The writer gets over himself: finding a good tone of voice in NGO communications

Learning to write in your organisation’s voice is hugely important if you’re an NGO communications professional. I’ve been creating a lot of content recently for Glean’s This is a Story project — our forthcoming guide to simple NGO communications — and while I’ve been writing, I’ve been noticing a bigger and bigger difference between my voice and Glean’s voice.

This is something I could talk about forever, for I am a nerd about language and communication. But right now, I want to talk about choosing the right words for your audience by keeping a close eye on your tone of voice.

As always, this is about observing my own learning process, as someone who has been writing for as long as he’s been reading and who is nonetheless always discovering things he doesn’t know.

Learning from my own writing

That last sentence is a great example of the kind of thing I wouldn’t write in a guide I was creating for Glean. I like the sentence a lot, because of the internal rhythm of its recursive structure: by structuring it that way, I think I’m able to shed light on the internal workings of my writing, and specifically the interaction between my experience (which is large) and my learning (which is nonetheless still going on). However, in order to shed that particular light, the sentence gets complicated. I don’t mind that, but it means the reader needs to be willing and able to go on a little dance with me instead of walking directly from A to B.

If I was writing that sentence for a Glean guide, it would read something like this:

‘You never stop learning. I’ve been writing for decades, and I love doing it — but that doesn’t mean I know everything. While I’ve been creating these guides, I’ve seen many ways I can improve my writing to make it clearer for more people.

I mean, hopefully the version I’ve written for this blog is more characterful, and more expressive of my personal style. I certainly think it says what its saying in a more interesting way, and therefore perhaps makes the point land better with people who bother to follow it. But that’s the point. Its construction raises the level of attention the reader needs to pay to get anything out of it at all.

It may be more fun (for me, at least). But it is also less accessible.

That’s fine. It’s my blog. And my voice, too; I’d be a fool to try and emulate someone else. But that’s not the case when I’m writing for my organisation. Even though I am one of the major voices that shapes Glean’s content and brand, it would be inappropriate for me to bring my voice unedited into Glean’s content in all its image-laden structural back-and-forth — the result of a youth (mis)spent reading too much P.G. Wodehouse — because with Glean, I’m serving people whose needs are diverse.

(Or again, to put it in the Glean voice: often when I write personally I find it fun to use complex sentences, but that can make it too difficult to follow what I’m saying. Our audience at Glean might not speak English as a first language, so I need to make sure I communicate in a way that’s as clear as possible when I’m writing for them.)

Cross-cultural communications

I’m thinking about this today because of a conference I attended last weekend. It was a great conference — a lot of the participants are complete heroes, engaged in the thankless task of enabling rehabilitation for prisoners in often-horrifying contexts. It was great to meet them, and great to learn from them.

At this conference, almost everyone spoke English as a second language. I spent most of my time communicating in simple language, aiming for each sentence to contain a clear meaning in as few words as possible. I’ve been working cross-culturally for long enough now that this isn’t something I really think about any more, and so it wasn’t until I left that I realised the kind of language I hadn’t been using for a few days.

When I arrived home, I had a thoroughly enjoyable meal with my wife, whose conversation is always illuminating, playful and fun. That’s about a lot of things — not least the fact that she’s far smarter than I am — but it’s also about the fact that we can talk using a language that is fairly complex. When you’re having a conversation in English as a first language, humour is a huge part of things, and that humour is often linguistic, arising in ironic asides or pithy observations. Words aren’t just tools, but toys. Sentences dance. I enjoy it a lot.

But at the conference, it would have been completely inappropriate for me to communicate with that kind of complexity. If I’d have spent all of my conversations having fun with language, two things would have resulted. One is that I’d have spent the weekend being frustrated, because none of my bons mots (such as they were) would have made people laugh. And the second is that the conference would have been a complete waste of time. My contributions would have been worthless, because no-one would have understood them.

That’s not to say there was no humour — when you have a room containing Kiwis, Aussies, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Cambodians, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Thais, Americans, Indians, a Solomon Islander, a South African, a Dutchman and a Brit, there’s enough good-natured cultural misunderstanding to fuel a weekend of laughter, and it was so — but the fun didn’t come from the language, it came from the connection between people. The language was, of necessity, simple. And incidentally, thank God, it was English, otherwise I would have been in trouble, what with my fractured French, broken Bangla and cracked Khmer.

Know your audience (properly)

For the purposes of that conference, we were each other’s audience; we were each the person that the other people in the room needed to connect with and understand. So we spoke simple English, in the hope that we would maximise the extent to which we understood each other.

With Glean, I’m creating content that needs to be helpful to people around the world, but particularly to people in developing contexts. It’s vital that I recognise that if Glean is going to do good, it needs to do it in a way that’s as accessible as possible. That means Glean’s voice, and my voice, are distinct: that I have to place my desire to be understood ahead of my desire to have fun when I write.

The principle is this: I need to get over myself and serve my audience.