What Anne Frank taught me about charity writing

Anne Frank made me want to become a writer.

I read her diary when I was 11. “Will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much,” she wrote. Her moving, clever diary fuelled my similar ambitions. I dreamed of millions reading my work just like she did.

Anne-Frank-April-1941-006

Anne Frank, April 1941

Last month, Anne inspired me again. This time, she made me think deeply about how to improve my charity storytelling.

I visited the flat in Amsterdam where she hid. For days afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The photos of Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers Anne had plastered all over her bedroom. The pencil lines on the wall marking how she had grown from a little girl to a tall woman during her two years in hiding. The bookcase blocking the secret entrance she was dragged through the day the Gestapo found her, heaving with tattered 70-year-old ring binders.

The visit immersed me in Anne’s experience. Standing in her bedroom, I felt a profound connection with her. And an intense desire that we must never let something as terrible as the Holocaust happen again.

So how does that relate to charity writing? Well, it made me consider how I can immerse people in the charity case studies and features I write. So they think about what I’ve written for days afterwards. So they feel that deep connection with the person and cause I’m writing about – and a deep desire to take action and give support. That’s our ultimate goal as charity copywriters, right?

Inspired by my visit to Anne Frank’s house, here are four tips for producing charity writing potential supporters connect deeply with, remember and act upon:

Small details = big impact

I already knew Anne’s story. I already thought it was dreadful. But, for me, what made her come alive, what really drowned me in her world, were the little details. The height chart. The dog-eared, teenage-doodled tartan diary. Then battered old sink she washed in.

You can add a few carefully chosen descriptions of surroundings and the people you’re interviewing into your charity case studies and features to bring sharp images to mind, subtly make a strong point and add life to your writing. These details are known as reportage.

For example, this is from an interview with Kerry Needham, mother of Ben who was abducted as a baby in Greece 20 years ago:

“We sat in her living room where your eye is drawn to a picture of Ben, frozen in time at 21 months old, the gravitational pull at the centre of their lives. Despite her lack of sleep, she looked beautiful – she has a wise, sad stillness that comes to people who have endured and survived.”

Before the interview even begins, the writer has already created sympathy with and interest in Kerry. Reportage is a powerful tool.

Make readers relate

Another thing that made me feel strongly connected to Anne was imagining the pictures of Greta and Ginger could easily be One Direction or the Hunger Games if she were alive today (although I don’t think Anne would ever have been uncool enough to be a belieber). In other words: I could relate to her.

A personal connection is often what makes people support a particular charity. “That could be me, my child, my family” is usually involved somewhere.

Try to make this connection in your writing. Think about details you can add to help people relate to and invest strongly in what you’re saying.

Instead of just laying out the facts, for example, “Typhoon Haiyan wrecked the home of eight-year-old Rodolfo Diaz and his family, ripping the roof off and causing flooding,” subtly let readers know there are perhaps similarities between them and who you’re writing about. “Typhoon Haiyan left the Diaz’s only family photo album floating in a foot of water on the living room floor. Rodolfo doesn’t know where his most treasured possession – his Manchester United top – is, because it blew away when the typhoon ripped his bedroom roof off.”

Verisimilitude

If you’re going to really touch people with your writing, it has to have verisimilitude, AKA a ring of truth. Just like walking through Anne’s house plunged me deep into her world, we want to plunge readers deep into the stories we write. And that won’t be possible if they seem a bit generic or made up. A good piece of charity case study or feature will have lots of specifics and small details to make it compelling and authentic.

For example, “I taught a class of seven-year-olds for the day” is much less effective – and convincing – than “I helped teach a class of 43 noisy seven-year-olds. We did a lesson on multiplication on the old, creaking blackboard. One little girl, Jenny, couldn’t stop tugging at my leg, wanting to impress me with her expert knowledge of the five times table.”

Look for inspiration in unusual places

We’re bombarded by stories every day. In newspapers, magazines, on Eastenders, at the cinema, in museums…

Every time I feel particularly moved by a story, I’ve started asking myself why – and if there’s anything I can take to put into practice in my charity writing. My trip to the Anne Frank house is the most obvious example, but inspiration is everywhere.

Why don’t you start doing the same?

Need help to tell your charity stories? Why not drop me a line?

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