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Creative Masterclass

By Herschell Gordon Lewis - August 1, 2014

“Is a puzzlement.”

Do you remember that line from The King and I? We, who are the targets of nonprofit communications, shake our heads (sideways, not vertically) when we get an email whose heading is — as is one that was on my screen until 15 seconds ago — begins, “Successful Meetings — Click here to apply.”

Just about every rhetorical felony in nonprofit communication has to be compounded, doesn’t it? And in an email, it has to be at least doubly noticeable, doesn’t it? So, the recipients aren’t surprised, nor reactive, at this point in the short maturation period of email as a major (the major?) medium of force-communication, to encounter the heavy type that’s supposed to goad us into “applying”: “Reach your peak. Colorado’s Premiere Event!” As set in the email, that line was all caps, bold-faced, of course.


A question from left field

Who is the evil self-proclaimed genius who proclaimed from the soft chair atop Mount Olympus, “Stick an exclamation point at the end of any statement and you’ll gain impact as the statement itself instantly achieves importance?”

Hey, Buddy, that soft chair has a hole in its middle, because we’re no longer first-graders who haven’t yet become cynical enough to question every claim of importance and reject exclamation points as simple surrogates for periods. This outworn procedure, aimed at professional communicators and not at the standard stay-at-homes, is advertising agency copy, substituting cheerleading for recognizable performance. The negative reaction is simple deployment of our own standard defense mechanism — demand for justification.

The email has as a key selling point: “Earn CMP Credit.” You already know how low down-the-nose words such as “learn” and “earn” fit at the base of the convincing-scale. And once again, it’s not unsurprising to encounter a huge “Click here to apply” — all caps.

Whether it’s Colorado or Coldwater Creek, we aren’t pre-schoolers any more. We accept email as today’s primary communications weapon. And for that very reason, we reject suitors who load their “Let’s fall in love” emails with blanks. During email’s formative stages, spelling the word “email” or “e-mail” was an option. Sometimes, within a single message, it would be spelled both ways.


Two little words

An ancient joke has a discarded lover sneaking up on her former partner, who has made off with the couple’s savings. “Darling,” she says from behind his back, “I have those three little words for you.”

“Tell me, tell me,” he says breathlessly, anticipating “I love you.”

“OK, here they are: You’re under arrest.”

For those in the half-world of force-communication, two words will do. It’s easy, so easy, to never use them again: “Dear Friend.”

“Dear Friend” is a greetings crutch that itself is crippled. A weed fronting our rhetorical garden, it hasn’t deserved longevity. Yet here it is, starting with a sputter an otherwise potent email appeal.

The message lurches into gear: “People like you and me are getting pushed to the sidelines in our own democracy as special interests buy access to the halls of power with big contributions to politicians in what has become ‘the permanent campaign’ for office.” Aw, come on. Aside from the ungodly length of that as a first sentence, what’s with “People like you and me are…?” Why not use the direct and involving “You and I are…”? Oh, well, we’re here as critics, not rewriters.

The third paragraph, which actually starts the pitch, is a single sentence loaded with power: “Wall Street’s casino capitalism wrecked our economy.” (“Casino capitalism” contributes to this month’s puzzlement, but as agreed, we’re critics here, not rewriters.)

The point, before we too lose impetus: to the growing stack of creative suggestions for the fundraising writer searching for intensity, add this one: For the rest of your life, plus six months, don’t waste the greeting of a sales letter with “Dear Friend.”

And just what might we have as replacements? Good question. Watch this space.

Today, “email” has captured the flag.


Ready! Fire! Aim!

If you missed the reverse sequence in that subhead, a suggestion: Run, don’t walk, to the nearest Walmart to ask if they have an opening for a trainee in their shipping carton-opening department.

If you wander through the web, looking at fundraising offers, better hurry, because you’ll have a lot of competition. A not-particularly-exceptional example is yours when you click on an incentive line worded “Nonprofit Fundraising – Long-term fundraising success.” Before you even guess at an answer, nod your head (vertically, not horizontally) at this maxim that applies to every force-communications message: Fire your biggest gun first.

How easy, how universal, how logical in an era of boundless courting by suppliers we never had heard of! And yes, that exclamation point is justified. NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fund raising techniques. His most recent book is his 32nd — “Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics.” Among his other books are “On the Art of Writing Copy,” (fourth edition), “Creative Rules for the 21st Century,” and “How to Write Powerful Fund Raising Letters.” Web site is


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