Let me start this month’s tip with a little story…

A month or so ago, a hospital foundation hired us to do a review of some of their written materials. I was assigned the job, so one afternoon I plunked myself down at a Starbucks and started to skim through their annual report, a donor newsletter and a couple of direct mail packages.

Then it happened…

I came across a few simple words that made me spit coffee onto my laptop keyboard.

Those words were ‘enhanced patient care’.

Enhanced patient care? ENHANCED? What the heck does that mean?

To me, the word enhanced means ‘a little, tiny bit better’. So why would a hospital (or anyone for that matter) boast about enhancing anything?

Have you ever told your partner that you thought your sex life needed enhancement? Have you ever asked your kid to enhance his marks on his next report card? Or to enhance the mess on the floor of his bedroom? Have you ever told your boss that you intend to enhance your job performance?

Of course not!

Why do we insist on doing this? Saying things to our donors that mean next to nothing? And equally as bad, why do we say things that just plain sound like jargon?

I think it’s largely a matter of confidence. We sit down to write something on behalf of our institution and somewhere in our heads, a voice tells us to sound different than we really are. To sound institutional. To sound ‘professional’. To write it in such a way that your boss or your donor will think you graduated from university with a communications degree.

Don’t listen to that voice!

Why not try something different? Why not say what you mean – and mean what you say?

Why don’t you say that you’re taking much better care of people because donors care enough to give? Doesn’t that sound better? Doesn’t it sound more human? Doesn’t it sound real?

Social service agencies don’t ‘break the cycle of poverty’ – they help poor people not to be poor. International development agencies don’t ‘empower indigenous NGOs’ – they help people help themselves. Environmental agencies don’t ‘green the planet’ – they save forests from bulldozers. Women’s crisis centres don’t ‘end the violence’ – they give frightened woman a safe place to sleep.

Okay, maybe I’m overstating it. But, I hope you get my point.

Here’s a bit of neurology for you. The human brain hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. It has a limited ability to receive information – and there is way more information pumped at us than we can possibly absorb.

So what do we do?

We absorb some of it. But, we reject most of it. And, what do we reject? We reject the stuff that doesn’t instantly appeal to us. Fluffy, meaningless words don’t instantly appeal – so they don’t get read or listened to.

Your donor has somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 messages (including yours) flying at her brain today. If you want any chance at all of penetrating your donor’s mental defensive screen you’d better be clear, crisp and meaningful.

This month’s tip is a simple checklist you can use the next time your write something you want your donors to read:

1.       Do I really talk like this?
2.       Is this the simplest way I can say it?
3.       Can I say this with fewer or shorter words? (Or both?)
4.       Does what I’ve just written sound like me? Or does it sound like I think an ad agency sounds?

It’s not rocket science folks. But, it’s incredibly important. Say it simple. Say it real. Say it like you want it said to you.

This article originally appeared here in the Hilborn eNews (formerly Canadian Fundraising & Philanthropy eNews)