In truth, copywriting for government was hard enough in the days of pen and paper. The push for “plain English” writing in public sector reports has been going on for at least two decades. I have distinct memories of receiving training when I joined the Environment Protection Authority back in 1995 (that’s 20 years ago!).
Yet we still see a persistent and consistent flow of opaque reports flowing out of government offices. Documents whilst not purposefully designed to discourage comprehension by anyone other than its authors, still achieve that goal perfectly.
Then along came the web, and even worse, Twitter! All of a sudden the world developed an expectation that even the most complex issues should be communicated in less than 140 characters (including hashtags!).
It’s an oft-quoted fact that most visitors to a website decide whether to stay or leave within a few seconds. They do NOT give you a fair go. If you genuinely want your stakeholders to pay attention to your project you need to give them a clear and easy-to-read reason to stick around.
It is the tradition of the public sector that we (and I include myself here given my history as both a former public servant and practitioner of bad writing) expect our stakeholders to take the time to inform themselves by reading all relevant information and telling us what they think. This remains the expectation (or hope) of most of the community engagement industry.
Well, I’m here to tell you that the general public won’t cop it.
They have better things to do than expend energy working their way through complex concepts and issues (not say heavy reports). That is unless you make those issues truly accessible through simple language and good writing.
So, with that in mind, here are my 6 tips for effective online copywriting for government.
1. Write in plain English
Sadly, thanks to the bureaucrats of public service industries, local councils, banks, building societies, insurance companies and government departments, we have learnt to accept an official style of writing that is inefficient and often unfriendly.
There are lots of online resources about plain English writing. My personal favorite is this document by the Plain English Campaign responsible for the quote above.
The authors explain that plain English is a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.
- It’s written with the reader in mind.
- It’s written with the right tone of voice.
- It is clear.
- It is concise.
And that’s all.
The authors make seven suggestions to help make your writing clearer:
1. Keep sentences short.
2. Use active verbs.
3. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’.
4. Use words that are appropriate for the reader.
5. Don’t be afraid to give instructions.
6. Avoid nominalisations (e.g. ‘We discussed…’ instead of ‘We had a discussion about…’).
7. Use lists where appropriate.
It is worth making one additional point explicit (although it is implied):
8. Avoid jargon.
It’s worth reading the paper in full. It isn’t long.
2. Include a clear call to action
It’s a simple sad fact that most online spaces set up to receive community ‘input’ about public interest projects do not include a call to action (CTA), let alone a good one.
The CTA should be the first thing your reader sees (after the campaign title – which needs to be written with SEO in mind).
Unfortunately, almost all of the online advice about CTAs is directed at commercial websites.
There are some (occasionally mutually exclusive) tips:
1. Use a strong verb to start your CTA
e.g. ‘Share your story’ or, ‘Tell us what you think’, or, ‘Complete the survey’, or, ‘Join the discussion’, or, ‘Create an account’, or ‘Upload your pictures’ etc.
3. Give your stakeholders a reason
e.g. Share your story to help improve lives of everyone living with a disability
e.g. Share your idea to create an even better place for us to live
4. Create a sense of urgency
e.g. Share you feedback on the draft recommendations before they go to Council
e.g. Upload pictures of your favourite places by Friday to win an iPad!
5. Don’t be afraid to make your CTA into a whole sentence
You’ll notice that the examples above are not able to be replaced by three-letter-acronyms (TLA). The key message should be able to be condensed to a TLA (or shorter) for buttons, tabs and headlines.
3. Provide a clear incentive to participate
This tip relates to point #3 about the CTA. It’s something that marketers think about a lot, but community engagement specialists rarely address.
In the marketing there are really only two ways to drive behavior, (1) appeal to a person’s optimism (or love), and (2) appeal to the person’s pessimism (or fear).
In public policy development we sometimes see fear used in behavior change campaigns; for example, drive drunk and you’ll get arrested, drive on drugs and you’ll get arrested, speed and you’ll cause an accident, drive when you’re tired and you’ll die, smoke and you’ll leave your children without parents, use too much energy and you’ll wreck the planet (and your children’s future). The list goes on.
Fear, however, is very rarely used to motivate participation in public policy conversations. There are probably lots of reasons for this: Fear of being overwhelmed by the volume of response; fear of having our (expert) opinion challenged; fear that anyone will notice that the decision has actually already been made.
Which means more often than not we’ve lost 50% of our options for motivating participation right off the bat.
I’ll give you an example.
Local government strategic planning documents are, arguably, the most opaque and most important documents councils produce each year. They outline priority expenditure areas and revenue strategies. They may well include information about cost cutting from key services. They may also include increases to local fees and taxes. But who would know? Because no one can be bothered wading through the budgets and the documentation.
It is tempting to think that the “bad news” is deliberately buried in the detail of the documents in order to avoid public discourse.
And example of using fear in a nuanced way might be something along the lines of:
“The city can no longer afford to provide the range of services we once did (insert reasons here). Some hard decisions need to be made about which services to cut, and which taxes to increase. We’ve tried our best to make these changes fair. Now we need your feedback. Have we got it about right? Do you have any better ideas?”
4. Keep it brief
Government reports are long.
Web writing should be short.
This is the essential conundrum.
It is tempting to want to put the entire introduction to a report, or the same copy you might have used in a print advertisement, on your campaign landing page. Resist this temptation and you will reap the results.
Here’s the key.
Write less, say more.
Short paragraphs and sentences give relief to tired eyes. Don’t over explain. On the Web, the less you write, the more people remember.
- Short web pages.
- Short paragraphs.
- Short lists.
- Short sentences.
- Short words.
If you need to provide all the detail, put it behind a tab, in a library, in the FAQs. There are lots of options, just don’t make it first thing your stakeholders are expected to read and interpret. Or you WILL lose them.
5. Turn your ‘essay’ upside down
This “tip” I personally struggle with most.
Years of government and academic writing has left me with the “need” to tell a story from beginning to end: This happened, then this happened, and then we did this, and now we want you to do this.
The “now we want you do this” bit should be right at the top.
It should be followed by “this is what the project is about and this is how it could affect you“.
And finally, this is what happened in the past that lead to this project existing and getting the point it’s at now.
6. Conversational tone
My final point is a more explicit restatement of the need for plain English written in a conversational tone (at every possible opportunity).
Government writing (like academic writing) can very easily fall into the trap of being “in crowd” writing.
Some academics argue that this is a deliberate strategy for controlling knowledge. I’m not convinced. I prefer to think that, more often than not, it is simply a pattern of thinking that we inadvertently fall into when we are reading a lot of technical writing.
My naive advice, read something else before you translate that technical document for the web. A children’s book would be ideal.
The simplicity of the language doesn’t mean you are condescending your audience. It means you are respecting their time poverty by taking a few extra minutes to clarify your needs, motivating them to pay attention and get engaged with the subject.
A conversational tone reminds your community that your organisation is not just four walls and a small door, rather it is a collection of human beings, just like them.
Further recommended reading:
- Four simple rules for writing engaging headlines.
- Writing great web content: The long and the Short of it