Dear reader

Nairobi 2013 - let's not overstate the transformation
Nairobi 2013 – let’s not overstate the transformation

Whatever you might think of Bill and Melinda’s pro-aid stance (and there are many who disagree), the Gates annual letter is a well-crafted communications piece (mostly).  Here’s what it does right:

It creates a buzz.
Not easy for a publication these days. Of course, the authors are pretty well-known and have lots of money (they’ve handed out over USD 28 billion to date); they don’t exactly have to fight to be heard.

But the format of the Annual Letter also helps. A yearly piece is manageable for the light reader and it offers us a yardstick for how the world is changing, as viewed by Mr and Mrs Gates. But it’s not an annual report – everyone’s least favourite publication: it’s a letter – to you, dear reader. If someone cares enough to write you a letter, you should probably read it.

It’s clear.
Bill and Melinda make it easy for us. The premise is clear from the title: three assumptions, and why they’re wrong. We know what we’re getting – and we also know how we’re meant to react, long before we get to the call to action at the end (we should ‘get the word out on all these myths’).

How else do they make it easy for us? Three main points (poor countries stay poor, aid doesn’t work, saving lives means overpopulation): short enough to keep our attention, long enough to be credible; and three is the magic number, after all.  Straightforward, suprising facts (Americans tend to estimate that 25% of their budget is spent on aid; the reality is less than 1%). Examples that put things into perspective (‘four of the past seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison for corruption’).

When it comes to their use of photos though, clarity comes at the cost of credibility. Comparative views of cities in the 1970s and today could have been a striking way to show how far we’ve come. But they’re not even taken from the same vantage point, or they compare scenes of night and day. To me, that makes them fairly meaningless – doesn’t every city, at any period, have nicer and not-so-nice areas? Disappointing.

It’s personal.
The writing might also seem simplified to the experts. But it’s easy to read, and easy to understand for the rest of us. And it’s personal – not only because we ‘know’ the authors, and see their photos throughout the letter – but also because they tell us stories from their personal experience (‘We get asked all the time…’ ‘When I grew up…’). That ups their credibility. Every reader wants a story; storytelling convinces.

It’s daring.
If you’re going to go to all that effort to publish something, say something new. Bill Gates makes a daring prediction (‘by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries in the world’) that he knows will get picked up by the media.

He also addresses the critics – both by citing them (a few quotes from the best-known aid critic, William Easterly) and by reframing the question (it’s not about whether aid works, but about how to make it work better).

It’s targeted.
Melinda’s section on overpopulation is a direct response, apparently, to comments and criticism they’ve received online. So the Gateses are actually listening to and engaging with people beyond their captive audience – and taking them seriously enough to sit them down and explain the logic.

That’s why this is good communications – because after all, it’s not really aimed at the William Easterlys et al., who could provide dozens of counter examples if they wished to show aid not working, nor at the aid workers who already know that tackling child mortality doesn’t lead to overpopulation – but at the wider public. And this might be the document to convince them.

Obviously, it helps that it comes from one of the most powerful couples in the world.

For some analysis on the content of the letter, check out Chris Blattman or Humanosphere

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