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Call to Action: specific, compelling, doable

call to action


Be clear about what you want people to do. 


By Tom Peterson

Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth gives an inside look at a presentation the former vice president made more than a thousand times. After two hours of information alerting the audience to the crisis of climate change, Gore ends with an overarching call to reduce carbon emissions:

Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can make choices to change that with the things we buy, the electricity we use, the cars we drive; we can make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero. The solutions are in our hands, we just have to have the determination to make it happen. We have everything that we need to reduce carbon emissions, everything but political will. But in America, the will to act is a renewable resource.

The end credits begin to roll with this question: “Are you ready to change the way you live? The climate crisis can be solved. Here’s how to start.” The first action is to go to Then for three-plus minutes mixed with the normal movie credits are more than 30 specific actions, in the imperative voice, the audience can take: use more efficient lightbulbs, ride a bicycle, vote for leaders who pledge to solve the crisis, “tell your parents not to ruin the world you live in,” and “join with your children to save the world they will live in.”

That the suggestions are varied should come as no surprise. Nancy Duarte, who helped develop the Inconvenient Truth presentation, believes that because people are different “providing each type with at least one action that’s suited to their temperament allows them to choose the action they’re most comfortable performing.” In her book Resonate she describes four types who will answer calls to action:

  • Doers, the worker bees who do whatever needs to be done
  • Suppliers who will find the financial, human or material resources to move the effort forward
  • Influencers who will persuade individuals and groups to join the cause
  • Innovators who will think of new ways to modify and spread the idea

One person may respond by simply turning out the lights when leaving the room, while another commits to a lifetime of legislative battles. It takes all of us. But first there has to be the call.

call to action nonprofitThe call to action

You create communication campaigns for your cause not to entertain or inform (although these may be part of it) but ultimately to get people to do something. So start your campaign strategy by asking, what action do we want the audience to take? Messaging is then developed around that. Persuasive communication lays out the problem and then presents the solutions. It gives a vision of the new world as the problem is solved. A call to action asks the audience to be the solution. Whether it’s on your home page, a brochure or a talk to the local civic club it’s the end point of your appeal and the beginning of action toward the better future.

Wouldn’t it be great if supporters answered your calls as a hungry cat responds to the sound of a can opener? While you may have a few super fans, most folks aren’t waiting around for someone to ask for their time or money. But many do share your values and, given a solid presentation, will want to join your cause. Fortunately there are some time-tested ways to improve your response.

Suggestions for a strong call to action

Suggest specific acts. You have laid out a problem and a solution, now give a specific way for people to join in. Use imperative verbs to get action verbs. The action is something you could actually see someone doing. You could see them donating with their credit card, signing a petition, calling the toll-free number, joining the march or planting the tree. You tell someone what to do. It may be polite—Please call today!—but you are unambiguous, you want them to call.

When President Obama would mention Donald Trump while campaigning at rallies for Hilary Clinton, the audience often booed. Obama repeated over and over: Don’t boo, vote! What do you really want people to do? Donate by clicking here, sign this petition, volunteer, join this march, wear a pink ribbon on Saturday, next time you see someone bullied take this action, plant a tree this month.

Focus on the one thing you need. Since 1971 when President Nixon ended the draft, the United States has depended on people to volunteer for its armed forces. Young men and women are being asked to disrupt and even risk their lives for their country. Joining is a tough decision. On the U.S. Army website, you’ll find a video “Join the team that makes a difference,” with “It’s your job to solve the world’s greatest challenges.” The messaging continues with incentives: Earn a bonus up to $40,000. But the Army knows that they need that potential recruit to connect with them so they can begin the conversation. The site is covered with Email us, Call us, and clickable buttons: See what it takes. Apply online.

Be concise. A nonprofit’s fundraising letter asks for one singular thing: a donation. It will probably offer a few ways to give: the website is listed for online donations, there’s a return envelope for a check and a toll-free number to call. Marketers have learned over the years that presenting more than one action will seriously depress results.

Use urgency. In your messaging you’ve already presented the reasons to act, you’ve appealed to the heart and told stories to connect. You’ve already talked about the urgency. In your call to action continue the sense of urgency with words like Now and Today. Someone depends on your taking this action. The future is in your hands, act today by ___.

Make your call to action standout. The call to action needs to be obvious. In the visual message—print, online or a billboard—make it stand out by surrounding it with negative space or giving it larger type or a different color. If it’s audio, like a presentation or radio, repeat it, say it different ways.

Right time, right place. If possible, put your call in actionable moment and place. Most churches know this, they pass the offering plate—that each person touches!—every time people gather to worship. People showing up at an event are asked at the door if they want to sign the petition, or sign up for the e-newsletter. If you’re trying to get people to register to vote, the voter registration cards are right there to fill out. If you’re trying to get people to eat more vegetables give away carrots from the local farmer along with a coupon for the farmers market.

Overcome concerns. What concerns do people have about your group? Address them near the call to action. To grow to more than 100 million subscribers Netflix assured people you can easily get out: “Watch anywhere. Cancel anytime.”

Lower the barriers. Good marketers obsess over making it easy to take the step. Web designers know to make the call to action obvious and highly visible. Every way the public comes into contact with you matters. Does the person who calls your group’s phone number have to persistently push buttons to navigate their way through a maze of recorded messages and a Muzak-laden hell? Or does a friendly voice answer, “How can I help you?”

Some asks will be easy but some will be harder. You may ask them to commit to a weekly volunteer spot or even risk getting arrested for an act of civil disobedience. All the more reason to remove as many barriers as possible. Make your action road as easy as possible for your supporter’s journey.

Multiple asks over time 

As Duarte points out, audiences are not monolithic but a collection of individuals with unique needs and desires, wants, motivations. Some will volunteer, others will donate. Others will do research for you or introduce you to a key influencer. You can’t address all of these in a focused campaign. So your messaging over time asks for different things to connect with the variety of potential supporters.

And some materials will let people know of more than one need: brochure or website should tell people how to donate, volunteer and find out more. While the e-blast or direct mail letter will be more singular: donate today to help these hurricane victims.

The call to action: answerable and meaningful

In his book Certain Trumpets Gary Wills explores the partnership between leaders and followers. He says that for there to be leadership, there have to be people willing to follow, with an agreed upon goal. Without them, says Wills, “the best ideas, the strongest will, the most wonderful smile have no effect.”

When Shakespeare’s Welsh seer, Owne Glendower, boasts that “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur deflates him with the commonsense answer: “Why, so can I, or so can anyone. But will them come when you do call them?” It is not the noblest call that gets answered, but the answerable call.

Lincoln, says Wills, didn’t have the noblest vision of human equality in his day; the abolitionists did. But his career was developed mutually between his leadership and the followers “say” in where they were being led. “A leader who neglects that fact soon finds himself without followers. To sound a certain trumpet does not mean just trumpeting one’s own certitudes. It means sounding a specific call to specific people capable of response.”


Find that sweet spot between so easy that it’s meaningless—click here if you agree—and such a stretch that a potential supporter just can’t go there. Between not important and too hard. A good call to action tells people how they can help make the world better and takes into account where they are now and where they are willing to go.


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