to invest in his app, that super-confident, mission-driven tone is perfect.

He wraps neatly. “During that process I learned two things.” Great! We can handle two things. The first lesson is a throw-away for a laugh. So he really only has one lesson to share: he has a global answer to litter. Yet all the way through he’s used simple language and down to earth examples of actual litter, actual streets, actual kids, and an Instagram account.

Let me wrap, then, with some ideas to play around with the next time you write a speech.

  1. Begin with a story that happens at a clear moment in time.

You could even start with, “You know, on my way here tonight I saw something interesting…” or, “I want to tell you about somebody I met just last week.” A recent story can be more credible. Or you could begin, as Poppy and Setrakian do, with the classic set-up: “X years ago I was (happily married/in prison/working in investment banking/the picture of health…)”. We’re hooked.

  1. Know — and say — what you want your audience to do, think, or feel.

Visit your website? Donate to your appeal? If you’re super clear about that, then you can sell very lightly, perhaps in the middle of the speech as well as the end. We’re all so well defended against the closing “hard sell” that a lighter, quicker ask might work to your advantage. And if you want to teach us something, write that down too, in one sentence if possible. Then think about how you like to learn things: it’s probably through stories, examples, and entertaining challenges (do ghosts exist?). Be a good teacher, and we’ll love you for it.

  1. Questions make fabulous transitions.

Rather than thinking of the next slide as your transition point, think of the next question. Write the questions into your speech, too, because when you write questions down, you naturally structure and pace your thoughts:

“There’s a problem.” (Now ask questions: So why is it a problem? Is it a problem for the audience? Do they think it’s a problem?)

“I have a solution.” (Now ask questions: How does my solution work? Is it better than others? Why is it worth it?)

Questions also give the audience nice clear signs about where you’re going. People will be much more likely to pay attention if your transitions are in the form of questions.

  1. Three really is a magic number.

Poppy’s speech falls neatly into three parts. Setrakian has three recommendations. Kirschner’s speech is the shortest, but his too falls into three parts (story, solution to a problem, replicating impact). See if you can write the key points on three pages, one for each point. Make the middle section a turning point, or a next step in a story, with as much fresh surprise as possible. (Setrakian’s second recommendation is her strongest, you’ll notice, and gets applause.)

  1. Be yourself.

You can (and should) change the length and content of your speech for different audiences. You can (and should) ask a friend or coach to fix distracting nervous habits (fiddling with jewelry, sticking your hands in your pockets and then wiggling your fingers visibly).

However, you cannot change your own mysterious self. If you’re sincere, have something heartfelt to say, and have done your homework, your audience will come along with you just as you are. The three speeches I’ve described here might need adapting for school children, for corporate chief executives, or for government ministers, but the three speakers could still use the same inflections, questions, gestures, pictures, jokes, and stories that work best for them.

PS: I haven’t said anything here about writing speeches for other people (i.e. your boss) because that’s a whole blog post in itself, but you’ll want to use the same techniques.


Don’t let your manager catch you reading this post

SpanielPeople move fast in the charity sector. Almost four out of ten fundraisers say they want to change jobs in the next six months – and many will. The average tenure in a fundraising position is less than two years according to most estimates.

A high turnover means lots of things, none of them very good for donors and the charities they support. I’d love to live in a world where fundraisers stayed longer in their posts and built more enduring relationships, with colleagues as well as donors. We’d all be happier. But often the opportunities for internal promotions just aren’t there, or the goals are unrealistic, or there isn’t the capacity to meet them. The grass is forever greener in another charity. It’s understandably tempting to change jobs, or go and train as a yoga teacher in India, as one of my lucky clients is about to do.

Which brings us to the personal cover letter.

Whenever people ask me to comment on job applications and cover letters, I’m struck by how difficult it is to step outside ourselves and then sum up our skills and what we have to offer. Even articulate, senior professionals find it hard to do this with grace and confidence. I sympathise. I never liked writing job applications or cover letters either, to be read by strangers in a Human Resource office. Often, when reading cover letters, I think how glad I am that I have my own business and don’t have to do that any more.

And then I did.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to consider a senior charity trusteeship. That meant stepping back into the terrifying world of job descriptions, person specifications with their dry checklists of experience and skills, and cover letters. I thought it would take an hour and be easy. It took a day, and it hurt.

I don’t have a magic potion that will make it any easier next time, but I do have some general advice that I’ve so often given others and that others then had to give me.

Don’t get too cute with the opening.

Start with a very brief statement about what it is that you’re so pleased to be applying for. Name the position. A sentence will do. Now you’re done with that bit.

Don’t drown.

