— by Clayton Thomas
12 STEPS TO CAPTURING THE VOICE OF A SIGNATORY IN A FUNDRAISING LETTER
Writing for someone else is a tricky job. How do you ensure that you capture the information you need, while being true to the tone of voice and attitude of the letter’s signatory?
Whether you are writing from the point of view of a CEO, a beneficiary or a fundraising manager, there are some basic rules which will help you maintain authenticity without compromising your needs as a fundraiser.
A great interview can create the emotional hook, the personal insight and the key language for an incredibly effective appeal. Let’s do it right!
1. Do the interview yourself
If there is any chance to directly interview the person you are writing for, take it. They may be a busy CEO, or a scientist, but if you can find 10 minutes it’s worth it. (An hour is better.)
When you get to experience the emotion, or the drive, of a story first-hand you can more easily capture the intention and authentic voice of the signatory during rewriting and editing.
2. Get to know your signatory
Find out as much as you can about the signatory. How long have they been involved in the particular charity or organisation? How did they become involved? And most importantly why? The personal motivations of a signatory are the sticky points – the points of empathy which will connect with your supporter.
Depending on the nature of the ask, these can be deeply personal, for example: “My father died of cancer when I was still in school. That was the single biggest motivation for me to work in cancer research.”
Or simply a point of universal connection: “I love reading. For as long as I can remember, books were my best friends. I want to make sure that every child in Australia has the chance to share that same joy.”
3. Plan your questions
As the ‘ghost-writer’, you have a responsibility to not only capture the story, but to shape it to the objectives of your communication. To ensure you maintain the voice of your signatory through the twists and turns of a fundraising letter, you will have to lead the witness.
Depending on the nature of the story you are capturing, and how comfortable the signatory is being interviewed, sensitivity and clarity are in order.
There is a big difference between interviewing the mother of a child who is battling cancer, and a CEO raising money for her or his organisation. However, in all cases, you need to know what the emotional and factual hooks of the story are, so you can shape the conversation for the best outcomes of your piece.
4. Let them speak
It’s important to remember that you aren’t the one on show. As much as you may want to put words into the interviewee’s mouth, hold tight. Patience will give you better results.
If the signatory isn’t used to being interviewed, let them speak until a natural pause in the conversation comes. It’s your job to keep the interview focused, but not rigid.
5. Be flexible
You also need to be flexible with the interview – a good interviewer should be able to move with the answers, and not stick stubbornly to the questions. You don’t want to break the flow of the conversation and put pressure on the interviewee.
6. Do your research
If you are interviewing a researcher, scientist or field-worker, send questions to the interviewee beforehand so they can be prepared with factual answers. It is also important that when working in this area, that you also do your research.
You represent the audience – so you aren’t necessarily expected to be an expert in PhD level science, for example, but if you are to lead the conversation, you need to be familiar with the key points before you set out the interview.
Again, that’s where writing your list of 20 or more questions before the interview aids the process.
7. Create intimacy
However, If you are interviewing family members, or public persons affected by a particular disease or other circumstance, in my experience, it is best to guide the conversation, and not overwhelm the signatory with questions before the interview.
Explain why you are talking to them, give them some context for the letter or article before you begin the interview. If you have any personal connection to the story – if you are a parent yourself, for example, share that information.
You want to build as personal and warm a connection as possible. In the end, when the interviewee sounds relaxed and is forthcoming, their words translate to the page more effectively. That makes your work, during rewriting and editing much easier.
A good fundraising letter feels personal. It is a one-to-one experience filled with personal insights and intimate motivations.
8. Find out how they would ask for support
Writing ‘Asks’ in letters is one of the hardest things to keep authentic. Here is the business end. To stop your ‘Asks’ from breaking the flow of a letter, invite the signatory to express their own reasons for needing support. I always ask this simple question to aid in this; “If I was a potential donor, how would you ask me for support?”
9. Edit with your ear
If you have been able to interview the signatory yourself, and have enjoyed an informative, emotive and empowering interview, you are off to a perfect start! You have the signatory’s voice in your ear. Reading back the transcript will remind you of the feeling being conveyed. You will read back each insight with the weight of intention – in many ways, this is aural memory and it is your best guide as you construct your piece.
The way we speak and the way we write are often very different. In conversation we “um” and “ahh”, we repeat ourselves and take long pauses for effect. We end sentences with “you know?” and “see what I mean?” and “ummmmmmmm”— none of which should ever make it into your signatory’s letter or article.
Yet, even as you’re taking out these distractions, keep the sound of your signatory in your ear. No matter how much you need to rewrite, recontextualise, or simply create for the purposes of your communication, you should always be able to hear their voice.
How do we do that?
10. Shape the interview
Before you start your writing, go through the full interview with a highlighter and map out the strong ‘long’ sections – where the interviewee has gone into detail, and clearly articulated themselves. These sections will be the foundations of your letter or article.
Then, you want to capture the idiosyncrasies of the interviewee – just enough to keep their voice on the page. How do they start new thoughts? Are there any small sticky details that catch your ear? Though insignificant to the story, these details will keep the piece feeling real, intimate and personal.
So now – whether on paper, or in a separate file open on your desktop – you have the most valuable sections of your transcript easily accessible.
11. Map out your structure
- Introduction of subject
- Case for support
- Role of supporter
- Supporting facts, details, case-study insights
- Plans for the future
- Personal thanks
Once you have a basic structure, reread your interview and reference the highlighted content to match this plan.
12. Put fundraising first (but don’t lose the signatory’s tone of voice)
Depending on the success of the interview and the clarity of the interviewee, this can be a simple, or incredibly time-consuming process. With good preparation and clear intention, you will have all the content you need to create the strongest possible fundraising piece.