Words matter: Practice makes perfect if you practise enough…

Words matter: Practice makes perfect if you practise enough…

The other day I was walking past a local café and spotted a hand-written sign in the window asking customers to practise social distancing. Except it said practice rather than practise, using the noun rather than the verb. It’s a mistake I often see in grant applications, and it made me smile that someone had taken a pen and edited it. Good on them!

How we use language in our grant proposals, case for support and other donor communications is really important. If a document is over-wordy, peppered with jargon and acronyms, tangled with over-complicated paragraphs, spelling errors, motherhood statements and tautology (saying the same thing twice in different words: think past history, close proximity, first established etc), we are likely to lose our reader/grant assessor/donor. With so much pressure on both grant-makers and grant-seekers due to Covid-19, we need to get our message across clearly, concisely and compellingly.

So I looked to UK fundraising pro and expert, Ken Burnett (www.kenburnett.com), for some inspiration. Here, with Ken’s kind permission, is an edited version of one of his 2014 blogs. It’s still as relevant now as it was then. Over to Ken (and to George Orwell):

Every day we all use words to communicate what we want to get across, in a range of ways. Our success or failure at it really matters. Most of us don’t manage to do it very well. We say lots, but convey little. We send out tons of information, but only a fraction of it gets through to achieve the ends we seek. Instead of communicating effectively we spray words and phrases around with seeming abandon, illuminating less and less.

Consider these fairly typical sentences from a recent draft case for support.

The fundraising appeal that is about to be launched will also provide our charity with an infrastructure that will boost on-going fundraising in order that the charity can continue to cover, post-appeal, what is hoped will be a diminishing shortfall in Government provision to the point where every needy child in the UK is receiving the support to which he or she is entitled. The appeal target is significant but, we believe, possible and this will be verified by our Feasibility Study.

Are you moved, inspired, or much the wiser? Me neither. Yet words are precision instruments capable of taking ideas and inspiration straight to the hearts and minds of our potential audiences.

In 1946 George Orwell wrote his seminal essay Politics and the English Language. Its lessons are every bit as pertinent as they were back then, perhaps more so. Here in essence are his main points, somewhat paraphrased and wrapped around a few observations of my own.

  • Words are precise tools worthy of careful deployment.
  • Never waste a word. If a word or phrase does not add specific meaning, strike it out.
  • Staleness of imagery and lack of precision are the twin enemies of clear thinking and effective communication.
  • Sloppy writing not only denotes sloppy thinking, it fosters it.
  • Bad writing habits are contagious. So are good ones.
  • Read your copy out loud, to a trusted friend. Words have to sound right and if they don’t, at least one of you should notice. (I am sure Ken wouldn’t mind if I, Charlotte, butted in here to say that I always recommend that grant-seekers print off the final draft of their proposals and read it out loud, as that’s the best way to proof-read, catch any errors and repetition).
  • The decline in the use of language is reversible. People can teach themselves to write right. But, you have to work at it.

Perhaps the best way we and our organisations could change the world would be to first change the way we write about what we do. I’ve come to believe that if we’re to have real impact we must get better at telling our stories with power, passion, purpose and precision.

Meanwhile, if it wasn’t such a tired, over-used old cliché I’d be tempted to fret that when he reads charity communications, poor old Orwell must be turning in his grave.