How to tell it

yourstoryI hate wasting anything – time, food, money – so it drives me mad to see official publications, nicely designed and translated and distributed, that read like a copy-paste of an internal report. Or websites that leave you re-reading sentences and clicking through pages before you can understand what they actually do. It doesn’t matter how glossy or cool it looks. Overuse of jargon, heartsinkingly long paragraphs, and vague sweeping statements instead of actual facts – it’s a wasted opportunity to tell your taxpayers, partners and public what you do, and why it matters.

This is all too common in public sector communications. Why? First, because the stuff they produce is often done so for reasons of transparency and accountability – something to tick off – rather than being seen as high-value marketing/advertising material, though arguably, comms departments still need to “sell” their organisation, just as their peers in commercial companies do.

Second, public sector organisations – rightly – have to squeeze more out of a tighter budget than private companies. Their campaigns will never be as slick, and nor should they be: this is not where we want our taxes / donations ending up. But material put out by governments and NGOs does need to be useful. It’s not about the amount of cash invested; it’s about how it’s spent. That includes being realistic with the budget you do have. Rather a well-written, maintained website, than, say, an ambitious multilingual campaign that can’t be delivered well.

Third, large bureaucracies like the UN and EU have complex signoff procedures. When too many people are given licence to edit one piece of text, I’m not sure the result can ever be good writing.

Of course, the stuff we’re trying to communicate doesn’t quite lend itself to clear, sparkling prose. Politically sensitive issues, awkward relations with partner organisations, project failures or half-successes, technically complex policies, etc.

But it can be done. Here’s where I’d start:

  • Give facts. Don’t just say “We supported water and sanitation programmes in Rwanda”. Between what dates? In what part of the country? How much did it cost? Who did the work, and what did they actually do? Aid agencies like talking about how many pipelines were laid or girls educated – but how exactly did you get there?
  • Be unambiguous. Get rid of flakey terms like “support”, “promote”, “contribute to”: did you send a cheque, fly over engineers, train locals, or just tell them you thought it was a good idea?
  • Risk a little informality. Political correctness has its place, but I’d love to see the end of referring to people – yep, human beings – as PLWHAs (People Living with HIV & AIDS), DPs (Displaced Persons), OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children), etc.
  • Risk a little honesty. Maybe, just maybe, be courageous and tell us what went wrong. Tell us the drama behind getting that pipeline laid, and what that’s changed for how you work. We might remember it better than yet another “success story”; after a while, they all start to sound the same.
  • Have your Mum proofread it. If a total outsider/non-expert has no idea what you’re on about, you’ve wasted your time. And no one likes waste.

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