You’re already in deep water: the dreaded second paragraph. My initial tendency is to take a breath and (to keep going with the water metaphor) dive into my past all the way back to the very first relevant job in the dark ages before computers and then slog on through all the others, and all the details about what I did in them, and to wonder half way through sentences longer than this one whether I should use bullets or semi-colons, and then …


They have your c.v. You have a LinkedIn profile. What they really want to know is not what you’ve done for others, but what you can do for them. Last year one of my clients used the second paragraph in her cover letter to share her vision for the charity. (She was applying to be the director.) She used energetic language such as “excites”, “huge change,” and “now is the time for XYZ charity to assert itself.” She got the job.

And it’s still about them, not you.

In your next paragraphs, you might indeed write about previous achievements and jobs. Be specific about money raised if it’s a fundraising post, then say what you’ve learned that applies to what they need. For example, if you’ve been a grant writer and you’ve written successful proposals for big grants, you might also say that you learned from your success how important it is to stick faithfully to a funder’s guidelines and to build relationships with funding staff wherever possible. You might say that if selected, you will do the same for your next employer, and will expect to strengthen the charity’s funding base as a result. Present yourself as someone who’s most interested in what it takes to do this next job well, not on proving how busy you’ve been in the past. You’ll sound ten times more qualified.

Write a plan.

If the job is a senior one, you can think about your cover letter as a succinct early plan. Where do you think this organisation might go next? What are the obvious challenges and risks and threats? How will you help everyone to navigate them successfully? What will you do in the first three months in post? What kind of leadership will you want to embody? Who might you form new partnerships with? If you write about these sorts of things, you’ll reassure a nervous selection committee that you’re ready for the responsibility.

Be positive.

Of course. You wouldn’t dream of being anything else. Nonetheless… halfway through my trusteeship application I found myself writing about what I’m not an expert in. I slipped into tell-tale tentative language such as “while…” and “although…” and “but…”. I know. After all these years and all these blogs. It’s embarrassing.

Here as always, less is more.

As you advance professionally, you’ll have done more than you can ever sum up in a cover letter. Pick two or three examples of good projects, say they’re examples, and have faith that they will speak for the whole of your experience. Try hard to get that letter onto one page (although at a senior level it might be appropriate to write more).

Do mention special personal stuff.

If you speak four languages, or have a great family network in southeast Asia, or sang in the chorus at Covent Garden before you went into investment banking or whatever, it’s more relevant than you might think. They’re buying your personality and experience, and they’ll have to live with that. Surprisingly often, people bury amazing personal experiences in the middle of longer paragraphs. Write a whole paragraph about personal details that relate to how you will perform. Position this paragraph near the end of your letter.

Remember: nothing is certain but death and taxes.

Great c.v.’s and cover letters can fall into a bottomless pit. People who write lacklustre applications and lazy letters full of mistakes sometimes get the job. Why? Who knows. Life isn’t fair, and as Oscar Wilde said, perhaps it’s a good thing for most of us that it’s not.


I’m away for much of February, so I might skip a month here. That’s a relief, because by March, the fate of my own cover letter will be far enough in the past that we can all move on. If I get nowhere, I’ll tell myself what you too must tell yourself whenever you don’t get a job you’ve applied for. You’ve done your best. Everything else is beyond your control. Next.









What to read?

readingDecember galloped in this year from who knows where. Maybe you, like me, felt less than ready for it. I blame the sensation on political events, especially in the US. So much feels out of kilter and unpredictable, and I wish I could turn the clock back or at least slow time down a bit.

I’ve been pondering three new blog posts : on editorials, on speech-writing, and on cover letters for job applicants. Sooner or later, most of us have to tackle at least one of these forms of persuasion, and cover letters all about ourselves are hard for everybody. But for now, I thought I’d answer a question I’m asked all the time — what should I read? — because there’s nothing like the comfort of a good book. (You may also be wondering about books to buy as a present.)

Our Bodies Our Brains

In writing workshops I try to recommend books that are a good fit for the writers’ charities. I keep an eye out for lively medical writing, in particular, because many of you work for medical charities and have to explain the research to lay audiences. Also, what’s more interesting than our own bodies and all the miraculous ways in which they work, and terrifying ways in which they fail us?

I also look for books that tell great stories and use vivid language, and that are grounded in first-rate research and personal experience. That’s the kind of writing I want to encourage, for myself as well as you.

So to kick off, here’s a book about how and why our bodies can go wrong: It’s All In Your Head by consultant neurologist Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan. It’s a fresh take on psychosomatic illnesses, packed with case studies from her years of treating (or at least of trying to understand) people with mysterious seizures, migraines, paralyses, pain, and fatigue. Not everyone agrees with everything in it, but it won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2016, and it makes a powerful case for a better and kinder way of thinking about the connections between our minds and our bodies.

