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Verbal identity and copywriting

What you say is important and how you say it is critical. And if you’re a support organisation or larger not-for-profit, the words you choose can drastically improve outsiders’ engagement with your brand.

At the very heart of this issue is one simple fact: People do not want to feel they are communicating with a faceless organisation. They want to communicate with a human being.

It’s amazing how many people write in a style and language completely divorced from their everyday language. How many times have you used words like ‘hitherto’, ‘monies’ or ‘kind regards’ in conversations? Yet we see them in written communications all the time.

Ultimately, words send out signals – and very subtle changes can make an enormous difference to how people receive your brand.


The Samaritans embraced this thinking when it found it was failing to reach the people most at risk of suicide - younger men. It also wanted to break down some of the taboos that surround suicide and depression. So Samaritans reinvented itself from 'suicide helpline' to 'emotional health charity' and updated its brand around the idea that people are 'stronger together'.

But of course words don’t exist in isolation. Creating entire messages and brand propositions is what you should really be aiming for. This can be particularly tricky when you’re selling a service – like most support organisations.

Services are by their definition somewhat intangible. So the key is to package your service as a product, which is not as difficult as it sounds.

Oxfam have become the masters of this principle in recent years. For many years their message had been variations on a theme: “Donate money to help starving people.” Then they hit upon the idea of encouraging people to buy a goat for Christmas. Instead of giving money in a very unfocused way to a good cause, donors felt a strong sense of purpose, satisfaction – and ultimately, ownership.

Do it yourself?

Clear communication, solid writing and good storytelling  is not an art form. It’s a skill  that can be learned and honed. Here are some golden rules to get you started:

The golden rule of copywriting

Talk to your audience, in the language of your audience about the things that matter to your audience. Clear writing is the product of clear thinking, and that process starts by thinking about what your audience really want from you.

Active not passive

Do you like being addressed in the first person rather than talked at in a generic and impersonal way? We thought so!

Be specific, not vague

Active not the passive, isn’t just about addressing the audience directly, it’s about being empathetic and benefit-led. For example “Give money and help children in need” is an active phrase, but “Give us £5 and send a child to school this month” is a compelling one, that will make the reader act.

AIDA still rules

The traditional copywriter’s mantra of "Attention, Information, Desire, Action" is still relevant today. As brands become more sophisticated and complicated, it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that brands exist for one reason: to increase sales. In other words, writing “on brand” needs to be about conversion as much as audience experience.

Plain English is important

Almost every organisation has its own jargon, acronyms and language. Using this kind of shorthand is only natural, but avoid confusing audiences with it wherever possible.

Don't make assumptions

It’s always better to tell the audience something they already knew than to assume they know something they don’t. Simple propositions that are easy to understand are easy to buy into.

Sometimes, plain English is not enough

Granted, words do send signals and if the signals you send are the same as everyone else’s out there, how will you ever get your voice heard above others who are also using “plain English”?

Emphasise everything and you emphasise nothing

It’s a common mistake that many organisations make, and it seriously dilutes their message. Instead, be brave, identify the “important audience” and write for them.

Clever isn’t always better

Let’s say we’re promoting a support group for those with gallstones removed. It’s tempting to reel off a witty line like Welcome to the Stone Age. However, if you’re unlucky enough to suffer from gallstones the chances are, you just want to know – as simply as possible – what help is available.