Power to the pronoun

Most of us think of pronouns like “I” and “we” as mere function words in copy. We use them to start a sentence or move it along to get to the good, meaty words that are marbled with meaning.

But research shows that simple pronouns say a lot more than we think.

For example, in both speaking and writing, higher-status people don’t use the personal pronoun “I” very much. This contradicts the stereotype of the captain of the boardroom constantly exclaiming “I, I, I” and “Me, me, me.” In fact, higher-status people use “I” far less, while lower-status people use “I” far more.

This is the case, as the researchers theorized, because the lower-status people are focusing more on themselves. They say “I” more often because they’re more self-conscious and aware of how they’re seeming to the higher-status person.

On the other hand, leaders and other higher-status people tend to use the plural pronoun “we” much more than their followers. That’s because leaders are more “other-focused.” Their attention isn’t on themselves but on the group, the goal, and the big-picture externalities.

What does this mean for fundraising? The copy in an appeal can convey a whole range of emotion from outrage to benevolence to fear to hope. Along with that, we’re always aware when writing copy that our appeals are essentially a dialogue between writer and reader. And during that dialogue, the focus shifts from writer to reader and back again, as in any conversation.

So, based on this research, using “I” in copy can be an effective way to put the donor in a position of higher status, to display more thoughtfulness or self-awareness on the part of the writer, or to show vulnerability, as when reacting to an instance of human suffering, for example. “I slumped in my chair when I learned Miriam had TB.”

And, “we” can be used to show that the focus is outer-directed, to convey the need for teamwork, or to suggest that the writer is taking charge and demonstrating leadership — “We need to end poverty now!” One caution here. In marketing and fundraising copy, readers might assume that “we” is being used in the organizational sense — that the organization is the “we” that’s talking. It’s important to make it clear from the context that the “we” refers to writer and donor together, marching toward a goal.

Admittedly, these are subtle points. But as anyone who’s ever sweated over the right verb or poured over test results knows, it’s the subtleties that can add up to big differences in response.

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