Books That Cross Divides

Whether you’re European or American (or both, like me, or neither) you’re probably trying to make sense of how we all got into such a political mess. You might also be working for a charity that tackles poverty head-on. There are countless causes for our woes, but growing income inequality is surely amongst the top two or three.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond, published earlier this year, has been praised high and low for throwing light on the root causes of homelessness in the US. It’s a huge and fast-growing problem that affects millions of Americans (and growing numbers of people in Britain too). Desmond knows all too well what he’s writing about. His own family was once evicted, and this MacArthur “genius” grant winner lived amongst the evicted and writes with the compassion and insight of a talented novelist. He’s also really, really good with data.

My runner-up in this category, a prize-winner published in 2012, is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. You may have seen the play at the National Theatre. The play was good. The book is even better. Like Desmond, Boo lived for months at a time with her subjects, taking great personal risks. She brings us an extraordinary story about a heart-breaking place that many of us may have flown over or driven past, but very few of us have ever really seen.

Comforting Books

If you work for a hospice or mental health charity and you’re trying to help people pick their way through loss and grief – or if you’re struggling yourself – you may take comfort from memoirs by fellow sufferers (as I do). You’ve probably read the lovely H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Two other “grief memoirs” that held me in thrall were The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, and Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.

Both books began as journals written in states of agonizing disorientation. The journals were eventually turned – with the encouragement of friends — into gorgeous memoirs. Warning: they’re not for the faint of heart. Coutts’ book, which won the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize, is about how she and her young son experienced her husband’s early death from a brain tumour. (If you work for a Hospice, it will make you feel good about your job!) Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka. Gradually she brings them back to life, for herself and for us, in a short but intense book that’s a tender portrait of an imaginative, loving family as well as a moment by moment account of devastating loss.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother died (you may have seen the Reese Witherspoon film), would sit right alongside the two books above. If you prefer your comfort sweet and light, however, you might go for Strayed’s 2012 Tiny Beautiful Things. Strayed ran an online advice column for years. Tiny Beautiful Things collects the best from the column. Somewhere in there is a problem you’ve had, or your best friend has had…and her answers may make you smile. With its short chapters and folksy style, it’s also great for the weary or time-starved reader.

Books About Mistakes

Most of us make mistakes, so it can be cheering to read about how and why we get things wrong. At least we’re not alone. The two books I’m recommending here also throw light on our assumptions about fundraising, team work, and good management. They really ought to be on every charity chief executive’s desk. Neither is new this year, but they’re both still fresh and relevant.

The first is by an eloquent American surgeon, Atul Gawande. The Checklist Manifesto, published in 2010, is in part about Gawande’s experience of errors, some of them ghastly (and not his errors, I should add), in the operating theatre. Then it widens out, covering errors in aviation and insights into why we all make mistakes at work, and how we can avoid them.

Runner up in this category would be Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Think you’re good at “sizing people up?” Or predicting who’s going to give to charity? You might think again if you read this Nobel Prize winner’s book. The Guardian published an affectionate interview with him that may tempt you to read on. Kahneman’s book isn’t always an easy read, but it’s fun, provocative, and illuminating.

Nature Books

Did you love Planet Earth? (OK, who didn’t.) Can you also tell a sparrow from a sparrow-hawk? Or do you work for a wildlife trust? Then you might love the recently published The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker.

This brainy young ornithologist has packed his book with great new bird facts. Wandering albatrosses spend almost all their time on the wing above desolate oceans, but they’re also the most faithful of all birds, with a close to zero “divorce” rate. Pigeons smell their way home using their right nostril. The expression “pecking order” means a lot when you’re looking at chickens. Some of you might say – who cares? Others will delight in these bird stories and say – who knew?

Slightly more poetic, and also fresh off the presses, is The Hidden Life of Trees, by German arborist Peter Wohlleben (and very well translated into English). It’s another “who knew” book. Who knew that trees talk to each other? The hard copy is beautifully produced – a perfect gift for the thoughtful trail wanderer, and one I just bought for an environmentalist friend.

Is That It?

That’s it. Well, almost.

People sometimes ask me to recommend a book about fundraising writing. Sixteen years after first publication, Writing for a Good Cause by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich remains my favourite friendly guide, especially for those who have to write trust proposals. It was written for an American audience and has a distinctive American tone, but the suggestions work just as well in the UK. (There’s a great chapter, for example, on what to do when you’re asked to write a major proposal at very short notice.)

