The Guardian: web article
The following article featured in The Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network on 31 January 2011.
What one thing could charities do in 2011 to inspire supporters and boost fundraising? Trina Wallace, a writer at charity copywriting agency ngo.media, says it’s simple – ditch the jargon
These days, jargon seems to be the charity world’s lingua franca.
Charities have picked up management-speak from the corporate world, public sector euphemisms and obscure academic concepts – and added a few of their own for good measure.
Too often, charity writing is littered with the latest buzzwords and highfalutin phrases in the belief that this sounds impressive. Strip away the jargon, though, and there’s often very little meaning underneath.
Here’s an example of a sentence from a charity publication that can land on my desk in an average working week:
“Going forward, the development and implementation of a robust framework for targeting the delivery of consistent excellence organisation-wide is key.”
It actually translates to “We will do our best”. Plain English please.
Making copy clear and accessible is a problem for many charities.
If people can’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll stop listening. And now, more than ever, thanks to a combination of government cuts and the recession, charities need people to listen.
When charities use poor language to communicate what they do, the people they support suffer. Funders switch off when they read proposals, campaigners won’t be inspired to take action and donors aren’t convinced to set up direct debits. If that happens, charities can’t continue to do their work.
The Plain English Campaign defines plain English as “writing that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it”.
So if someone needs to read something more than once to understand it, it needs to be rewritten.
Consider your audience
Specialised language that you use in your field can be useful jargon. Let’s say you work for a mental health charity and use terms like cognitive behavioural therapy, CAMHS, and needs-based assessments. It’s always worth briefly explaining any specialised terms the first time you mention them but, if you’re writing for other mental health professionals, to do so every time would be tedious.
When you’re writing for a general audience, there’s no place for jargon. But certain jargon-y words crop up in charity copy all the time. Some are ugly. Some mean nothing to people outside the sector. Others have, or once had, a useful meaning, but are dragged out so often that they’ve become stale.
So here’s my plea to charity sector colleagues: let’s make 2011 a jargon-free year. And to support this call, here are 10 words to avoid if you want to keep your charity writing fresh:
As in: Our new strategy is a robust framework for change.
Why you should avoid it: Why would you come up with proposals that are weak and flaky? Instead of pointless adjectives, give some concrete examples of how you’re going to make sure these changes really happen.
As in: We deliver services that deliver results to thousands of people.
Why you should avoid it: Used so much that it has become a cliché, usually quoted numerous times on the average charity’s website. Try “provide”, “produce” or “achieve” instead.
As in: We empower people to access services.
Why you should avoid it: It makes the people being empowered the object of the sentence. Charities often use it instead of “help” in the belief that it sounds less condescending, but it still implies that you’re doing the work for people. Use an example of how your work gives people the power to change their own lives.
As in: Community engagement is vital to the success of the project.
Why you should avoid it: Once upon a time this word was the preserve of people about to get married. Today charities use it to make the amazing one-to-one support they provide sound about as exciting as a board meeting. Would you rather engage with people, or speak to them instead?
As in: We facilitate community engagement and empowerment.
Why you should avoid it: A term that’s crept in from the corporate sector via teaching. Often charities are simply talking about helping people, how they’ve organised something or made people’s lives easier, terms that are less vague and simpler to understand.
As in: Empowering people to access services will positively impact the community.
Why you should avoid it: The spectre of business speak hangs heavy over this much-debated word. A lot of people dislike it so don’t risk alienating them. “Have an impact on” or “affect” are less controversial and give you more of a chance to explain the impact you’re talking about.
As in: We will leverage social media to engage with new audiences.
Why you should avoid it: Why not “use” social media instead? From business and financial jargon, leverage is meaningless and, arguably, grammatically inaccurate. “To lever” is the verb and means the exertion of force by use of a lever. Compare the addition of the suffix “age” to “to run” – it does not make a verb “to runage”.
As in: Roll-out of the service will begin in January.
Why you should avoid it: Another phrase from the corporate sector that’s well past its use-by date. Pizza dough benefits from being rolled out. Using it in your charity communications makes your copy sound just as flat. Better to specify what you will be doing and when.
As in: Services users are engaged and empowered.
Why you should avoid it: Service users are real people. Referring to them en masse dehumanises them. Try using “the people we support” or focus on one person’s story.
As in: Engagement with stakeholders will facilitate roll-out.
Why you should avoid it: Remember former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “stakeholder society”? It’s still alive and well judging by some charity annual reports. The people who work with charities are dedicated to improving lives, but using this word makes them faceless. Instead try “people involved in the project” or list who they are.
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