Why being passive costs pounds

Written by Quietroom
Piggy-bank pig with its mouth masking taped shut, illustrating a blog about why being passive costs pounds.
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The reason Quietroom manages to be in business at all is because our clients know that better words mean a better bottom line. Once you know how to look, you can see opportunities everywhere for making better copy pay for itself. Even in charity shops. I spotted a sign this week, stuck up in an Oxfam shop.

It said:

OXFAM CAN RAISE 25% MORE WHEN DONATIONS ARE GIFT AIDED.
PLEASE ASK AT THE TILL FOR DETAILS.

Oxfam usually produces really good copy. We sometimes use their website as an example in our workshops. But there’s plenty to work on here.

What jumps out at word geeks like us? Well, the first sentence talks about Gift Aiding, but uses passive voice – ‘donations are Gift Aided [by you]’ – instead of active – ‘you Gift Aid donations’.

I added the ‘by you’, but in reality the sign doesn’t tell us who’s doing the Gift Aiding here. So cognitively it’s a lot harder for the reader to understand what’s going on. If I don’t know what Gift Aid is, there’s no clue that it’s something that’s down to me to organise.

The problem of me, the reader, not being involved gets worse when we add the first bit of the first sentence. Here the sign talks about what Oxfam can do – raise 25% more. But this sign is supposed to be a call to action to me as I enter the shop. Wouldn’t it be more effective if it said what I could do?

So putting me back in and using the active voice, we might get something like:

RAISE 25% MORE FOR OXFAM BY GIFT AIDING YOUR DONATIONS.
PLEASE ASK AT THE TILL FOR DETAILS.

We might consider other changes – would most readers understand that ‘donations’ means donated goods, not just donated money? (I didn’t, I had to look it up.) And, as we blogged last week, people aren’t very good at percentages – is there a more concrete way to talk about the extra cash?

OK, it’s just a sign.

But it’s a sign with the potential to massively increase the cash this shop brings in, and so the good that Oxfam can do. That has to be worth a little word nerdery.

(And yes, I shall be printing off a new sign and offering it to the shop…)

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