Here’s my highest if most reluctant praise: every time I think about turning these blog posts into a handbook, I wonder whether Barbato and Furlich haven’t already said all that there is to say. But of course, there’s always more to say … and more examples and questions from you, the writers who matter so much. So I’ll be back in January 2017, and until then wish you the very best… come what may.

PS: I’ve provided links to author or book websites where I could find them, but not to any commercial portal. All of these books are available in the UK, most of them for very little.












Fighting Words

Language is a loaded gun. If you want to start a word duel (and you can’t bear one more conversation about Brexit or Trump), ask people what they dislike most in other people’s writing.

I asked some charity managers and consultants just that. In case you’re wondering: corporate buzz words like “strategy” (instead of “plan”) and pretentious phrases like “at this point in time” (instead of “now”) cause particular offense. Feelings ran high. “Keynote,” said one woman. “It’s usually used as a pompous excuse for being unable to attend a meeting, as in ‘So sorry – it clashes with a keynote I’m giving’.” She signed off. Then she popped back into my in-box. “And also ‘deliberative’ – I haven’t got a clue what it means. Also ‘cohort’ – how is that different from ‘group’?”

Small wonder we care so much when words are used so recklessly by political leaders – let alone keynote speakers who are too important to come to a meeting. And casual speech, it turns out, upsets people just as much as weaselly writing.

“I hate being called ‘You guys’ when there’s only one of me and I’m not a guy,” said a senior consultant. She came back for a second bite, too. “Oh, and when some idiot – usually selling something – says ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’ e.g. ‘It will be delivered to yourself’.”

Other offenders were “very unique” (if it’s unique you don’t need the very), “passion” or “passionate” (for “anything other than a deep, precious, and rare human emotion”), and “conceptualise” (for think or imagine). I’ll confess to a peeve of my own: people who “reach out” to “share their journeys”. I was recently at a community meeting about the London super sewer where a man jumped up to “share” his “passion” for sewage tunnels and the “journey” he’d been on with them. He might be the world’s greatest expert on sewage tunnels, but he lost me right there.

Who are you staring at?

Well, now we’ve got that off our chests, here’s something I do want to share.

Hatefully bigoted language and name calling are crimes. Let’s assume neither you nor I are criminals. Basic grammar and editing mistakes are mistakes. No big deal. We all make mistakes, and we can learn.

But if you guys go on a very unique and passionate journey from time to time? I’d urge you not to – especially if it’s down a sewage tunnel — but is it such a terrible crime? When we’re tired or frightened, clichés become our crutches. And being made to feel small because we used a cliché, without even realising, won’t help us write better.

I once took a fiction workshop with a famously grumpy novelist who told us never on any account to use the verb to stare – “unless your character wakes up to find a venomous snake on her bed.” He was right. In poorly written novels, characters stare at each other all the time.

I’ve learned a lot from other writers, and I was fond of the grumpy guy – but the only thing he taught me was not to take his workshop again. Scolding novice writers makes them self-conscious, and self-consciousness kills writing quicker than any snake. We need to write without thinking anybody’s looking (or even staring) over our shoulder.

Because let’s get this straight: there is no god of language. No Moses ever came down from a mountain bearing a tablet inscribed with rules about whether or not you can begin a sentence with “because,” “and” or “but” (you can) or end one with a preposition (you can as far as I’m concerned, but now I’m going to hear from my mother). Rules change with time. Last year’s awesome is this year’s cringe.

Muddy waters

There is one sin, though, that you and I have both committed. It’s writing muddy sentences.

Muddy is the enemy of clear. It’s the lazy road to a post-truth world (and just this week, post-truth was named word of the year by the OED). When we’re clear, on the other hand, readers can see straight to the bottom of our thinking and know we’re not hiding anything. They can start to trust us.

Clarity takes more than clicking on “Thesaurus” under “Tools”. We have to sort out what we do think or feel or know. We have to ask tough questions. We have to use more of our amazing brains. It’s hard work, and we’re human, and sometimes we get lazy.

Below is a Muddy Waters Chart (Muddy Waters Chart) that lists some of the most opaque words and phrases that people use in charity proposals and reports. You can play “mix and match” with any of the words in the columns. For example, you could mix and match across the columns to write: “It is clear that resources are impacted by deprived beneficiaries.”

Sounds real, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s made up. It’s what we write when we’re exhausted, or haven’t been given any good data, or have never actually met any of the people we’re writing about.

That’s the kind of muddy post-truth writing we must fight against. Comb through your writing for these tell-tale words. Add your own pet peeve favourites to the chart. Ask yourself what it is you really want to tell somebody. Say it out loud, in the plainest, most friendly words possible. Then write those words down. Now you’re on your way.


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.


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:

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.

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:

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.

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!


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