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How to communicate better: My favorite books list
Building the new, improved, OMNISCIENT you...
For some people, it's wine. For others, it's art. For me? I consider myself a connoisseur of how-to books. Listed below are some of the best I've found: amazingly helpful books by honest-to-goodness experts.

One authority says if you spend an hour a day reading what experts have to say, you'll soon be an expert yourself. Do that for a few years, and you'll emerge as a national expert. Go for it.


Breakthrough Fundraising Letters
by Alan Sharpe (Andrew Spencer Publishing, 2007)

The hard part of writing effective fundraising direct mail, in my experience, is getting into the right frame of mind. You're having a conversation with someone on paper. You're trying to keep them reading. You're trying to move them enough to become a supporter of your cause. Now, (clear throat, doodle with pen) what do you say to this stranger-you-hope-will-become-a-friend?

Here's my method: I spend an hour or two warming up by reading great letters and how-to books. Mal Warwick's much-updated classic, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, is often open on my desk. And now I have a new helping hand: Alan Sharpe's charming, tough, truly inspiring book. Like other fave how-to books, it has a winning personality; a firm, guiding hand; and short chapters. It takes itself less than dead-seriously.

I first read Alan's book when preparing to launch letters for (1) a big hospital hoping to acquire donors from among its so-called "grateful patients" pool; and (2) a major community foundation embarking on its first "friend-raising" campaign among the affluent. When I began reading, I had no good ideas for either campaign. And by the time I was halfway through his book, my hair was on fire. He champions honesty, freshness, and storytelling. (Ignore the slightly peculiar rant against the postscript; all the example letters he shows have postscripts, so you have to wonder about the contradiction.)


Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work
by Donald M. Murray (Heinemann, 2000)

When I found myself tucking this "how to write an interesting news story" masterpiece into my briefcase for a quick third-reading on a business trip, I finally realized how many questions about storytelling that this fast, little book answers well. Chapter 5, where
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Donald Murray, talks about planning and 30 ways of getting a story off to a good start, is alone worth the book's price. A lot of people responsible for donor newsletters don't have the benefit of journalism training. They desperately wonder, "How will I write this donor story to make it instantly intriguing?" Now you'll have a ready answer. Click.


Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works
by Janice Redish (Morgan Kaufmann, 2007)

Ginny Redish is a Harvard-trained linguist and consultant to the federal government on websites. Her basic premise: fewest words, largest number of things to click on and view. The #1 flaw I'm seeing on nonprofit websites is a wordiness that turns visitors off and away. This book is amazingly helpful, fast, and without mercy. Click.


The Nonprofit Membership Toolkit
by Ellis M.M. Robinson (Jossey-Bass, 2003)

From her retreat on Florida's Sanibel Island, a world-class nature reserve famous for shells, dolphins, and the rare alligator attack, Ellis Robinson helps numerous environmental action groups, from the national to the local level, improve in one special, money-generating area: cultivating, retaining, and growing membership.

This book is the bible. There is nothing else like it. Although her clients are mainly enviro groups, this book is meant for any nonprofit. It's thick (i.e., comprehensive) but an easy read. Ellis is a delightful writer: fast, frank, and entertaining. Typical of her style: "Let's face it, nonprofit organizations have some of the worst names."

Ellis promises in her preface, "The most important reason to read this book is to make our life easier....this book will help you learn from colleagues' experiences, incorporate time- and money-saving systems into your membership program, and avoid expensive mistakes." And she delivers.

"Here, between two covers," as expert Mal Warwick wrote in his review, "you'll find almost everything you need to know to launch, manage, and strengthen a nonprofit membership program." Among the Toolkit's special merits: a wealth of worksheets and exhibits for you to lean on. Click here.


Cracking Creativity
by Michael Michalko (Ten Speed Press, 2001)

I love this book. It is an encyclopedia of techniques that will help you or your task force come up with new and useful solutions to any problem.

