TIPS: 20 Questions to a Better Newsletter

Tips by Danette Clifton
North Alabama Conference Office of Communication

If you want to evaluate your church's newsletter here are 20 questions that can guide you. Grab a couple of issues of your churchs newsletter and ask yourself each question. Then you can read the tips to help you improve in that area of your newsletter.

Appearance Questions:

1. Is the layout done on a computer? 

If you are using this evaluation tool, you have access to a computer, so use it to enhance your church's newsletter!

Computers allow publishers to be consistent about the quality of their newsletters. Computer programs take care of the margins and line spacing for you while at the same time giving you more control over your fonts and placement of artwork. Plus, computers don't make as big of a mess as trying to glue a newsletter together by hand.

If you are not using a computer, consider this: many people reading your newsletter now expect their church to produce a newsletter at least as high in quality as their family Christmas newsletter they create on their home computer that they send to all their friends.

As a United Methodist Church, United Methodist Communications has done a lot to help you in the world of desktop publishing:

  • The Tech Shop allows you to buy computer programs at a great price for us at your United Methodist congregation. For more information click here
     
  • Another option you have as a United Methodist Church is a free product from United Methodist Communications called "News in Pews." United Methodist Communications provides an electronic template, which allows your church to create your own, high-quality newsletter. All you need is a computer that runs Microsoft Word, a printer,digital images(optional), and news and information from your congregation. Click here for more about News in Pews.

 

2. Is it printed on quality paper, reproduced clearly and folded straight?

In order for your newsletter to communicate effectively, people must first read it! First impressions can determine if people will even open your newsletter. If the printing is smudged or the paper is folded crooked, people may question why they should take the time to read something that looks "quickly thrown together."

If you produce a higher quality piece, your newsletter will get more attention from potential readers (especially new readers). So, convince the trustees to spend money to have your office equipment fixed or updated. They money will be worth it when you are able to produce communication pieces that truly help your congregation stay connected with the life of the church.

When choosing paper, stay with basic white of at least 60 lb. (If you MUST go crazy, choose a buff, off white or maybe light gray paper.) Now, you may be thinking, "But if I print it on hot pink paper, the church members will notice when it comes to their mailbox." Well, maybe the first time they will, but if they get a headache trying to read the pink paper they probably won't pay much attention to it the next time it arrives. Quickly take a moment to look at the newspapers, books, and magazines you read. What color is the paper? People are used to reading words on white paper.

The key to publishing an effective newsletter is to make it easy for your readers to read and attractive enough for them to want to read it.

 

3. Do you use three fonts (typefaces) or fewer in the newsletter?

Many people separate typefaces into three different categories: serif (like Times New Roman), sans serif (like Helvetica), and display (like Papyrus). 

Serif fonts have tiny tags (or serifs) on each letter (here's an example of a serifed typeface). Paragraphs and grouped text is usually typed with serifed fonts because the tags help tie the words together for smoother reading. 

Titles and headlines usually use a sans serifed font. ("Sans" means "without" in French. These typefaces have no serifs [tags]). Sans serifed typefaces usually take a little longer to read, so they don't make good paragraph-style fonts. "But you're using a sans serif typeface in this paragraph!" you might say. True, but it's generally easier to read a sans serif font on a computer screen than a serif font. For printing purposes, the serif font is easier to read.

Display fonts are usually those "pretty" or "weird" or "neat" looking typefaces. Use these sparingly! Display fonts are often times more valuable for their artistic qualities than readability. Display fonts are use for for logos, one-word attention-drawers, and artistic flare.

 

4. Is there enough white space (unfilled space) to make for comfortable reading?

You hear people say it all the time - "their lives are busy." They like to accomplish things in a hurry. Allow reading your newsletter to be one thing they can easily accomplish. White space (empty space) allows hurried people to feel more comfortable reading a publication.

Consider these ways to create white space:

  • Prioritize what goes in the newsletter. If you have too much information of this issue, hold some until the next issue. Edit down some of the longer articles or find another way to communicate some of the information (such as posting it on your website).
     
