Published: 12 August 2011

Choosing the right words

Charity copywriter Trina Wallace applies lessons from language used in the 2011 "riots" to charity communications 

From “feral rats” to “protestors”, and “scum” to “opportunists”, language used to describe the UK rioters over the last few days has varied greatly.

“Everything depends on your point of view,” as The Guardian’s Jon Healey points out in his article about this issue. Indeed, the words used in the media’s coverage of the riots have been shocking, fascinating and insightful. Journalists have lost all their objectivity. And, others argue, politicians’ language has been damaging.

"It is not helpful to stigmatise some parts of society as ‘sick’, like some sort of cancer," said Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott on Wednesday’s Newsnight. She was talking about prime minister David Cameron’s rhetoric.

Some language is certainly “unhelpful”, at the very least. I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this about the way we use words, and the way we employ language in our charity communications.

So here are my five tips for using language positively in your charity communications.

1. Don’t let value judgements seep into your comms

So, you’ve got a list of values that represent your organisation. Fantastic. But do your communications communicate those values? Are you still referring to a “chairman” rather than a “chair” or a “spokesman” rather than a “spokesperson”? Or, say you work for a children’s charity and are writing about a mentoring project, does your reader need to know that the mentee used to be in a girl gang rather than a “gang”? Does it matter if you say whether someone is married or single? Only include information like this if it is essential to your point, otherwise it’s a value judgement.

2. Create a style guide

As a charity communicator, you will know the words to avoid when writing about your cause, but your colleagues in other departments might not. Having a style guide is not a sign that your charity has gone corporate; it’s simply an essential charity communications tool. Even better, create a one-page summary of language to use and avoid, which spokespeople can quickly read before they give interviews, or colleagues can scan before they write a blog post.

3. Let your “service users” speak

Often when I’ve interviewed charity service users, project workers have insisted on being in the room at the same time. Then they have tried to answer my questions on behalf of the service users.  Successfully protecting your charity’s case studies doesn’t mean telling their story on their behalf. It’s more empowering to let your service users tell their story in their own way, using their own language. Use your own, and the inauthenticity will be obvious, turning off potential supporters.

4. Use the language of your supporters, donors and commissioners

How would a supporter describe what your charity does? What about a commissioner? The two audiences will probably use different language to talk about what you do. In your communications, you should adapt your words for these audiences. So, if you’re writing a web page aimed at commissioners, make sure you use these key words in the first few paragraphs. But you would use different words on a web page a supporter could be searching. Even if you’re talking about the same thing, you would want your reader to take different actions (commission your services v donating).

5. Avoid jargon

Language you use every day could be alien to your audience. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they’ll switch off, which means you won’t get that donation, volunteer or commission. Although words like “engagement” and “leverage” have become the norm in charity communications, often they are meaningless. For some potential alternative words, read this article I wrote for the Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network.


Trina Wallace, copywriter and editor, freelance

Trina Wallace is a copywriter, editor and communications consultant with around 14 years’ experience in the charity sector. She has worked with over 70 charities, including Cancer Research UK, Rethink Mental Illness, Alzheimer’s Society and Oxfam. Trina specialises in writing audience-focused communications that inspire people to take action.