The underlying principle is pretty simple: we all think inside boxes of our own making, all the time. These boxes are built by our experiences and training. Without help, we are almost incapable of original thinking.

To think "outside the box" -- to have a truly fresh, insightful ideas -- requires the forceful intervention of brainstorming methods. How did Thomas Edison come up with the ideas that gained him 1,093 patents? It wasn't the "gift of genius." He used special ways of thinking. This book explains those ways, and dozens more.

Small grumble. I love this book, I admire this book, but I didn't always enjoy this book on first reading. It could have been cut in half (at least). The author does drone. He's given to eye-crossing sentences such as: "You can also try the inverse heuristic to generate ideas, which states that if an object performs one function, a new artifact might be realized by combining it with an object that performs the opposite function."

Don't let Mr. Michalko's occasional stylistic shortcomings stop you, though. To think originally, you will want to be familiar with the methods explained in this book. I was looking for a new way to market bequests, for instance, for one of my community foundation clients. A half hour rereading Cracking Creativity led me a great new approach. Click here.


Iceberg Philanthropy
by Fraser Green and Beth McDonald (BookSurge, 2007)

The core of this controversial book is original research funded by its publisher, Canada's FLA Group, and Mal Warwick. The research quizzed donors who made frequent small gifts about their charitable bequest intentions -- and discovered an almost-untapped philanthropic bonanza.

Of course, everyone's heard about the huge transfer of wealth that will occur as the generation that birthed the Boomers passes from this earth. Relatively little of that transfer currently ends up in charities' pockets, though. Why? Because the major gifts' strategy pursued by most charities is dead wrong, this book convincingly argues.

If your charity does well with direct mail, you can do very well indeed with charitable bequests, perhaps even doubling your income. I read the book on a two-hour flight. It won't take you long to see if this new way of marketing end-of-life giving is right for you. Click here.


Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story
by Jerry Weissman (FT Press, 2003)

Presenting to Win is one of those how-to books that sounds like it's about something small (PowerPoint presentations would be one wrong guess); when in fact it's about something huge: persuading a skeptical, analytical audience (in this case, venture capitalists and stock market analysts) that your idea is wonderful and deserves millions of dollars in support.

The author's back story is revealing. Jerry Weissman had been a television producer for CBS and a screenwriter. Then an old college buddy who'd become a top venture capitalist called, asking for help. He wanted Weissman to improve a road show for an initial public offering (IPO) of stock.

It wouldn't be easy. And the pressure was crushing. "Succeeding in an IPO road show is the ultimate example of winning over the toughest crowd. The investors are both demanding and knowledgeable, the stakes are high, and a swing of one dollar in the share price of the offering translates into millions."

There is a big hurdle, though. As a dismayed Weissman discovered while watching others present their typical IPO road shows, "The problem is that nobody knows how to tell a story. And what's worse, nobody knows that they don't know how to tell a story!" Learn to tell your story perfectly. Read his book, Presenting to Win. Click here.


Made to Stick
by Chip and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007)

Made to Stick, written by a Stanford business professor and a former Harvard Business School researcher, argues that lasting, persuasive messages share six qualities. Each quality is individually penetrating; in combination, they are wickedly, almost irresistably, powerful. The qualities are: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, having emotional content, and speaking in stories.

I read Made to Stick (published 2007) to relax, just as I was finishing a book on how to write fundraising cases. I was openly cheering. Chip and Dan Heath have written the book all professional communicators (and that bunch includes all fundraisers, executive directors, and board chairs) MUST!!! read. I can promise you, I'll be using Made to Stick principles for the rest of my career to help my case clients attract millions in gifts from delighted donors. How about you? Click here.


Tiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising
by George Smith (White Lion Press, 2003)

Here's what Mal Warwick has to say about the author: "George Smith heads that exclusive little group of fundraising writers who can produce a truly engaging appeal at the drop of a hat."

