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Bust Through Writer’s Block and Craft More Engaging Appeals with P.A.S.O.

Published by Patrick Kitchen

We’ve all been there before … 

You sit down at your desk. Take a sip of your drink. And open a new document.

You straighten your back, take a deep breath, and poise your fingers over the keyboard. You’re ready. 

The cursor blinks. A thought bubbles up. You reach for a key, ready to strike, and pause. 

The thought is gone. You take another sip of your drink and begin wondering if a tomato could really be a fruit. 

Twenty minutes later, as you’re browsing Caprese salad recipes, you remember the appeal you sat down to write is due to go out in just a few hours

You return to your blank page, where the cursor mockingly blinks. The pressure builds. Your chest feels tight. And your inspiration, apparently, has hopped a flight to Tahiti. 

Where even is Tahiti, you ask yourself as you stand from your desk and walk to the kitchen to refill your cup.

If I’ve learned anything from my decade-long experience as a copywriter, it’s this: the most challenging part of copywriting isn’t writing … it’s figuring out where to start.

But fret not word warrior, because below you’ll find an easy-to-use framework that not only makes starting to write a breeze but will also hold your reader’s attention and inspire them to act!

P.A.S.O. stands for Problem-Agitation-Solution-Offer

And I have found it to be one of the most effective ways to frame your message—especially when that message is intended to persuade a reader to take a specific action … like making a generous gift to support your organization.  

Frameworks like P.A.S.O. are a fantastic way to bust through writer’s block because they provide a way to help you frame your thoughts. 

But remember: not every framework is ideal for every type of message. And there are several effective frameworks that you can use to write an appeal. 

That being said, P.A.S.O. is an excellent framework to organize your message in a way that is likely to grab your readers’ attention, compel the reader to act, and ultimately improve conversion rates.

With that in mind, let’s dive in by taking a closer look at how to complete each part of the P.A.S.O. framework!

P is for Problem

For a marketing message to be compelling, it must contain conflict. Conflict is what makes things interesting … tension gets people to lean in.

Humans are hardwired to crave stories that move from a problem to an unexpected solution. Skip the problem and you won’t have a story. And without an intriguing story, your reader is all but assured to click away.

So open your appeal by presenting the problem as clearly and specifically as possible. 

Problems pull your readers in, hook their attention, and set off an unconscious trigger that prompts them to read on.

A is for Agitation

After you clearly present the problem in the opening (or hook) of your appeal, next you want to agitate that problem by giving it color and texture to make it real for your readers.

There are a number of ways to agitate a problem, but below are two effective techniques to help you get started. 

First, you can agitate the problem by showing its symptoms, i.e. reflecting back to the reader how the problem plays out in everyday life. 

What mental images does problem X conjure for your prospective donors? What emotions? How might they encounter this problem in their day-to-day lives?

A good way to generate symptoms is by putting yourself in your readers’ shoes. Imagine what they might say after the prompt “I’m sick and tired of …”

Better yet: don’t imagine—let your prospects tell you themselves. Visit online forums like Reddit, search for the issue you’re writing about, and see what people are saying.

Second, you can agitate the problem by painting a mental image of what could happen if the problem goes unsolved.

You might see this called future pacing and the key here is to drum up an emotional reaction (feelings lead to action) by giving your reader a glimpse into a hypothetical future that shows what will be lost (and how it will directly impact the reader—and their family) if nothing is done.

Interested in More Nonprofit Copywriting Resources?

If you want to take a deeper dive into the copywriting concepts crucial to growing giving for your organization, take a look at these 5 Nonprofit Copywriting Techniques to Create a More Meaningful Connection with Your Donors »

S is for Solution

OK, now that you’ve pulled your readers to the edge of their seats by illustrating the problem at hand and agitating that problem to elicit an emotional reaction … 

It’s time to make everything better … it’s time to resolve the tension you’ve expertly built by offering a solution—by stating clearly, specifically, and tangibly how your organization plans to address the problem. 

Begin this part of your appeal by empathizing with the reader—showing them you understand, that you feel their pain. Do. Not. Skip. This. Step. 

Empathy is a powerful tool because it builds camaraderie and fellowship. It shows that you and your prospect are in this together—that they can count on you to act on their behalf. 

Which leads to the second and most critical component of communicating your solution …

Your organization is not the hero of the story … that role belongs to your donor. In his excellent book, Building a StoryBrand, Donald Miller sums it up like this: 

“Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.”

That guide is you (and your organization). So as you begin detailing all the wonderful things your organization does to solve problems X, Y, or Z … remember to frame it in such a way that puts your donor front and center as the hero. 

During this part of the appeal, many organizations fall into the trap of writing me/we language (we do X, we do Y) … leaving your donors on the sideline wondering what part they have to play. 

This might sound subtle, but it’s a crucial point. Instead of we/me/etc., try something like this instead: When YOU donate today, YOU will X, Y, Z.

A minor shift in perspective, but a BIG shift in engagement. Because now you’ve pulled the donor into the story, cast them as the hero, and presented your organization as the guide … which is an indispensable role. Why?

Because here’s the story your donors are telling themselves before you come along: 

“Gosh, I really wish that [problem] didn’t exist, but what can I do about it? After all, I’m just one person and the problem seems so big. I wouldn’t even know where to start!”

And it’s at this very moment your organization enters stage right, providing the tools, the means, and the direction your donor craves—empowering the donor to achieve the outcome they desire, that is, the future they want to see. 

But don’t skip ahead to the outcome just yet. The solution stage is all about showing your donor how that outcome will be achieved … how your organization will help the donor make the Big Change.

When you show how first, you create credibility, tangibility, and believability in the eyes of your donor … and all of this builds trust.

With you as their trustworthy guide, your donor is now ready to achieve the outcome they want to see!

O is for Outcome

Remember earlier when we looked at using future pacing as a means to agitate the problem? Now we’re going to turn that on its head. 

At the end of your appeal, you want to pay off the promise you’ve made in the solution. The outcome portion of your appeal (which, again, should come only at the end) is all about getting donors to imagine the desired future you are helping them create.

How is the future going to look because of your donor’s selfless heroism?

And just importantly: how will they feel once this outcome is finally achieved.

The goal is to sweep your donor off their feet by allowing them to see, feel, and believe the results they can achieve with their donation. 

Then they will feel empowered. They will feel excited. And the emotional climax achieved by resolving the tension will have them ready to act (in the way of a generous gift)!

To repeat: the outcome provides the emotional payoff your donor is craving. Because people give based on emotion … they justify that decision with logic.

So there you have it. A simple, flexible framework to help you organize your next great appeal—to help you bust through writer’s block and create an emotional connection with your donor that empowers them to achieve results and compels them to take action.

One final note before we put this thing to bed: though it took something like 1,500 words to work through this framework together, it should never take that long to convey your appeal. 

Always respect your donor’s time and use only as many words as are needed to make your case. Write your first draft fast, but edit it ruthlessly. 

If a word, a sentence, or even a paragraph isn’t instrumental to your appeal, cut it without a second thought.      

Happy writing and best of luck in crafting your next “we-raised-how-much?appeal!

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Published by Patrick Kitchen