The power of the internet has allowed us to click a button and instantly share a message with the world. Of course, that power comes with pros and cons. While it’s easier than ever to connect with your citizens and deliver the comprehensive information they need, it’s also all too easy to deliver the message badly and leave the audience frustrated and confused. And disaster aside, the people you are trying to reach are constantly bombarded with other messages, which has turned writing into a competition for attention and interest.
Our government communications expert, Gail Granger, shares 5 writing tips to ensure that your government writing reaches your audience clearly and effectively.
- Write from the audience’s point of view
- Avoid jargon
- Don’t bury the message
- Say enough, but not too much
- Give your readers a call to action
Write from the audience's point of view
The trick to good writing is to be an expert on your topic while writing as if you are hearing about it for the first time. In other words, put yourself in the readers’ shoes, and pretend that, like them, you haven’t read piles of background documents to help you understand your topic. Your audience is always asking: “What’s in it for me?” Let this be your biggest priority as you put together information. As communicators, it’s tempting to begin by saying something positive about the work your office is doing, but readers are much more interested in how a change or update is going to affect them.
In this respect, communicators who work for smaller municipalities have an advantage. They connect with residents directly on a regular basis, whether through formal inquiries to the office or more informal conversations that take place within the community. This regular interaction makes it easier to understand the audience’s interests and concerns.
Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “Why does this matter to me?”
Make sure you include:
- When: Clarify the timeline for the change/new policy/fee increase.
- Why: Explain why the changes are needed and why they are important to the reader. No one likes a fee increase, for example, but people may be more accepting if they know higher fees will help to keep property taxes low or fund service improvements that matter to them.
- How much it will cost: This is a big question for all property owners within a municipality. When information about cost and fees isn’t yet available, tell residents when they can expect to hear more.
Jargon refers to words and phrases that may be commonly used within your industry, but which have no real meaning to readers who don’t know about the topic. Sometimes it’s harder than you think. Some words seem so universal that they feel almost impossible to avoid, such as “initiative.” In reality, most people don’t walk around talking about initiatives with their friends.
Stick to plain language.
If something seems too complex to put simply, it may mean you have some more work to do in first understanding the topic yourself.
Overusing acronyms or abbreviations is another common error – they make for difficult reading, and the harder something is to read, the faster you will lose your audience.
Government-speak words to avoid, according to Granger:
- Capacity building
- Efficiency measures
- Impact assessment
- KPIs (key performance indicators)
- P3s and PPPs
- Place shaping
- Project burn rate
- Right sizing
- Risk management
- SME (subject matter expert)
Don’t bury the message
In the world of journalism, this is called “burying the lede.” It means that you’ve introduced the most important piece of your message a few paragraphs in, requiring your readers to “dig” it up. By that point, they may have stopped reading entirely.
Government writers can learn plenty from journalists, such as writing in the inverted pyramid format. Include your most important information at the start of your writing and then continue to provide secondary information and context.
This type of writing may not always feel natural. You may be tempted to introduce a topic by giving a quick overview of a project’s history or by congratulating your internal teams for making progress, but readers likely won’t be interested in this part of the message.
The world of advertising also has tricks worth borrowing. Have you noticed how many ads use subheads and infographics to make certain points stand out? Readers can often get the most important information by just scanning the page. There’s a saying in the world of professional writing: “Books are read. Everything else is scanned.” Keep this in mind whenever you sit down to write.
Another ad-writing trick is to highlight the benefits first and the features second. For example, the benefit of a new recycling program may be more convenient disposal of recyclables, while the features include a new waste collection schedule and new receptacles. Emphasizing benefits makes it easier to earn your readers’ trust and attention.
Say enough, but not too much
Being concise is the hallmark of all good writing, and this is especially true for government writing. Convey your message simply and without overstating, or your audience may start to notice that the writing has extra filler and become frustrated or stop reading altogether.
While a lengthy message may seem more informative or comprehensive, this isn’t always true. Extra words and phrases can distract from the most important content. Every word should earn its place on the page.
Concise writing is a product of planning out what you will say and how you say it before you dive in. Otherwise, you may find yourself going in circles before you make your point, or worse, don’t come to a point at all.
Be wary of your writing being so sparse that you’re being too vague, or leaving your reader’s questions unanswered. Aim for the sweet spot between rambling and cryptic.
Give your readers a call to action
Your writing should always have a goal. What do you want your audience to do once they’ve finished reading? A call to action can be as simple as providing a link to learn more, or as involved as filling out a form and making a purchase.
Provide enough information, encouragement or context to get readers to take the next step.
Without a call to action, your audience may be left wondering, “so what?” And that’s a question you never want to leave your readers with.
Gail Granger has decades of experience in government communications. Today she works with organizations in a variety of sectors, both public and private, and as a government writing specialist with Blueprint.
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