  • Use bulleted lists instead of long, narrative paragraphs to get the basic information across.
     
  • Use short sentences. This is not your senior high school term paper. Your goal is to get your readers to read your newsletter and be informed about the life of the church - not to call you the "Shakespeare of our day."

 

5. Does your newsletter have a consistent and predictable order so readers can quickly go to the sections that most apply to their involvement at the church?

You are having a rushed morning and can only read two sections of the newspaper or click on two sections of your favorite news site. What sections do you read? Because those sections are labeled you can make this decision (and probably often do). This helps you as a reader.

In an ideal world people should be interested in all areas of ministry of the church and want equal information about everything. However, in our world they are busy and are mainly looking for the information that applies most directly to them. As a publisher, you can help them find the information most vital to them and the areas of ministry in which they are most involved. (If you have an attractive newsletter on their less busy days, they will stop to read it all.)

Also, consider including a table of contents on the front page to help your readers find what they're looking for.

 

Content Questions:

6. Have you identified the audience(s) of your newsletter (church members, first-time visitors, members of your community who may have never stepped into the church, etc.), and is the language used and content included appropriate to this audience? 

In order to communicate effectively, you must have a vision of whom you are trying to reach. If your newsletter only goes to long-time church members, you don't have to explain "insider terms." If your newsletter is an evangelism piece, you need to explain everything so that a newcomer would actually understand what's happening in your church. If someone is put on your mailing list after one or two visits to the church, there needs to be enough information that will help them feel welcome to get involved at the church.

 

7. Does the masthead (the title banner of your publication) include the name of the church, and does your publication include the name of the church and the church's full contact information (address, phone numbers, website address, e-mail address(es), etc.)?

In this world of junk mail and SPAM, people need to be able to quickly identify what pieces are from the church. They also need to have information where they can quickly respond to the church if necessary.

Your newsletter experiences great success when two-way communication happens. If your readers are calling to be part of an event, you know they have read the newsletter!

This information also enables your church to be in ministry with people on your mailing list. They now have the contact information so they can reach out to ask for help or share joys in their lives. 

 

8. Does the newsletter include a church staff or leadership listing and contact information?

This will help newcomers begin to learn which "Sue" is the Choir director and which is the Children's Director, or which "John" is the Youth Minister and which is the Financial Secretary. (This does not have to be a lengthy rite of passage to be accepted in the life of the church.) Offer the information up front, and it will help people feel more a part of your congregation.

This also makes your staff and/or church leaders more accessible and better able to do their jobs of helping make disciples of Jesus Christ. 

 

 9. Does the front page include the most important and timeliest piece of information in the life of the church?

Not to offend our clergy, but the most important piece of information is not always the pastor's article. However, at certain times of the year, the pastor's words to the congregation might be the most important information they need to read. (It's usually a good practice to consistently put the pastor's article on page 2 of the newsletter.)

Since some of your readers will never make it past your front page, it should include information about the big events in the life of the church for that week or month. To decide what to put on the front page, ask yourself, "if they don't know anything else about our church this week/month, they need to know these one or two things. (Never crowd the front page with more than three major announcements.) 

 

10. Does each announcement contain complete information about the event (who, what, where, when, why and how much it costs)?

The newsletter can serve as a means to help people get active and stay active in the church. In this world of endless choices, the newsletter can make this easier on people by putting all the information they need about an activity in one place. If you are forcing people to dig around and go on a time-consuming search for information just to get involved in an activity or project, you may be wearing them out before they get a chance to use their energy in that ministry in which they were originally interested. 

 11. Does each article or announcement include enough information for readers to respond (full name and contact information for key contact person)?

This serves as a simple test to see how effective your newsletter is. Do people respond? Are they taking part in ministries and attending events? 

 

12. Does the newsletter contain an easy-to-read calendar that includes days and times of church events? Is there a list of weekly worship times?

For that segment of your congregation that carries planners, and keys all their appointments in their mobile device, it's obvious their calendars are very important to them. Providing a calendar can help reach this segment of your audience in a language they understand.

