Friday, April 1, 2011

Persuasion in Three Questions - A Closer Look

As you know, this is a blog about social media and writing for small nonprofits. Right now we're taking a look at writing. 

Last week we talked about persuasive writing and how to improve both flow and persuasiveness by keeping in mind three goals:
  • How the writing helps the reader understand the situation/problem
  • How the writing helps the reader believe in the action we’re proposing
  • How the writing asks the reader to take the action
Or, as Ross Guberman (see the previous post) asks, “What three things do I want the reader to do, believe, or understand by the end of this letter or document?”

For our example, I’ll be using an email I received this week from Care2Causes and I want to make it clear that my picking it apart should in no way be taken as a criticism. 

Note that from the beginning, the headers makes it clear what the letter is and where it comes from: next to the Care2 logo is “petitionsite” and at the far right “action ALERT”.

Communicating the Problem

Right away we can see that they’ve used a combination of a picture with two strong captions and a first paragraph that provides more detail. From the caption above the picture of the little boy with an inhaler we get that “Polluters” are “Watering Down Our Clean Air Laws”. From the caption below the picture we understand that we need to “Take Action!” In the first paragraph of the letter we learn that the “big polluters […] clearly have no regard for public health” because they want to “water down the Environmental Protection Agency in the name of profits.”

What Action Is Being Proposed

The next paragraph serves three functions. Besides telling us that the way the EPA will be “watered down” is that the standards for clean air and water will be lowered, we are also asked to add our voices to the “stop pollution campaign” which will be communicating with President Obama on the issue. This paragraph is also a link, so that if we are already inclined to take an action, we are invited to do so without having to look for an opportunity.

The paragraphs serves these three functions:
  • Makes a good transition from the problem to the proposed solution
  • Makes a transition from the proposed solution to the call for action
  • Makes it possible for the reader to take action immediately if so inclined
Note that the captions above and below the picture do the same thing as the first three paragraphs. If you wanted to, you could look at the picture, understand the problem as Care2 is presenting it and take action without ever reading the body of the letter.
Believe in the Proposed Action

If, as a reader, you are not yet sold on the proposed action of signing the petition, the next paragraph tells you that your name will be one of 100,000 signatures that will be presented by the “Sierra Club and their partners” to the President. The Sierra Club is a well-known environmental organization, so the reader knows this is not a shoestring operation and “partners” implies there are other environmental groups involved. That your name will be one of 100,000 makes it clear that a goal has been set and that it is not a small one. In other words, your name will be in good company and it will have the strength of numbers behind it.

The paragraph following this underscores the benefit that a strong EPA provides: stricter regulations have reduced illness and the costs associated with them. The numbers of asthma attacks avoided and healthcare costs saved in one particular year provides both additional support for the proposed action and the kind of data that appeals to those who want to know specifically how their participation can help the situation.

Take the Action

The last four paragraphs are all about encouraging us to take the action. It would be a “disgrace” for the “polluters to win” which is an emotional appeal to punish those who would put people’s health at risk for the sake of money and emphasizes that the action is “critical” and that it involves our “health.”

The sign-off with a picture puts a human face to the organization asking us to take the action. We are thanked for doing so, though we may not have yet clicked on the link. If we get all the way to the bottom of the letter, we are presented with another link to the petition, but this one looks like a web address. This is for those who may not be quite web-savvy and need to see an address link that looks like a link instead of blue underlined text.

One of the things I really like about this letter is the way the Facebook and Email links are positioned underneath the “Take Action” button on the bottom of the picture. Everything in the e-letter is distilled into this one rectangle –
  • The problem (told through text, story of a little boy who can’t breathe well because of pollution)
  • An action to take
  • Further action to take – tell your friends and family to take the action, too.
It Does the Job Well

This letter uses punchy writing, statistics, a story and has visual appeal. It does all three things that it should do:
  • Explain the problem
  • Propose a solution
  • Ask you to support the solution
And it has an emphasis on action and sharing.

The design makes it easy to skip reading the letter and still understand what we are being asked to do. It’s clean, it’s short and it’s easily understood.

Do your communications measure up? Do you think this is a good example of a call to action or not? What does it say to you about the Care2 petition site? What, if anything, would you change?

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