For a nonprofit, good writing can mean survival: if you can't quickly convince donors or foundations that your work matters, you might not be able to keep doing it. Still, if you're staying up all night to write a grant proposal, you probably don't have time to study the latest research on persuasive writing. Even big-budget organizations with communications departments often struggle to connect with audiences.
A new tool called Viooly is designed to analyze whatever you write with algorithms, and offer clear suggestions on how to edit for readability, warmth, and power. The startup compares itself to spell check—but instead of looking for spelling mistakes, it looks for flaws in persuasiveness.
After you enter text—anything from a tweet to a full-length report—the software gives scores on reading ease (the average American reads at an 8th-grade level), verb tense (people connect more with verbs in the present tense), and concreteness ("wheat" is more relatable than "agriculture").
The tool analyzes seven other factors, highlights any problems it finds, and adjusts the score after you edit.
"As the recent election showed, the ability to connect with a simple and compelling message is absolutely essential," says Bob McKinnon, founder of Galewill Design, the company that developed the tool along with the data visualization firm Periscopic (McKinnon sometimes contributes to Co.Exist). "Yet often, we talk over people’s heads, using insider jargon, too many facts and not enough language that shows how our work connects to real people’s lives."
Viooly came out of a challenge from the Gates Foundation, which recognized that despite the progress the world has made in the social sector, organizations weren't communicating that impact well.
"Contrary to what we read in the papers every day, we are making strides in improving the lives of others, across a number of different issues," says McKinnon. "But our messages of success aren’t getting through to audiences."
Over the last 30 years, for example, the number of people living in global poverty was cut in half. But there's still a common misconception that foreign aid is ineffective.
"Our solution was not to recommend new messages, but to create a tool that addresses the systemic issues that make it harder for people to understand an organization’s impact," says McKinnon.
All of the analysis is based on research. People connect more with stories about other people rather than stories about organizations or government, for example. They also respond better when organizations are promoting independence rather than dependence—"teaching a man to fish" stories rather than "giving a man a fish" stories. Too much data can be overwhelming. And the list goes on.
One beta user made a last-minute adjustment to a Wall Street Journal ad placement after Viooly alerted them that their writing was almost five grade levels higher than the average reader. Another organization realized that it tended to tell organizational stories, not stories about people.
"It was always about Syria and never about Syrians," says McKinnon. "And it featured what the organization was doing with other organizations instead of how their people were helping other people. This was in direct opposition to what research shows people find more effective."
One challenge for the startup is convincing writers that they could use some help. "Most of us in communications think of ourselves as pretty good writers and may resist this type of tool for a variety of reasons," he says. "Either thinking we already do a great job in our writing, don’t have the time for an additional step or that the use of these kinds of approaches is dumbing down or message."
"We think the opposite," he says. "We can always become better writers. It is always worth the time to make sure more people understand what you’re saying. It’s not dumbing down, but just being smart to apply what research tells us is effective."
Viooly is available for a free 30-day trial and then a $19.95 monthly subscription.