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Employing the Five Ws (and one H)

16 March 2010

Charity communicators need to ask questions about the communications they produce, says freelance copywriter Trina Wallace 

The Five Ws (and one H) have served my career well.

They’re not self-help mantras, a team of favourite colleagues or a range of on-trend power suits. They’re words which make up a checklist. Who. What. When. Where. Why. And…How.

Unfortunately, the last one is an “H” but, bear with me. These words are the essentials of journalism. Look at any well-written news story and the first paragraph should answer all of them. Who was involved? What happened (what's the story)? When did it take place? Where did it take place? Why did it happen? How did it happen?

Too often, charity communicators don’t ask these questions about the communications they produce. That’s a shame because it means that their charity’s communications lack purpose; they’re a waste of donors’ money.

To ensure your communications create more impact it is essential to employ the Six Ws:

1. Who?

Defining your target audience is crucial. The way you write, the words you use and what you say are all dependent on who you are expecting to read your web page/newsletter/report etc.

2. What?

It’s likely that if you can’t summarise what your charity does, or what one of your projects does in one sentence, there will be problems with your communications. Describing what you do should take 30 words, not 500. Good charity communications are all about telling the best possible story about your charity in the fewest possible words.

3. When?

With the right editorial processes in place, even the biggest projects can run smoothly, on time and to budget with the minimum of stress. Solid editorial processes ensure that everyone knows what’s expected of them, who is in charge of what, and what timescale they have to complete the work.

4. Where?

It’s never too early to start thinking about where you need to get the information that will help you deliver your communications. You might need to conduct focus groups, spend a day researching at the British Library or do a mountain of interviews with service users. All of this will take time that will affect the final deadline.

5. Why?

My favourite W. We work with charities to help establish the aims and objectives of their communication projects. This means asking exactly why the communication is needed. There’s no point in producing a lovely piece of research without first thinking what you want that research to achieve. So before you put pen to paper, be sure about what you want the work to highlight, expose or change.

6. How?

If you’re the only person in a communications role at your charity, you’re going to be run off your feet when you have to handle your annual review, newsletter, internal magazine and web redesign all at the same time. Spreading yourself too thin will mean your communications suffer. Think about what resources you have available before you start any project and get support if you need it.

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.