Is Your E-Mail Awe-Inspiring?

The New York Times February 9th article by John Tierney, titled “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” offered some fascinating insights from a recent University of Pennsylvania research study. The researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman intensively studied The New York Times list of most-e-mailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for six months in the period between August 2008 and February 2009. They determined that people preferred emailing articles that a) had positive as opposed to negative themes and b) were lengthy and on intellectually challenging topics.

But more revealing was their analytic conclusion that “readers want to share articles that inspire awe..” Based on prior research the Penn researchers had conducted, they determined that people were more likely to send emails of articles that had a quality that evidenced an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” According to the Times article the researchers used two criteria for awe-inspiring stories: “Its scale is large, and it ‘requires mental accommodation’ by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.”

As someone who has spent an entire career trying to move people to action on behalf of those in need and who often relied on a root message about doing something bigger and more important than oneself, I was struck by how valuable this new research is to the nonprofit world.

The organizations we care about, work for, and support all do “awe-inspiring” work. Yet, too often we fall short in communicating that very aspect of our work. We do look for “good news” stories and publicize them. But have we gone further and dug into them to find the inspirational aspect that lies below the typical story line? Do we pick up the phone, get in the car to visit, travel to see for ourselves the people in our stories so that we can really get to understand them and hear the inspirational nugget of who they are, what their struggles are and how they are coping?

If you are about to publish a story for your nonprofit, hold off for a moment and ask yourself, “Does this story inspire? Does it create awe? Will anyone read it and pass it along? If the answer is “no” then maybe you want to work a little harder, to give your audience a more powerful reason to care about your work.

As Dr. Berger said, “Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion. If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.”

I know that in the nonprofit trenches, there are amazing stories to be told. Now we have data to support our efforts to go find them. So start digging. It will be awesome.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional who currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.