Aim to have a calendar that's so attractive and useful that your church families choose it to be the calendar they post on the refrigerator each month. They can then write their other life events on the calendar around the church events. This is a means that will help your families make church a priority in their lives. 

 

13. Is all information included legally? Do you have permission of the copyright holder to use that cartoon, poem, etc.? Are you giving proper credit to all your sources?

The ten commandments say, "Thou shall not steal." If you don't have the rights to use someone else's work, you are stealing from them. If the Church practices copyright infringement (stealing), we are dishonoring our God and THAT IS A BIG DEAL! 

 

14. Do you avoid packing your newsletter with insider language? Here's a test: count the abbreviations or acronyms (such as UMW, UMYF, UMM, VBS, COM, Ad. Board, SS class). If there are more than 3 used and never explained in one issue, then you are packed with insider language.

As United Methodists we are a denomination of acronyms and abbreviations. It's almost like learning a second language, "Churchspeak." Jesus never told us we had to learn the right language in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, so you shouldn't expect everyone to learn one just to participate in your church.

Explaining each acronym and abbreviation the first time you use it in each issue of your newsletter will help you communicate more clearly with newcomers, and your long-time members may learn something too.

Remember, you may need to explain more than acronyms and abbreviations. You may need to explain that "RockN4Jesus" is your contemporary worship service; "Methodist Munchkins" is your children's church; and the "Wesley-Asbury-Epworth Room" is the fellowship hall/dining room. 

 

15. Are there follow-up articles about Church events as well as announcements of upcoming events? (Follow-up articles include details of events, thank-yous to volunteers, and info about the next step in that specific ministry area.)

We do so much to promote ministries and events, but often the best promotion is to let people know how things are going in a specific area of the church's ministry. The more they hear about what they are missing, the more likely they will want to get involved with that area of ministry at the next opportunity.

 

"Taking it to the Next Level" Questions:

16. Does the use of artwork enhance or take away from other information? Is the artwork stylistically consistent and printed clearly? 

While "a picture paints a thousand words," be sure that those thousand words go with what you're talking about. Make sure that your artwork is consistent throughout your publication. If you're using photographs to help accentuate a story, you may want to avoid using clip art (and vise versa). Notice the magazines and newspapers you read. How does the art that they use reflect the stories that they're telling? Generally speaking, publications are not littered with too much art. Make sure that the art you use supports the words you're printing.

 

17. If you print photographs of activities in your church, does your duplication process allow the photos to print clearly on the final product?

Again, "a picture paints a thousand words," but gray blobs do not say a thing. If your technology is not up to printing pictures, don't force it for now. Maybe you can budget for one or two issues to be professionally printed during the year to get the best use out of your photos.

 

18. Are you using spot color (two or more colors without the use of a 4+ color process press)?

A little color is attractive. One way you can do this is to use a shell with color. Work with a professional printer (or use a color duplicator/press) to make a simple color border for your publication (perhaps including the masthead and some contact information on the top and down the sides respectively). You can then print your black ink in the space that's left over (much like on letterhead).

 

19. Do you occasionally have special sections or inserts about specific ministries to (re)educate your congregation? (For example: an insert with information on the ministries your church supports during the yearly stewardship campaign, explanation of leadership position responsibilities at nominations time, annual letters from missionaries your church supports, a section on your youth and children's ministry opportunities during the fall back-to-school time, a United Methodist primer so all members can review their Methodist knowledge as your new confirmation class is welcomed into membership, etc.)

If your newsletter provides people with valuable and useful information, they will read it. If it becomes a vital link to being an active member, they will read it.

 

20. Have you had your newsletter evaluated by an outside professional communication consultant or graphic designer?

Churches see results by hiring a firm one time to help give them direction.

The Office of Communication can offer this service for "free" (your apportionments at work). We are available to meet with your communications team to help you develop ways to improve the communication power and look of your newsletter.

For help with your newsletter, contact Danette Clifton at the North Alabama Conference Office of Communication.

 

 

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