This admittedly "opinionated little book" by one of the UK's most successful writers is a dose of strong medicine. George Smith sees trouble ahead as charities proliferate and copycat direct mail fundraising becomes the weary norm.

Mr. Smith shares his best creative secrets in these pages. Chapters include "Some new -- and awkward -- truths," "Five deadly sins of direct mail copy," "Too many words, too little meaning," and "What really matters creatively."

Ken and Marie Burnett
publish the Tiny Essentials series of books from their home in France. Everything about these fast, little volumes is perfect: top experts writing crisply, packaged in a charming format. They are not available in the US via Amazon (as of 4/2007), but can be ordered directly from White Lion Press. Click here.


Capital Fundraising in the UK -- the Compton Way
by Andrew Day and Paul Molloy (Compton International Group, 2005)

I am working on three case statements at once, utterly in over my head. Yet I'm confident: I've had this strikingly generous book open for weeks on my desk. It is an A-to-Z, soup-to-nuts clarification of how to properly conduct a successful capital campaign, based on the authors' combined 40 years of experience and their more than 1,000 campaigns. If you're outside the UK (as I am), it's maybe a bit tricky to get your hands on a copy (rats: can't just order it on Amazon); but well worth the trouble. This book is easily the most informative capital campaign book I know. Click here.


Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your values and frame the debate
by George Lakoff (Chelsea Green, 2004)

Still lamenting the Democrats’ loss of the 2004 presidential contest? Still puzzled why millions of ordinary Americans voted against their own self-interest and endorsed the ruinous policies of government for the oligarchs, by the oligarchs?

George Lakoff has an answer. He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. For years he’s studied how language influences political outcomes. And he has some bad news and (thankfully) some good news in his post-election book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!

The bad news is that conservative political thinkers in the U.S. have for 40 years now been refining their language skills. They have become very, very skilled at framing (and therefore winning) the debate. How skilled? What they say sounds like common sense even when it isn’t. And in a country founded on liberal principles, they’ve made “liberal” a dirty word.

Lakoff’s good news is, if conservatives can do it, so can progressives … without abandoning our ideals or drifting to the right (in fact, says Lakoff, that would be a fatal error).

Lakoff has become the darling of environmentalists. But I suspect he may be one of those authors more revered than read. Don’t make that mistake. Lakoff’s insights into language will change the way you make your case, whether you’re trying to win elections or win donors’ hearts. Best, Lakoff’s book is brief, meant for a non-academic audience.

More recently by George Lakoff (and also a fast, informative read):

Thinking Points -- Communicating Our American Values and Vision: A Progressive's Handbook
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) Click here.


Don't Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
by Steve Krug (Que, 1st published October 2000, now in 2nd edition)

Steve Krug's amazing book is a best seller in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft's hometown. On his book has inspired dozens of reviewers to almost cult-like reverence.

Krug is among the world's leading consultants on usability and interface design, with clients like AOL and Apple. Don't Make Me Think -- named for Steve Krug's key insight into user psychology -- tells all.

And how simple it is (sort of) to do a Website well. Chapters include: "Why users like mindless choices," "Usability testing on 10 cents a day," and "The first step in recovery is admitting that the Home page is beyond your control."

In case you didn't notice: Steve makes people laugh. Reading this book is FUN as well as fascinating. If you care about making your Website user-friendly, this brisk book (his wife told him to keep it short) is required reading. Click here.


Tested Advertising Methods
by John Caples (Prentice Hall, published in 1974 and never out of print since)

Published at the end of one of the most distinguished careers in American advertising, John Caples' deeply informative rulebook, Tested Advertising Methods, will teach you remarkable things about getting your message across.

If you've ever struggled to convert features into benefits, buy this book. If you ever wished you had "29 formulas for writing headlines," buy this book. David Ogilvy, the grumpy old man of big-league advertising and a copywriting legend himself, bowed at Caples' feet. Caples virtually invented "direct response" (as opposed to "image") advertising.

