Delivering a compelling, clear, and consistent message about who we are and what we do is vital to every charity, but it’s easier said than done.
Charity websites can easily get bogged down with the problem of too much information, overly formal language, and inaccessible, off-putting content.
Then there’s the issue of who has the time or expertise to edit and improve it, because it’s not a quick or easy job.
But there are ways to start improving the way you write and many tools to help you.
Do branding and tone of voice matter?
A good place to start is your brand and more specifically your tone of voice which sits within this. A brand is a formal way of identifying what sets you apart from your competitors. A stronger identity helps audiences understand who you are, what you stand for and what to expect.
The basic elements people think of with a brand are typically a logo, standard colours, and a font – perhaps a series of ‘rules’ that must be followed. But brand should be more about who you are, and a key feature should be a tone of voice including guidance on writing style, ways to phrase things, spellings, use of capitals and abbreviations (known as a ‘house style’).
A tone of voice in branding is just what it sounds like – it’s the way the organisation ‘speaks’ to its audience. And just as when we’re speaking, our written tone of voice can make all the difference to how we’re perceived.
So why care about this when looking to improve your web copy? Here are some reasons:
- You’re competing (with other charities and with absolutely everything else online) for your audiences’ attention
- Your audiences are busy and easily distracted – bore them or confuse them and they’ll move on
- Getting the right messages across, in the right way, is easier once you’re clear about your brand and tone of voice
Compare, for example, the tone of voice used by Innocent drinks with Croft Sherry. What’s right for your charity’s mission and the audiences you are trying to reach?
Guidance on guidelines
You may already have some tone of voice guidelines that need refreshing or you might be starting to think about this from scratch. If you don’t know where to start, there’s a lot of useful information around brand, including tone of voice, from CharityComms in their brand 360 best practice guide, with real-life charity case studies.
You may need external help or be able to do this in-house but either way, test your ideas out with your key target audiences before going ahead.
Like guidelines on any issue, it’s easy to get bogged down in details. Many an internal charity guide to brand and tone of voice was lovingly conceived and written, then largely ignored by staff and volunteers. Remember, they’re your audience for this and you’re competing for their time and attention too.
- It’s got to be useful – what do staff and volunteers really need and in what format?
- Keep it short, snappy and use bullet points and plain language
- Avoid too much text, consider use of images or infographics
- Give real-life examples from your charity, to show the difference between the old tone of voice (how things used to be written), and how you’d like them to be
- Explain how you came to it, why it matters and the difference it could make
- Things change over time – invite feedback and let it be a live document that you can edit when you need to
Launching new guidelines
Before you share new guidelines, consider offering live training sessions for all those tasked with updating content. Keep these light and positive – the idea is to inspire and encourage, not to make people feel ‘policed’ or restricted. An external communications or copywriting expert may be useful to deliver this alongside a member of staff.
Share how the new tone of voice looks and sounds, offer tips on editing and writing and allow an opportunity for everyone to practice what they’ve learned and to discuss and ask questions. They can then go back to their desks more confident to start delivering better written content (and hopefully enjoying the process more, too).
Every word counts
Every word counts and less really is more. That’s why big brands with big marketing budgets pay a fortune to get their ‘essence’ distilled into just a few words:
Just Do it (Nike)
Because you’re worth it (L’Oréal)
Every little helps (Tesco)
Love it or hate it (Marmite)
So, when you’re writing content for home pages and other key ‘shop window’ pages, you need to take this on board. To make an impact you need to say less up front, not more. You can provide more information via links for those who want it.
Other tips for web pages:
- Experiment with interesting headings and subheadings that will intrigue the reader (could be a question that everyone is asking and that you are going to answer)
- Source great quotes (ideally from people outside of your organisation – carefully edited for maximum impact – that demonstrate the message you want to share)
- Try bullet points to break up text
- Limit punctuation and focus on what helps the reader
- Use active, not passive language (we are delivering – not x will be delivered)
- Use positive language (what we are doing, what is possible, what you can do)
- Always ask everyone to get a colleague to check the copy and the links before publishing (mistakes will never help your charity look good)
Tools to help you
There are many free online tools to help you with your copywriting – here are a few:
The widely used Guardian Style Guide which has a searchable A-Z of words and phrases and how to write them.
The Campaign for Plain English has free online guides on many topics including how to write in plain English, proofreading and grammar. It also has an A-Z word search tool with suggestions for simpler words to replace longer, more complex ones.
For ideas of alternative words, you could also try an online thesaurus, such as Collins English Thesaurus or thesaurus.com (there are many so find one you like).
The UK Government website guidelines for writers has many useful ideas for making complex information easy to follow.
Character count tools are useful if you need to create copy that fits a certain word count, for example Character Count Tool or Word Counter Some online tools including Character Count Tool include a Readability Score which indicates how easy your content is to read.
Across all your web pages, keep your brand and tone of voice alive so all your pages have a consistent feel and personality. Consider having brand champions internally who will help to make this happen in ways that are helpful, positive and engaging.