Avoiding the wonk

June 12, 2009 at 5:52 pm 1 comment

This morning, I read a good piece on Care2’s “Frogloop” blog about engaging new online activists and came across one of the best phrases I’ve heard in awhile:

“Avoid the wonk.”

A lot of organizations that “get” online communications are keeping this in mind. Some recent examples from my inbox:

“Improving women’s health is fundamental to improving our nation’s health care system — and that means that Planned Parenthood must be an essential part of health care reform.” – Planned Parenthood, tying their organization’s mission into the health care debate with one sentence

“Your generosity today enables Greenpeace to take on in-depth and global research that ties the Brazilian cattle industry to huge multinational corporations. More than that, it allows Greenpeace to take action against corporations and the governments that shield them and to show them that we will expose and hold them accountable.” – Greenpeace explains why a donation matters

“By deploying a fisheries management program called “catch shares,” we can make fish more abundant and fisheries more profitable — for generations to come.” – Care2 summarizes scientific studies

“If King Coal lobbyists get their way, communities close to these toxic coal ash sites will be left vulnerable to arsenic, mercury, selenium, and other coal toxins, and they will continue to face a very high, 1 in 50, risk of cancer.” – The Sierra Club details the dangers of toxic coal ash

Of course, saying you’re going to avoid the wonk and actually doing it are two very different things.

First, let’s face it, it’s hard to boil down a multi-page study or research report into a couple paragraphs or even sentences.

Second, it’s even harder to convince program divisions that potential donors and activists don’t care to read all those nuanced terms, scenarios and statistics. Readers want to know what the problem is, how they can help, and what the organization wants them to do about it, all in a matter of seconds.

The outcome of succumbing to these obstacles can yield unsatisfactory results – something to which I can personally attest. (My organization once sent out an email almost two typed pages in length, and believe it or not, this was an improvement to previous drafts).

I’ve developed some strategies that help myself – the writer – avoid the wonk, and help the people that love the wonk – the program divisions – avoid it as well:

– Speaking the draft aloud: Maybe it’s because I’m lazy, or maybe it’s because I can articulate things better aloud sometimes, but when faced with a complex issue, speaking the draft first before writing it can work wonders

– Writing a draft, then chopping off the first paragraph: One of my organization’s direct mail consultants gave me this valuable advice acquired from years of copywriting experience, based on the belief that one’s strongest writing comes several sentences in.

– Split testing and data: A token math-hater throughout all of high school and college, I never thought I’d find myself professing my love of data. But I’ve come to learn just how valuable it can be. Disagreeing with program groups on the effectiveness of wonky copy? Split the list and send out a wonky version and a non-wonky version. See which one does better. Present the results and voila. Better than a best practice doctrine written by someone else, you have your very own data proving your point!

– Deleting every potentially wonky word or statement: Sometimes, starting out with a bunch of rules and regulations for your writing can actually prevent you from writing a single word, simply because you’re so worried about following the guidelines. Instead, write a draft and make it as wonky as you want. Then go through with a highlighter and mark up each phrase that contains wonky wording, and each potentially confusing word. This way, you already have a concept down on paper.

Do you have any tips for avoiding the wonk? Or perhaps any examples of how organizations have succeeded or failed at doing so? Share them here!

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Entry filed under: Advocacy, Non-profit technology.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Charles  |  June 16, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    My organization sends short, easy to understand emails that follow this advice.

    However, I think that the absence of real information, insider baseball, or a sense that action A leads directly and inexorably to result B means that the most sophisticated part of our list has learned to ignore our alerts.

    They know that emails don’t have an impact. They know that our funding isn’t really from small donors. They know that it’s all a big list building effort.

    And the thing is, the people who would have that reaction are precisely the people I want to engage online. Faced with a real opportunity to make a difference, I think they are the ones who can get shit done.

    Reply

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