He Said, She Said: Generating testimonials that have impact

One of the most moving assignments I have ever had was to help Linda*, the elderly wife of a man with Alzheimer’s disease, write about her experience for the annual report of the nursing home where her ailing husband, Michael, lived.

Linda was 85 at the time. She drafted some notes based on the questions I asked. I wept as I morphed her notes into the right format for the report. In this rich first-person narrative, she described the decline of Michael’s health; she expressed her initial sadness about moving him to the home when caring for him became too difficult; and she spoke with grace of the care and attention Michael was receiving at the home.

It was article-length, but a powerful testimonial that generated positive feedback from readers. It worked because it was a real story told honestly. It worked because readers saw themselves or their parents in the story. And it worked because the words were fundamentally Linda’s, not mine. I just choreographed the text which she ultimately approved. What I learned from this assignment is that the authentic first-person voice can truly inspire readers.

Testimonials about your organization can ignite the passion and interest of your readers. When a reader sees a testimonial on your website, you want them to donate, tell others, and remember the experience positively. In other words, you want that testimonial to have impact.

Here are a few tips to consider as you seek testimonial quotes for your website and other communications vehicles:

Tell a Story and Tell it Well

If you run an unattributed testimonial quote that says “Organization LMNOP is amazing!”, you will not inspire. There is no narrative, no emotion, no context. The reader might say the same thing about their breakfast this morning, or the new Adele song they heard on the radio on the way to work (which probably was quite amazing).

If you choose to use testimonials, tell a short story that shows how your organization is amazing. There are a kajillion articles on the web about how people react to stories and how the brain is affected by narrative. And everyone in the non-profit sector knows that a strong story can go a long way. So, seek and publish testimonials that tell a little tale so that readers can connect and, ideally, even see themselves in the quote.

Try something like this:

“My son James is severely autistic. My husband and I do our best, but sometimes we are exhausted and James gets frustrated. And we have three other children to care for, too. Organization LMNOP came to the rescue. Twice a week, James goes with an aid to programs at the community centre. His favourite programs are the concerts. He now wants to listen to music all the time. I have never seen James happier and we have more energy for all of our kids than ever before.”

-Betty Doe, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Make it Real

Don’t invent a testimonial based on things you’ve heard, or things you think someone might say, or some amalgam of experiences your stakeholders might be having. Not only is it dishonest, it is inauthentic. It likely won’t pass the sniff test for your readers and prospective donors.

The ideal is to invite clients to write testimonials independently and those testimonials end up being perfect. That happens, but not all the time.

How can you get authentic testimonials – in the testifier’s voice – that express what you want your readers and potential donors to know?

  1. Invite a lot of testimonials. Depending on your organization and your community, it might take dozens of asks to get the handful of impactful testimonials you need.
  2. Edit with consent. When you invite the testimonial, seek their permission to edit what they write. Show them your proposed revisions. Ask them if this is how they would express the point. Accept their revisions. Make sure they are happy with the end result.
  3. Interview and compose. If someone is willing to testify but is unwilling (or unable) to actually write, then you can write it for them…but not off the top of your head. Interview the person, ask questions, hear their words, use their words, have them sign off on your final work.

All of this takes some heavy lifting, but it’s all well worth the effort.

Use Words Your Readers Use

Have you ever seen a testimonial quote like this?:

“Here at XYZ Nursing Home, the multidisciplinary approach among the professionals is a robust manifestation of the home’s commitment to resident-centred care. As a resident, I benefit from this approach, as do all other stakeholders.”

-Jane Doe, 91

That sounds like it was ripped out of a strategic plan document that didn’t put up much of a fight. To be honest, I have never seen anything quite that bad, but if any icy jargon like this appears in a testimonial quote, readers will know it’s not real. They will tune out and yawn. The language might reflect what you and your board believe at a professional level about the stewardship of your organization, but the language is not inspirational and it is unlikely to have impact.

Instead of the above, how about something like this?:

“So many people different people help me here. This morning, Jennie walked with me up and down the halls and did some exercises with me. We’re both fans of big band music so we usually hum together when we walk. After lunch, Sam the nurse checked up on me. Everyone is so nice. This place keeps me young!”

-Jane Doe, 91

Sign and Define

Ideally, your testimonials will be signed. First name and last name. Attributing a tiny story and some words of praise to a specific and real person tells the reader that the comment is authentic and heartfelt. In some communities, the reader will actually know the testifier. Authentic attribution adds impact. 

Full attribution is not always possible, of course. Your testifier might be a minor, there might be some privacy concerns, or your testifier might simply prefer not to have their name published.

In those cases, tell as much about the testifier as you can (and as much as the testifier or their guardians allow). Consider using the testifier’s age (if relevant to the service the organization provides); length of relationship with the organization; city, town, or neighbourhood; occupation; and/or a short, specific description of how the testifier engages with your organization.

In this day and age where people skim content looking for bits and pieces that speak to them, testimonials are a powerful tool. Strong, descriptive, authentic testimonials can have more impact than any other content you share.

*Names changed.

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