5 Things a 19th Century Folk Song Can Teach Us about Telephone Fundraising

As well as writing for Pell & Bales, I’m also a keen folklorist.  Recently, I noticed that one particular folk song works by using very similar principles to the ones I use when writing telephone fundraising scripts.

The song in question is a broadside ballad, historically written to relate news updates, generally with a particular viewpoint in mind.  People would only ever hear the song once, so it had to be immediately effective and memorable.

Sound familiar?

To get the proper experience, listen to this performance of the song through once now, before reading any further.

 

 

What stood out? How do you feel afterwards? Similar to how a supporter feels after they’ve had a fundraising call, I think. Powerful, wasn’t it?

But what exactly makes the song so effective? How can we use this to make sure our fundraising calls are just as powerful?

 

1. Keep the topic simple and the content focused

Firstly, the topic.

It’s so effective because, even from the briefest possible explanation, it’s obviously a bad thing. People died in a fire. There’s no room for doubt.

Remember, someone would only hear the song once.

It’s not the place for nuances, or for in-depth explanations about why something is in fact a bad thing.

You also might’ve noticed that the song didn’t go into a lot of detail – there wasn’t much in the way of set-up or context. The topic’s so simple, it wasn’t needed.

 

2.Tell in terms of an individual, personal story

Now, the content itself. What made the disaster so compelling and relatable?

It was all told through an individual story. (It was also particularly effective because that individual was a young girl, with her whole life ahead of her.)

Granted, some would say the story’s a tad on the melodramatic side, but that’s not a bad thing. When it’s only going to be heard once, it can’t be too subtle or it’ll get missed.

Noticeably too, it’s (mostly) just the one story, developed in steps over multiple verses. This keeps the focus, and builds on what’s been said already rather than having to start from scratch multiple times.

 

3.Use a strong image for each part of the story

How was that individual story told in such a compelling way?

You saw the whole thing.

It might’ve been told only using words, but every stage of the story was based on a very powerful, striking image.

This is made possible by the simple and focused subject matter – a strong image can get across most of what needs to be said.

By anchoring the emotions of each stage of the story with an image, those emotions will stay with you.

 

4.Don’t let statistics distract from the main story

Do you remember how many died overall?

The answer here is “too many”. That’s the key thing.

The song does give a number, but the number isn’t what sticks. It’s the individual story.

The figure itself was very unobtrusive – a simple, rounded number, just indicating the scale. You didn’t have to stop and think about it, so it didn’t distract from the impact of the story.

One identifiable person is enough. When listening, statistics don’t have much impact unless they’re in immediately relatable terms.

 

5.Provide a clear, socially proved call to action

Lastly – what was the song aiming to achieve?

On the surface, it’s to inform people about the disaster, but really it’s to inspire action. In this case, forming a certain opinion.

So which part was the call to action?

It’s the chorus. It repeats, so it gives the listener a few chances to respond. It’s essentially the same, but each time the verse has developed it further, and it follows logically. Each time, it works as a focus, a clear summary.

It might not be asking for a direct response, but it is aiming to motivate you to do something. Implicitly, it’s asking you to agree.

The way it asks is also particularly effective: to join someone else who’s already doing something positive and affirming. This is social proof.

Tom

Copywriter

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