Charities need to communicate more clearly

Freelance writer Juno Baker offers advice on stripping out jargon and writing plain English

Juno Baker
Juno Baker

Let’s be honest: on the whole, third sector organisations get their messages across very well. They have to, otherwise they won’t survive. But nobody’s perfect, and while charities are usually brilliant at communicating clearly, the sector does tend to use lots of different terms to describe the same thing – especially itself: ‘community sector’, ‘charity sector’, ‘third sector’, ‘voluntary sector’, ‘voluntary and community sector’.

There might be subtle differences between these terms but the way they’re used interchangeably can be baffling to people who don’t work in the sector.

And then there are several terms for trustees. As the Charity Commission says on its website: "They may be known as trustees, directors, board members, governors or committee members."

This is confusing for outsiders, but it’s a habit we’re likely to see more of in future as the sector evolves. What for example, is the difference between a ‘social enterprise’, ‘charitable company’ and a ‘social venture’?

Of course the sector has to adapt to more straitened circumstances and the big society,  and it must accommodate its partners. But we should resist picking up the bad language habits of government, business and the legal profession.

So although it’s tempting to talk about ‘unleashing social energy’, ‘public-facing projects’ and ‘disintermediation’, we’re more likely to be understood if we talk about increasing volunteering, working with the public and cutting out the middle man (or woman).

When all around you are using jargon, however, it is very difficult not to. So here are some tips:

1) When you’ve finished writing, take a break before re-reading what you’ve written and highlighting all the jargon. Then change the jargon into everyday language.

‘Key’ or ‘robust’ may be exactly the right word. But it doesn’t do any harm to ask why something is key (is it important or essential?) or why it’s robust (because it’s tried and tested, well considered or well researched?)

Look out for extra words that you don’t really need, such as ‘in order to’ instead of ‘to’, ‘together with’ or ‘in conjunction with’ instead of ‘with’ on its own.

And then there’s a raft/range/wide range/number/plethora and variety of wordy expressions that can be replaced with ‘several’, ‘many’ and ‘various’, or just deleted altogether.

2) Keep your writing concise by making only one point, sometimes two, in each sentence and by writing short sentences. Avoid qualifying the points you make by explaining background information as an afterthought in lots of sub clauses. If you find yourself doing this, reorder the information and use more than one sentence to rewrite it.

3) Use simple punctuation. Full stops and commas will serve you well, especially if you use short sentences. Semi-colons are overrated and frequently over-used, incorrectly. Bullet points are excellent for lists, but avoid bulleting whole documents.

4) Remember that you, your readers and the people you’re writing about are human. So avoid terms like ‘service users’ and ‘stakeholders’ unless they’re absolutely essential to the meaning. Similarly, try not to use passive language. So, for example,  say, "A hundred people are eating at the centre every day" instead of "A hundred service users per day are fed at the centre".

These guidelines will help you write more clearly but, as George Orwell said, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

Juno Baker is a freelance writer and editor who specialises in the public and voluntary sectors. For more information about her work, see her website at www.junobaker.co.uk

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