Science With Heart: Connecting with your crowdfunders through the language of emotion

This post is by Elissa Malcohn, an award-winning science and science-fiction writer.

The Quail Diaries is an incredibly successful example of using crowdfunding to raise money for science. One of the keys to their success was a very effective video. What lessons can we learn from the Quail Diaries video for our own SciFund Challenge projects? What follows is a drill-down — from a macro view, to a pre-translation mindset, to a detailed analysis and deconstruction of the Quail Diaries video script.

Level 1: Macro view

Your number one mission in pitching to your audience is:  Make people care.

People care when:
a. They feel as though they are a part of your work (note the use of the word “we” in the Quail Diaries video).
b. They understand, on a basic level, the benefits of your work.
c. They understand, on a basic level, the stakes involved.

First, write in the style you are used to.  Use the easiest ways to get your ideas down.  Then, translate your pitch into a language that will connect with your audience.

Level 2: Pre-translation mindset

Think along the following lines and see where they focus your attention.  Some of these points may take precedence over others, depending on your project.

1. Think big.
Whatever your project is, you are saving the world.  I’m not being facetious.  Whether you are seeking a cure for a disease, studying an obscure species, or counting spores — no matter what the task or sub-task, and no matter where you are in the course of your research, you are making a difference.  Your work has global implications, even if it applies to only a small geographic area or pursues a minor line of inquiry, because knowledge and its applications cross boundaries.

Why think big?  Your backers want to feel as though they are saving the world, too.  Every dollar sent to you is a small and personal act of heroism.

2. Think small.
The importance of thinking small can be seen in the trailer (length 4:31) for Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

This video:
a. Focuses — visually, verbally, and aurally — on the snail.  (Note how the camera eye is almost at the same level with the snail.)
b. Highlights the relationship between Bailey and the snail, particularly with respect to her disability.  The snail becomes a healing influence.
c. Invites the audience to witness their shared, intimate experience.

Why think small?  It lets your backers become intimate with your project.  It takes them out of themselves and into a new and shared experience.

3. Think personal.
The term “character” doesn’t refer only to a person.  A virus can be a character.  A piece of equipment can be a character.  A number, threshold, spectrographic print can be a character, because whatever it is, you are interacting with it.  A disease can be your nemesis.  A piece of equipment can be your sidekick, or your teacher.  Each observation is an exploration.  Even though you are looking for objective evidence, the effect of your quest on you is purely subjective.

Why think personal?  Knowing what drives you as a human being helps your backers identify with you and with your project.  They care because they see how much you care.

4. Use plain English rather than technical terms wherever possible, and tighten your phrasing.  Here’s one Before and After example in regulatory language from the National Marine Fisheries Service:

Before: “After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Education Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops.”

After: “After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing each fishing season.”

(Source: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/before_after/regfisheries.cfm)

The above is not a good example of what tone to use in your pitch, but it’s a great example of how you can clarify and condense your message.  The “After” example contains only what is necessary to get the main point across.  When making your pitch, concentrate on the heart of your message first.

One way to make your pitch more compelling is to write in active rather than passive voice.  For example, “It was shown that” is passive, whereas “We witnessed” is active.

How do you get outside a technical vocabulary that feels natural?  Read an article or talk to someone in a discipline you know very little about, and pay attention to your own questions.  Explain your project to a layperson unfamiliar with your specialty, and pay attention to her or his questions.

The deconstruction below demonstrates the importance of using an emotional tone to connect with your audience.

Level 3: Micro view — An in-depth examination of the video script for The Quail Diaries pitch

First, here’s a summary of the video’s story and emotion arc.  The analysis that follows shows how language is used to make a persuasive funding argument.

1. Something unspecified but extraordinary is possible (sense of wonder).
2. Researchers are on a quest in a race against time (sense of urgency; raised stakes).
3. Introduction to the species and why it is important (sense of mystery).
4. Invitation to be part of the adventure (sense of adventure).
5. A taste of the experience (sense of belonging).
6. A promised gift (sense of fulfillment and wonder).
7. The final pitch (all previous senses combined).

Script: There is a space in nature where, if we step carefully, we can experience the trace of another species.

Analysis:  Nowhere in this first sentence is the elegant quail mentioned.  There are no technical terms.  We don’t even know what fauna (or flora) constitutes “another species.”

