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Pros plan message organization strategically

This post follows up on a couple of earlier ones about a letter soliciting sponsorships for an outdoor sign at The First Tee of Tuscaloosa. Pros don’t settle for platitudes about audience described the principled way in which we analyzed our audience.  Pros plan message content strategically described how we developed the content for the first draft. This one describes how we planned to organize the content for the first draft. And, based on our organizational blueprint, I (finally) provide a copy of our first draft.

Planning the Solicitation Letter

You shouldn’t be surpised to hear me say that pros think carefully about purpose and audience when planning a message so they can be STRA-TE-GIC. Let me briefly review the two areas covered in my previous posts.

Purpose & Audience: As a board member, my husband was writing a letter soliciting sponsorships.  (I helped ’cause that’s the kind of spouse I am.) The purpose of this letter was to direct readers, and the bottom line message was “give us $500.”  In sum, we were addressing a large, moderately homogenous group of strangers with little relevant expertise and moderately low sensitivity to the request because it created only a small imposition.

Message Content: Using what we knew about the rhetorical context, we started developing content for the letter. My earlier post demonstrated techniques from Revising Professional Writing (RPW). Basically, to make readers ready to accept the letter’s request, we had to address their lack of expertise by developing informative content and their sensitivity by developing persuasive content. As a result, we had a laundry list of ideas for inclusion in the letter:

  • Operational definition of The First Tee program. (mission statement, etc.)
  • Descriptions of several aspects of program. (the nine core values, cost of the program, size of the national and local programs, etc.)
  • Descriptions of sponsorship-related costs and advertising details.
  • Examples of impact of the program on a specific child. Or the way values are taught within a specific lesson.
  • Contrast with junior golf.
  • Classifications of sponsorship levels.
  • Major claims: (a) First Tee of Tuscaloosa is a “winning” organization; (b) the sponsorship sign will serve as decent advertising.
  • Evidence: For (a), we should mention local participant numbers, as well as national growth; also national premier events like Pebble Beach tournament and honorary chairperson, George W. Bush. For (b), location of sponsorship sign and traffic at location.
  • Evidence Criteria: For (a), participant data establishes growth (=winning) and national tournament and chair signal involvement of celebrities (=winning). For (b), location and traffic by signage establish potential market (=decent advertising).
  • Potential objections: Some may believe the kids would be better off playing football.  (clearly, they’re NOT thinking about the girls in the program)

The list represents the result of our brainstorming about content for the letter. Its structure wasn’t meaningful. Much work remained before we could create a decent draft.

Message Organization: To begin providing some structure to our laundry list, we grouped the items in a diagram. I always encourage amateurs to use some type of visual technique for grouping ideas generated from brainstorming. This isolates decisions about grouping from those about sequencing. The diagram we produced is shown at right. The bottom line message is connected to four groupings of content.  This wasn’t the only useful way of grouping the content. We might have used two major groups (one for The First Tee and one for the sponsorship sign).  As with all communication decisions, there is no single right choice.

One of the things that happened while we grouped our content was that we decided to ignore the potential objection in our laundry list. It didn’t seem that important as an obstacle to achieving our goal. Or like something we could realistically address in the letter anyway.

The next step in planning the organization of our letter was to determine a sequence for our content. We used what we know about the genre of solicitation letters. In other words, we needed to think about what our audience would expect to find in our letter based on the others they have read. Most writers use samples of similar messages as a guide to inductively determine the appropriate sequence of information content + purpose for a document type that’s new to them.

We could have analyzed some samples because neither us felt confident in our knowledge of solicitation letters. But we didn’t have to because applied linguists (like Bhatia) have identified the following sequential moves (content + purpose) in sales letters by studying them:

  1. establishing credentials
  2. introducing the offer
  3. offering incentives
  4. referring to enclosures
  5. inviting further communication
  6. using pressure tactics
  7. ending politely

Applying these moves to the content diagram for our letter resulted in the blueprint at left. Note that we didn’t follow Bhatia’s move structure exactly. For instance, we decided we could put almost all details about the offer in an enclosed brochure so move #4 (referring to enclosures) appears right after #2 (introducing the offer), which could then be very briefly covered in the letter itself.  That choice was strategic because we believed we needed to devote more of the letter’s real estate to move #3 (offering incentives), which we saw as primarily altruistic in the case of this solicitation letter. And we thought describing the basics of The First Tee program was important to overcome our audience’s lack of knowledge about it.

We didn’t anticipate the need to use pressure tactics (move #6) or to include a polite ending (move #7) beyond inviting further communication. We thought the standard close of “sincerely” was enough. The fact that Bhatia studied letters from an English-speaking Asian culture (Singapore) may explain the need to include more closing remarks than required in our North American culture.

Drafting the Solicitation Letter

Amateurs who don’t plan sufficiently hate drafting. But, once we created the blueprint for our solicitation letter, we were more than ready to transform it into a draft.  I took on the task of translating the blueprint into sentences and paragraphs (’cause I’m faster at keyboarding than my hubby is).  This was so simple that it warrants little discussion. See the Draft Solicitation Letter to view the result.

With amateurs, I usually warn them to ignore any sentence- or word-level issues (punctuation, word choice, etc.) while drafting. It’s simply inefficient — especially when you don’t know what you might end up deleting. Any infelicities can easily be taken care of when revising the draft. More about “levels of editing” in the next, and final, post about creating the letter.

Stay tuned . . .

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