The Word by Sonder and Tell. Writing Worth Reading
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At Sonder & Tell, we know that emotive language is key to communicating persuasively. It makes stories stick and inspires readers to take action. And it’s the kind of language that reigns supreme in the non-profit sector. Because tugging on the heartstrings is the best way to spur support and spread the word, right?

Not so. It’s a question we’ve been exploring within our team at Sonder & Tell, as we’re building out actionable tone of voice documents for NGOs. The reality is that overly emotive marketing, and more specifically ‘sadvertising’ – a term relating to advertising that conjures feelings of sadness to rouse public support – isn’t as effective as it used to be.

To compel people to take action through this marketing tactic is a dangerous game to play, especially when it comes to nonprofits. Not just because overexposure to negative emotion comes with the risk of desensitising or overwhelming the reader, but also because there’s a danger of sensationalising suffering, where those who the charity exists to serve are patronised, victimised or dehumanised. And in turn, those who support the charity are positioned as saviours – which opens up another host of problems. 

We’re not saying getting emotional is bad. All good stories leverage emotive language. But it’s important to take caution and assess if the feelings you’re evoking make sense for your organisation and your audience. An alternative to getting hung up on stirring emotions is to instead focus on a verb that represents the action you want your audience to take or feel long term. Like rallying. Or empowering. Or advocating. Because sad might sell temporarily, but real support comes from a less reactionary place.

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“Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone's logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.”

― Maria Konnikova, author
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CoppaFeel! It's a breast-cancer-awareness charity with a name that's playful, direct and tells us exactly what to do: CoppaFeel! (of our chests). We caught up with its Head of Marketing, Sinéad Molloy, about why it was important for the brand to use light-hearted language to spread its message and how CoppaFeel! frames its core message as the "radical act of getting to know [your] body" rather than inciting fear. She talks us through the three key ingredients of an impactful campaign, navigating media backlash against female bodies and the organisations shifting the perception that nonprofits need to make us feel sad to appeal to the public.
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Mobilising people around a cause is effective when the messaging feels relatable and motivates us to be proactive, rather than keeping us wallowing in our feelings for too long. This is exactly what Pregnant Then Screwed does. It's a charity determined to make sure that women no longer have to be punished for being a mother, whether that’s making sure that women aren’t ‘judged for the contents of their womb, or the hours they work, or the fact that they have porridge in their hair and smell of Sudocrem’, or whether it's to make sure that women are no longer fired for simply being pregnant. The nonprofit doesn't dress down or dress up what it’s fighting for, keeping comms clear and action-oriented to propel change.
Pick a nonprofit organisation with comms that primarily leverage negative emotive language. How would you change the messaging so that it plays on more uplifting emotions?

Hit reply to submit your prompt
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