Instead, there is “a space in nature.”  This is deliberately vague because it heightens the mystery and commands attention.  “Space” is a void that needs filling.  (What void is your work trying to fill?  What’s the missing knowledge?  Why are you curious?)

“If we step carefully” — The word “we” includes your audience.  It gets them involved.  The word “carefully” focuses attention.  The audience is already on an adventure:  “we can experience.”

Script: As research scientists, Dr. Jennifer Calkins and Dr. Jennifer Gee have dedicated their lives to documenting some of these traces before they disappear forever.

Analysis: This sentence does more than introduce the researchers.  It introduces researchers who have “dedicated their lives” to their project.  They are on a quest, just as much as [insert your favorite mythical hero battling against all odds].  More so, because they — and you, and your quests — are real.

Why use “before they disappear forever” rather than “extinction”?  Because it’s personal.  Every single one of us has experienced a sense of loss because something in our lives has disappeared forever.  A beloved toy, a sense of innocence, more.  Language is used to establish common ground.

Script: There are four species of quail in the Callipepla group, and it’s no coincidence that the Latin term for this genus translates as “Beautiful Coat.”  Gambel’s and California, Scaled and Elegant.  Although each species is still somewhat of a mystery, next to nothing is known about the Elegant Quail.

Analysis:  The third sentence in the entire script introduces the quail and a technical term: Callipepla.  But the translation “Beautiful Coat” follows almost immediately.  That translation, and its positive connotations, will stick with the audience.

The four quail species are briefly introduced.  All are associated with mystery (thoughts of the unknown draw the audience in) but the Elegant Quail is extreme in comparison.  Comparisons are good because they provide context.  They are also dynamic: this bird is different from the others.  That in itself provides excitement and tension.

Script: They exist in western Mexico, and Drs. Gee and Calkins want to take you on a virtual journey there, to explore with you the bird’s trace in a new chapter of The Quail Diaries.

Analysis:  The species now has a location marker; the audience can envision a “You Are Here” map to go with the video image of mountains.  Most important, Drs. Gee and Calkins are not just going to western Mexico; they are taking their audience on a virtual journey, “to explore with you.”  The script has left “we” behind and now addresses the audience directly.  The word “new” adds the sense of a frontier to the description.  Not only does the audience travel with the researchers; they break new ground together.

Script: [two voices speak simultaneously, their sounds interwoven]  “Today I trapped two, including this young male.  If I were to guess, I would say he was maybe two months old…”  “I was searching for quail, setting traps…I feel transported in a way…”  “I learn the birds more than most people in the world know them.”

Analysis:  The audience hears diary entries read aloud.  This is intimate and fosters a sense of belonging.  The audience gets a taste of what it is like to virtually join the researchers on their quest and share discoveries as they occur.  This is raw data, coupled with raw emotion.

Script: The Elegant Quail project will culminate in the first book of its kind published on this rare and mysterious bird.  While in Mexico, the two scientists will compile lyrical essays, photographs, and analyses, and post them online for you in the Elegant Diaries.  These and never before seen documentation will be published in a beautiful, full-color book at the project’s end.

Analysis:  By supporting the researchers, the audience shares in the creation of something unique.  Sharing is promised in the form of online posts, and then in a commemorative volume.  Note the use of words and phrases like “rare,” “mysterious,” “lyrical,” “beautiful,” “first of its kind,” “never before seen.”  These words are laden with positive emotions.

Script: This is a natural history project, but it is also a literary and fine art project.  More importantly, the Elegant Diaries is an adventure that embraces life and all of its continuing mysteries.  Please help us in our search for the Elegant Quail, before it and its traces vanish forever.

Analysis:  The first sentence juxtaposes (and thus makes dynamic) science and art.  “More importantly” focuses the audience’s attention on the next sentence, which is vague and at the same time both positive and universal:  “adventure” reinforces the quest, while “embraces” reinforces love of life and mystery.

But the audience is not left with this high.  The final sentence of the video is a plea and also a repeating refrain.  Finding the Elegant Quail is invested with urgency and the risk of great loss.  Placing a hint of heartbreak immediately after a feel-good sentence makes the video’s message all the more potent.

In summary:
1. Make people care about your project, by showing them how much you care about it.
2. Think big: you are working to save the world.
3. Think small: you and your project have an intimate relationship.
4. Think personal: invite your audience to share in this relationship; help them belong to it.
5. Use plain English to clarify and condense your message.
6. Use words that evoke emotion in your audience.

And if you have additional writing tips, please post them in the comments!


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