How to dim your message, deflect your readers & deflate your impact

Late-winter rant # 1

It’s official – I’m a grump.

But I had help achieving this status – a parade of slip-ups in donor communications.  These missteps result either from laziness or organizational myopia, and have me hoping some charities I support will make a bit more effort when communicating with me.

Laziness that shows no concern for craft or the results is as off-putting as cat litter. In addition to typos, misspellings, and incorrect grammar, I often see content – writing, headlines, photos and presentation – that reflects little effort, and mindlessly repeats past patterns.

An annual report I read recently profiles nine programs and 11 service locations. Of the 20 brief descriptions, 16 begin with the words “This program” or “This location.” And I won’t list examples of typos, errors in spelling, missing words and grammatical goofs.

Lazy photos also beg to be ignored. Dull, low-resolution, fuzzy images ​are produced on the fly, often with cell phones on settings that drain resolution and strip detail. (Cellphone photos are perfectly fine if good technique is followed, which is to say, if we try.)  I won’t dwell on photos of people lined up in a row looking at the camera. Dull, dull, dull.

We have to earn that audience, every time. 
Photo © Larry Matthews/KMA Consultants

Meanwhile, lots of material crosses my desk and monitor that I cannot understand without insider knowledge.

Photos are offered with no explanations or context. People are cited as authorities but with no indication as to why. Unexplained and impenetrable acronyms throw up roadblocks to the reader. Gushing reports of the great time people had at at donor appreciation dinner to which most were not invited tell people they're not among the appreciated.

These and other forms of organizational myopia reflect our inability to see ourselves as others see us or to even imagine that what we are producing is not riveting.   

Then there is the apparent conviction that the senior leader is fascinating simply because of her or his position. Consider a newsletter published by an educational institution. The document was folded in a way that allowed an interesting cover photo, but unfolded to an internal ‘front page’ consisting of a full letter-size sheet with a restatement of the mission statement (that I have seen many times) and a headline that said “President’s message.”

No illustration of any kind breaks up the text, and the layout provides no other hook for the reader. Instead of drawing people in, the treatment invites virtually shouts “Nothing to see here” and invites readers to keep moving.

Why do we believe that the status of the person attached to the article is automatically compelling? Using “President’s Message” or “From the President (or CEO)” as the main headline is a wasted opportunity. Instead, use the headline to suggest to the reader why this material might matter. Why choose a content-free headline that at best serves as a placeholder? When I see "President's Messsage," I think that the writer/ editor has either given up, or doesn't know how to critique their work.

Grumpy, yes, I know. Most days, you could not find anyone more sympathetic than I am to the pressures of deadlines and lack of human and financial resources. Every shortcut or misstep I can name is one I have committed more than once. But we must set some threshold of minimal effort and try to meet it.

If thinking about what our donors need and deserve doesn’t motivate us, how about asking ourselves what donors reward? We must at least try to command a hearing, because in our market, a thousand voices compete for our donors’ time and attention.

Larry Matthews

Next: Manufactured urgency