Back to Blog
A young Steve jobs holding up an apple

Thank you for the "mental real estate"

You can find a lot of cool stuff tucked away in the nooks and crannies of a person's brain.

For example...

Before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the Apple Macintosh, computers did not offer multiple fonts. You got 1 font and 1 font only. (Don't like it? Too bad!)

Jobs came up with the revolutionary idea of allowing users to choose from a list of nifty fonts at least in part because he was inspired by a college class he took on calligraphy.

Do you need calligraphy to become a computer expert? Nope. But we all benefitted because Steve Jobs took that class and made a little space in his big brain for the art of fonts.

Macintosh computer, with fonts made possible by Steve Jobs' interest in calligraphy

Likewise, people of a certain age understand that even though college is often important to career success... All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

So, should K-12 be shortened to Just-K? No, stop it. Don't even joke about that.

The point is...

Ideally: everywhere you turn, you learn.

And what Brett learned years ago when he dabbled in screenwriting includes why "mental real estate" is important for fundraising...

According to Hollywood screenwriter Terry Rossio, mental real estate is essentially the idea that we can be more effective by building on ideas – "real estate" – already well established in people's minds.

Let's start with a familiar example: APPLE.

Here's what Steve Jobs said about choosing the name "APPLE":

“I was on one of my fruitarian diets. I had just come back from the apple farm... It sounded funspirited, and not intimidating.”

Keep in mind this was last millennium, circa 1984, when home computing was (for most people) pretty dang new and more than a bit intimidating. The average consumer did not want to buy a computer yet. Computers seemed not fun.

Onto the stage of computer history: Enter APPLE.

The Apple Computer Company branded itself using a very common item that is known for many positive connotations.

This was a good use of mental real estate. People started to associate computers with the positive qualities of apples. With time and marketing, computers were newly perceived as fun and spirited and not intimidating.

And, evidently, people began to think of computers in other apple-ish ways: as "tasty" and crave-able... as beneficial for a productive, healthy habit... as good for keeping the (tech) doctor away.

But isn't APPLE's use of ordinary apples just plain, old symbolism? The kind that teachers are known to ramble on about in school?

Teacher voice: "And so the great white whale Moby Dick symbolizes God, nature, fate, the ocean and the very universe itself..."

Yes, symbolism can serve as one kind of mental real estate. And you can try to use it in your fundraising by occasionally including in your copy an object that you want your supporters to associate with your cause.

When you do this, you light up big, beautiful areas of your supporters' brains. And this light that you light up shines upon your messaging, making it more persuasive.

Some Other Kinds of Mental Real Estate

But it's not only symbolism that can serve as mental real estate. You might also try...

anthropomorphism: making an animal seem like a person

  • For example, you might consider writing an appeal from the perspective of an animal beneficiary, as Agents of Good did here.
  • Incidentally, in an appeal for one of our clients, we are now writing the letter from the perspective of a friendly moth named Harold. (You see, he speaks on behalf of his little forest friends.)
  • Such an approach builds on the mental real estate of small, cute beings in danger... and perhaps warm childhood memories of animated films and shows.

allusion: a kind of implicit analogy that calls to mind something well-known, such as a work of art, a piece of pop culture, or a moment in history

  • For example, you might consider creating a newsletter with an impact story that mentions God reaching down from the heavens – an allusion to Michelangelo's "The Divine Spark" in the Sistine Chapel.
  • Such an approach would build on the mental real estate of the spectacle of Rome, the glory of the divine, and the transcendence of Renaissance art.
  • Notice how Jeff Brooks accomplishes something similar here by comparing trees to a cathedral. (Brooks uses a simile, not an allusion; but it's the same sort of idea.)

imagery: (which can be used for) visual symbolism

  • For example, you might consider producing a gratitude report that features carefully selected imagery suggesting the kind of impact you want to convey.
  • Check out this example, also from Agents John Lepp & Jen Love, in which a beneficiary is featured in a love story, as if within a cherished scrapbook.
  • Such an approach builds on the mental real estate of family heirloomstreasured photos, and beloved older-style keepsakes.

So, next time you are looking to connect your heart to your supporters' hearts with compelling copy and arresting imagery, try connecting your mind to theirs by building on their mental real estate.


While you're here...

Why not read a little more?

Here are a few more blog posts you might like:

1. Make Your Fundraising Offer the Cliffhanger (Star Wars Fundraising) 

2. You Can't Feel "Empty Urgency"

3. The 1 Forrest Gump Fundraising Secret You Need

4. Do Your Fundraising Stories Give Away the Ending? 

The Fundraising Writing Newsletter

Every week we send a letter about fundraising, writing, donors, and life to smart fundraisers like you.

We share fresh, practical donor communication tips and resources... and some silliness too.

It’s free. Unsubscribe whenever you want.

We love when good things arrive in our inboxes. If you do too, subscribe today.