Although the ads that John Caples used to illustrate his book may seem quaint three decades later, this book is still the single best technical discussion available of how and why ads work. There is no other book like this. It will change forever your understanding of headlines and the psychology behind effective communications. A classic.

Bottom line: Your marketing education will not be complete until you've read John Caples' Tested Advertising Methods. Click here.


Type and Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across--Or Get in the Way
by Colin Wheildon (Strathmoor, published March 1995; reprinted under a slightly different title by Worsley in 2005)

Type and Layout is a scientific study of readability. This cheeky deflation of design fads and follies is the world's best argument-ender, especially when you're going eyeball-to-eyeball with a recalcitrant designer who feels that sans serif type is just fine, thank you.

Learn here why reverse type reduces comprehension 500%. Learn why headlines should never have periods. Watch how the eye typically moves across a printed page (and how to take advantage of that deeply worn path). Click here.


How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters
by Mal Warwick (John Wiley & Sons, latest revised edition, 2008)

Mal Warwick is the dean of U.S. direct mail fundraisers. His Berkeley-based firm raises millions of dollars every year for everything from grassroots causes to the Democratic Presidential campaigns.

In How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters Mal tells all...and I mean all. In one definitive (and intensely reader-friendly volume), he explains, step by step, what writers need to know to raise money through the mail: how people read, what motivates people to give, what are the elements of a successful piece of mail, what's so special about eight major different types of fundraising direct mail...and much, much more. This book was an instant classic when it first appeared in the 1990s. Now it's revised and updated. Click here.


Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads
by Roy H. Williams (Bard Press, July 1999)

I don't know how to explain Roy H. Williams. He's a guy who has made a science out of small-town retail selling. He's a radio salesman. And he's clearly brilliant. His book is breathtakingly practical, helpful, and wise. Completely odd as well: Williams pretends that a wizard is the author.

There are sayings, and long stories with morals, intercut with expert technical discussions. For example, "The objective of advertising is to influence the prefrontal cortex - the seat of emotion, planning, and judgment, located just across the motor association cortex, right behind your forehead. And the shortest leap to it is from Broca's area of the brain, a part which determines if you're right or left-handed, when it isn't causing you to buy stuff." If that snippet sounded way too geeky, don't despair: most of his chapters are just two pages long and easy to get. Guaranteed: you will find useful information here that you'll find nowhere else.

Do what I did: Try him. Find this (or any of the Wizard's other titles) in a bookstore and start reading. I became addicted within a couple of pages. He's the real thing -- and a complete original. Marketing and sales cognoscenti pay good money to attend Roy H. Williams' Academy, "a school of ancient principles and wisdom, where the elusive Wizard [shares] his philosophy and teachings with selected students." Click here.


The Copy-Editing and Headline Handbook
by Barbara G. Ellis, Ph.D. (Perseus Publishing, 2001)

Trust me on this: you need to know how to write proper headlines if you want to be any good as a professional writer. This book by Dr. Ellis - a former Look magazine reporter, long-time newspaper copy editor, and university professor - explains how good, even great, headlines are made. I flip through this book often when I'm stuck. Because it's a textbook, it's amazingly thorough about the copy-editor's role. I skipped most of that and went right to the sexy parts: the sections on headlines. Click here.


The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style
by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Professional writers of English surround themselves with authoritative, opinionated references (Follett is the prior champ), just to keep up with what's happening inside this vast, amazing living language we work with. No matter what item you pick to bite into in this Oxford entry, you will be delighted. Ani Hurwitz, a PR maven, recommended this as one of her surprise favorites, beach reading even. Thank you, Ani. Every time I open this dictionary, I am astonished by what I learn. Click here.

Copyright © 2005-2015 & ∞, by Tom Ahern and Ahern Donor Communications, Ink. All rights reserved. Cool portrait photo: Jonathan Feist
10 Johnson Road, Foster, RI 02825, Phone: 401-397-8104, Email: Twitter handle: thattomahern.