More about Emotions

Print Share on LinkedIn More


To really appreciate this column, I recommend that you first read my September 23, 2009 column, “Using Emotions in a Personal Solicitation.” Also, read my last (August 31, 2012) column, “A Central Fact: Emotions Are the Decision Makers.”

Do you regularly hear complaints about negativity in political campaigns? And then candidates try to get each other to commit to “not going negative”. . . . But the thing is, the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London discovered that people process negative emotions more easily than positive ones—and negative information is better received than positive information. That’s one of those biological imperatives. Fight or flight. Protection.

Also, “People can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages . . . and [people] are much more attuned to negative words. . . . [T]here are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information.” Thanks to the Agitator for sharing these findings (I hope you subscribe to this daily blog, which is very useful). And here’s another, similar finding: The threat of loss is more motivating than the promise of gain. That’s paraphrased from social psychologist Robert Cialdini and his work on the science of influence.

How would you apply these two neuroscience findings? Here’s what I would do:

I would not say, “Please give us more money and we can do more good stuff.” Instead, I would say, “Without your gift we will not be able to continue doing good stuff.” (That’s the concept, not the actual copy.)

Absolutely, talk about impact—the donor’s impact, of course. Talk about the good work produced by the donor, through her gift, that allowed your organization to do that good work. But don’t make everything sound hunky-dory. Tell the sad story. Use emotions to explain the problem. Yes, all that negative stuff. Then the donor—the hero—comes in.

Here’s advice taken from neuroscience research you will find in Roger Dooley’s book, Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing: use paper—not e-mail—for emotion. According to a study by Millward Brown, “Using Neuroscience to Understand the Role of Direct Mail,” physical media leaves a “deeper footprint” on your brain and mine. The research says that physical material is more “real” to the brain. Hmmm. . . . What does this say about your donor newsletter? Are you so sure you want an electronic donor newsletter?

Now add this research from the Consumer Channel Preference Study, which the Agitator presented in an article titled “Which mailbox delivers emotion?” Fifty percent of U.S. study respondents and 48 percent of Canadians say they pay more attention to postal mail than e-mail. Sixty percent of U.S. respondents and 64 percent of Canadians enjoy checking the mailbox for postal mail. What are their reasons for preferring print mail? It’s more private. They already get too much e-mail. They would prefer not to have to print the information. And a lot of online information can’t be trusted; study respondents said that social media and blogs are the least trustworthy channels, with only six percent of U.S. respondents and five percent of Canadians expressing trust in them.

Surely by now you’ve read about readability in Tom Ahern’s free e-news and in his books. Tom writes about Australian Colin Wheildon’s research and eye motion studies research. And Brainfluence gives us information about readability, too. Author Dooley tells us: “Research by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz shows that the way we perceive information can be affected dramatically by how simple or complex the font is. In particular, their work found that readers of a simple font were more likely to make a commitment.”

Just imagine: The font in your direct mail letter—or on the gift transmittal mechanism—was so hard to read. And so I just didn’t commit. Simple fonts produce action. And, as Dooley reports, “You should also make the type size easy to read and use simpler words and sentence structure. These steps will minimize the perceived effort needed to accomplish the task, and your success rate will increase.”

By the way, Times New Roman is the default “best” font for print publications. Guess who invented it? The British Times . . . a newspaper! So. What are you going to do about any of this information? How will you use it? What are the implications for your organization? Here’s what I think:

  • First, stay on top of this kind of research. Subscribe to blogs and e-newsletters like those of Tom Ahern, the Agitator, Future Fundraising Now and my own weekly blogs and periodic newsletter.
  • Use emotions. (Enough said—until I start ranting about emotions again in the future!)
  • Produce a print, donor-centered newsletter for your donors. Mail it in an envelope (not a self-mailer). Put a caption on the envelope . . . something like, “Your personal update is inside.”
  • Talk about what the various items of research mean to your organization and how you will apply it.
  • My last recommendation is the same as my first: stay on top of this kind of research.


  • ronnie

    How old were the respondents? I actually care about decreasing my carbon footprint. Not interested in killing more trees.

  • Simone Joyaux

    The question of print or email communications is a tough one. Read the research: you’ll find lots of details about different angles. Think about things like:
    – Whether you have email addresses for all your donors
    – How people read email and think about spam
    – Who donors are – And they are not mostly young people. Check out Jeff Brooks’ blog ( where he talks about “mythical millennial donors.”
    – Read Tom Ahern’s free e-news about donor communications – and the Domain Group’s tested best newsletter
    – Read more research
    – Do your own tests
    – Monitor monitor monitor

    It’s not simple. It’s not easy. And various values often conflict in life… For example, the value of reducing the carbon footprint and the value of retaining donors.

  • Cindi Phallen

    Bingo….right on point! And for those donors who don’t like to read much, providing the testimonial via a video (on site or shown in mtg, etc) can tug at the emotional core. Thanks for sharing the science behind what works!