Writing NGO comms content that's genuinely exciting: kill the hype

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Writer in inept use of English language.
Writer in inept use of English language.

Business-speak has a (justifiably) bad rep. And I am ashamed to say that, even (or especially) as a writer, I am not immune. It takes a friend to call you out on it, as in the following exchange:

I mean, honestly. All those words instead of just saying 'We'll work it out.'

In my defence, I had recently been engaged in a lot of business speak with business people doing business, and there's a certain impatience to the mind of the good businessman. He wants the job done, because that's how he (and you) are going to deliver what's needed. And so language becomes either loopy and obtuse (as when trying to hold an ambiguous situation in a sentence so the sentence still ends with an action point), or astonishingly over-hyped.

Do not skip to the end.

NGOs are not immune. It's not the profit motivation that makes people impatient in this way, it's the desire to get something done. The problem is that the get-it-done, skip-to-the-end approach to creating outputs doesn't work the same way when you're trying to create inspiration as it does when you're trying to make spreadsheets.

Content-creators (like me), of course, are famous for infuriating business-types (like me). We work exactly the opposite way. We take space to think, and the way we arrive at our outputs almost never involves thinking about the final form all the time. To quote Aaron Sorkin, it's not like putting a hammer to a nail. You have to sit and work out why your subject matters, and why it should matter to your audience. Why it's worth their attention.

(As a side-bar to this, you should try being both businessperson and a content-creator - as most content-creators are these days - it's like being both an ocean-liner and a Formula 1 car at the same time).

Business hype, then, might well come about because we know our work is important and we know that it's exciting but we don't want to put the hours in to working out how to make other people see that. Everything else in business is on-demand; why can't inspiration be the same?

So instead, we use a kind of filler text, where we say something is exciting rather than showing people why it's exciting.

Don't say 'this is exciting'. Make people excited instead.

This is warned against by the great C.S. Lewis, who I am convinced would have made a good NGO comms officer (if he was allowed to smoke a pipe in the office):

'Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing…instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible', describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was 'delightful': make us say 'delightful' after the description. All those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers 'please do my job for me.' - C.S. Lewis

Harsh words. But only if we are truthful with ourselves and acknowledge that, a lot of the time, we are doing precisely this when we write comms copy. And lest, as NGO communicators, we smugly tell ourselves that we aren't business hypesters, we should remember that NGO-speak is often just as ineffective as a communications approach.

The situation is horrifying. Their plight is awful. This story will shock you.

If our aim is to get people to care about our work, this sort of laziness just isn't going to work.

I'm tempted, here, to put a three-point list of ways I try to keep my work inspirational rather than simply aspirational; but perhaps this is something to track over time instead of wrapping up neatly at the end of a blogpost.

My instinct, though, is to say this: there is no solution to this problem except to acknowledge that creative content is a different kind of output entirely to other outputs you use. Trust your content-creators and accept that you just need to create space for inspiring content to happen.

You can do a lot to schedule content - you can make lists of ideas, you can brainstorm, you can edit and collaborate. And you can do a lot to train people and raise the quality of their first draft. But ultimately you need to give people space to make things and space to improve them. Construct the content-creation processes for your NGO accordingly, or you too could end up sounding like the worst kind of cautionary tale, like I did.

This is a StoryDave Burton