Framing Emotive Storytelling in Copywriting for Charities… And Why Guilt Can Be a Bad Idea

Copywriting in the direct response arena, for charities, can be a pretty tough endeavour – one that relies especially heavily on obtaining emotional response from readers. People are protective of their hard-earned cash, and when you can’t exactly offer them something tangible in return for it (an exchange which naturally makes direct sales communications marginally easier to write) you have your work cut out for you from the start.

You have to play with emotional buttons, and create relatable stories that truly bring to life the changes that donated money will make – often on an individual, personal level.

So here are a few quick tips on how to do just that.

1. Get out there and drill down into the drama.

Perform case studies on existing beneficiaries of the charity. They’re going to be the protagonists of your stories – facing unavoidable hardship in their lives, and finally overcoming these with the help of your charity. Interview them thoroughly and thoughtfully – start right at the beginning and get every detail you can about how they got to where they are today.

Often, the client may provide you with case studies pre-written… but if you think you’d be better equipped to write a more impactful letter with your own resources, don’t be afraid to ask if you can visit one of their premises or if they can arrange for you to interview a few individuals. As a copywriter, it pays not to be a hermit and to get out there and experience what you’re selling. In fact, it’s essential.

Sometimes, digging into troubled pasts can be upsetting for both you and your subject, naturally, but probe as much as you can and get the details that you need from them. Be considerate and understanding, and always offer to take a little break for a while or chat about something completely different for a few minutes if they appear to be getting overwhelmed.

Be a reassuring figure; make sure that they understand that what they’re doing is getting this off of their chests – not being interrogated. Make sure that they know that you’re talking to them because you want to ensure that others don’t have to go through the same ordeals.

In short: always handle interviews with sensitivity.

Just like when writing a direct response sales package for a product, you need to know your subject inside out in order to mine that potentially missed ‘golden nugget’. Something that would be overlooked in a ‘bigger picture’ view could be the key that cuts straight to the reader’s heart and makes them immediately relate.

Interview a number of people and get their own personal stories. A mix of stories in one letter works wonders in demonstrating that hardship can hit in all walks of life. Keep your assigned reader demographic in mind, however, as too wide a spread on the page can loosen the relationship that your copy hopes to build.

And speaking of relationships…

2. Make sure the protagonist of your story is relatable.

The reader should never think “well, I wouldn’t have done that” or “that was a dumb move” when it comes to the protagonist of your story. You don’t need to go into so much specific detail regarding decisions made, and the outcomes, that the reader begins to question your protagonist’s actions or their lack of a backup plan or safety net.

We all know that life can be unpredictable, and sometimes even the best planning can’t prepare you for utter catastrophe, but still – the reader isn’t necessarily going to consider that when they’re looking for any reason not to hand over money to your organisation.

You are in control of just how much character you reveal in your copy. Make sure it isn’t so much that the people on the page become ‘too’ fully-rounded (and thus questionable) nor so underdeveloped that they are a non-entity to the reader.

Remember that personal failures are generally borne from best intentions; “The Road to Hell… ” as the old saying goes. Make those intentions clear, and how uncontrollable or unexpected outside factors led to the negative outcome along the way. This humanises your protagonist on the page, amplifying.

But at the same time, you also need to be wary of…

3. Apportioning blame.

Again, you need to consider your target demographic here. Perhaps they’re already activists with an inherent distrust of government – then you can sneak in a little jab at government not caring enough. Or maybe unscrupulous bosses who embezzled their companies into the ground, if you’re intending to contact those demographics slogging away in underappreciated corporate job roles.

But for the most part, directly appointing outside blame can come across as mere excuses, and these will be questioned by the reader. As before, don’t give so much detail that the reader decides – rightly or wrongly – that your subject made the wrong decisions and is squarely to blame for where they are.

If things were just uncontrollably off the rails from start to finish, though, then you might like to use as much detail as possible to frame that horrendous ride downwards. But remember, it must be written in such a way that it quite literally feels like an unstoppable descent – from good to bad to worse in the blink of an eye, as your copy carries the reader forward through the horror at breathless pace.

4. Nobody likes to feel guilty.

When writing an emotional appeal such as a direct response piece for charity, in most cases you’re aiming for, not guilt.

As the copywriter, your goal is to make people empathise with your story’s protagonist(s) – to make them understand completely how things went so wrong, and push the buttons that make them want to help.

The moment you introduce an overt element of guilt – for example comparing your reader’s more comfortable lifestyle with that of your beneficiaries – you lose them.

In many cases, you won’t get the ‘guilt’ response that you’re seeking – an admittance or personal revelation that leads to the motivation to ‘set things right’.

What you’ll receive instead is a naturally defensive and angry reaction, where the reader’s psychology switches from focus on your story, to focus on themselves – and the fact that they’re getting nothing out of sending you money that they’ve undoubtedly worked hard for.

All of a sudden, you’ve accused them of being wrong in some way just by getting by in life as they have – and you’ve just undermined everything that your letter is aiming to do.

And that’s especially true in these modern times of austerity, where the “every penny counts” mindset is being driven in hard.

Trying to drive hard guilt is often an own goal, and even pressing lightly at that particular red button can blow up in your face. Do it at your peril.

(As somewhat of a caveat, however, older demographics appear to be more receptive of plays on guilt than younger generations.)

As you can see from just those few short points, it isn’t quite as easy a task to write an effective charity or general fundraising letter as you may think – there’s quite a hefty balancing act to be played.

You need to bring in the various emotional factors of your real-life stories, and then chip away at each so that they fit together just so. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle… and just one piece at the wrong size will stop the whole thing from successfully coming together for the swathes of readers who aren’t quite ready to push themselves to go ahead with it.

And that’s not even mentioning the use of effective storytelling methods to actually bring these emotions to life as action. Once you have your stories, and know what emotions you’re going to play with, you’ll need the skills to bring it to life on the page.

Make the reader feel the cold when you talk of the shivering homeless on the streets during winter (and not by including a little fan in the package that they can point at their face while they read).

Make them recall the sensation of heavy rain on their skin, the dull throb of hunger or the draining mental listlessness that accompanies desperation.

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of words to do, which is good if you’re dealing with a restricted word count.

You don’t have to write a novel. But you do need to bring your stories to life with a combination of description and emotion. And you can even play with perspective to quite literally put the reader in the shoes of someone else.

Once you know exactly who you’re talking to, it’s time to start pushing those buttons – and people relate to nothing better on an emotional level than a well-written story. This relation gets reaction – in living rooms, on buses and in multiplexes across the world every single day.

So are you telling stories with your copy?

If not… why not?


About the author: Gareth Jones


Gareth Jones is a freelance copywriter, proofreader and journalist based in Nottingham, UK. With close to a decade of experience writing content and copy within the film industry, he also specialises in direct marketing and consumer/corporate case studies, connecting business messages to their target audience, increasing response and driving revenue.

My blog and main site.

This article was first published by Gareth Jones