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The importance of plain speaking and writing for nonprofits

Many years ago I worked on a daily radio current affairs show. One of my pet hates was interviewing people from NGOs, because I could never understand what they were talking about. Many organisations were doing amazing work on important issues like housing, health, or education, but when I asked, ‘what do you do?’ they would respond with something like: ‘we are engaging with our stakeholders in order to undertake capacity building to ensure empowerment and synergy’. This left me, and our listeners, none the wiser.

After working in radio I went on to work in a number of NGOs. After a while, I realised I had become one of those people who rattles off a string of acronyms, and talks about ‘empowerment’, ‘capacity building’ and ‘synergy’. At dinner parties, when someone asked ‘what do you do?’ I could see their eyes glaze over and their attention begin to wander as soon as I started to respond.

Jargon has its place. It is specialised language that can help us communicate effectively within our fields of work. But if we are not careful it can become deadening, and stop us from thinking clearly. It can make us sound like we know what we are doing without showing the receipts. And it becomes a huge barrier when we need to communicate outside of our familiar bubbles – to build support for our work, or move people to action.

Some years ago I read Gobbledygook, by Don Watson, which offers a great argument in favour of plain language, along with examples of what is wrong with all the jargon and cliches we use without thinking. Another useful resource is Bad Words for Good, by Tony Proscio, which focuses particularly on how foundations ‘garble their message and lose their audience’.

One of my favourite authors on the issue of plain language is George Orwell, who was concerned with how politicians use language to obscure the truth and dull public thinking. He set this out brilliantly in an essay called Politics and the English Language.  Orwell offers six rules to guide clear and effective communication:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word when a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive when you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Storytelling is another important skill for anyone interested in communicating clearly and effectively. Back in my radio days, my favourite interviewees were the ones who could tell a good story. They managed to simplify complex information. They held my attention and made me want to keep listening. As Murray Nossel explains in his book Powered by Storytelling, good stories are full of specifics - they move us out of the abstract into the concrete, and are full of words that involve the senses. Things we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Good stories paint a clear picture of what is going on. They provide useful and interesting information while moving us emotionally.

It is not easy to speak and write clearly, particularly if we live and work with people who are also accustomed to using the jargon and abstractions we are familiar with. Not everybody is a natural storyteller. But the good news is these skills can be learned, with time and practice. The effort is absolutely worth it, and is likely to deliver huge benefits in increased support (funding and otherwise), and more effective communication and advocacy.

Brett Davidson

Narrative Strategist

Brett is a narrative strategist with deep experience in health equity, with a particular interest in the role of storytelling, popular culture, and arts activism in bringing about social change. Through his company Wingseed, he works with foundations and nonprofits interested in using the power of narrative and creativity for social justice. Brett is also the Narrative Lead at International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a donor collaborative for philanthropy focused on strengthening civil society through narrative strategies and creative moving image storytelling for impact.

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