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Writing for audiences in sensitive situations

As you write your appeal letters, grant narrative or marketing copy, you might be wondering how to properly tell your story for audiences in sensitive situations. Questions like these become very important: When is it appropriate to use real photos instead of stock photography? Can I tell a real person’s story? How can I communicate what my clients, patients, etc. really go through without taking advantage of them?

When you are writing about topics of sensitivity for the people you serve, there are things you have to keep in mind. Here is a list below of how to be respectful and thoughtful of the people you serve, while still communicating your message.

Get permission.

First and foremost, and I can’t stress this enough – always get permission to use a person’s story or photo, even if you aren’t using their name. Always. Be clear about what the story will be used for, where it might be seen, if you are going to use their photo, if they are going to be named, etc. Having approval will not only allow you to create the content and narrative you need, but it may even help you to understand the people you are serving more and help you be even more compelling in your ask or materials. On the flip side, not seeking approval can mean problems for you and your organization and may negatively affect your nonprofit’s reputation.

Be respectful.

Whether it’s a child, adult, dog or hamster, be respectful of their situation and tell their story as honestly as you can. Do not use their story as a sad tale of woe, but instead talk about how your organization made a difference or what would have happened if your organization wasn’t able to help. You aren’t trying to shame anyone; therefore, don’t use someone’s situation for your gain and do not shame donors into supporting you.

Use appropriate language.

When writing about your constituencies, it’s important to use correct terminology. Internally, you may use jargon or heavy medical terms. When speaking to the public, use words they would understand. However, do not use any typical words that might be considered offensive. You want your donors to understand who or what you are talking about, but there is no reason to use slang or anything considered derogatory.

Be honest.

The whole reason you are writing is to move someone to take action, so tell them the truth. The general public can see through attempts at using a photo or story to garner sympathy. Tell your story in a positive way, but don’t shy away from the scary parts. I think, with the age of social media, we are so used to seeing only the shiny days that we forget everyone has dark days, too. There are children going through chemotherapy who have lost their hair, animals who have been abused and families living in their cars in our community. Don’t shy away from telling that story. These are the audiences you benefit – show what you do to help them.

Stick to the facts.

Tell your story – period. There is no need to embellish, pass blame or throw other organizations, people or the government under the proverbial bus. You don’t have to be specific about diagnoses, timelines or other issues, but don’t add items to their story that aren’t true just to make it a better story or combine multiple people’s stories to make one  great story.

Use real photos.

An actual photo of a real person from your community will always be better than a stock photo. Stock photos are cold, generic and usually pretty easy to spot. In this case, unless it is for a social campaign, selfies are not acceptable. We always recommend using a professional photographer, but if you can’t, try to at least take control of the environment. Check the background for coffee cups, use appropriate lighting and let your subject shine as they are.

Make a plan B.

It doesn’t happen a lot, but its possible that the subject of your story might have to be removed from your messaging. If this happens, act quickly and completely. Remove them from your social media platforms (note: do not forget to check for any scheduled posts), take them off your website, take down billboards, etc. Mark the story and all the collateral pieces as DO NOT USE and move on. If you feel like you need to send something to your constituents about the situation, be honest.

Using actual, personal stories can be impactful and engaging, but it does have its series of challenges. Think through what you want to convey, find someone who has a compelling story they are willing to share and tell their story well.

Ultimately, by taking these steps, you will be making an impact on the audiences you serve – and that should be considered a success.


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