Last month I sat down and read a letter from my local council about a forthcoming consultation. The council sent it to all residents in my area and it was requesting we partake in the consultation for the good of the community.
I eagerly sat down, wishing to be a good citizen, play an active part in local democracy, and began reading. Then I re-read it. Then I read it for a third time, panicking that I was not sufficiently intelligent to understand the letter, let alone play my part in such a high-profile consultation.
Finally, I gave up and angrily went to make a cup of tea. The letter was so complicated and full of technical terms that it had not only lost me but lost my participation in what could well be an important moment for my community. The author of the letter had forgotten entirely – or just never been interested in – one of the central rules of all good communications: write for your audience.
I am sure this letter would have gone down a storm in my council’s traffic department as colleagues fine-tuned their jargon, but sending said letter out to residents who do not live and breathe this specialised subject as a living was a serious mistake.
It cried out for a complete rewrite by a communications team member who could use the original as the basis for a much simpler, more resident-focused version that would state the issues and objectives with clarity.
To be honest, rewriting a letter is not the job of communications staff, who are terribly overworked anyway. Still, it got me thinking about how easy it is to forget the audience we are writing for. A press release about a consultation is different from a story about it in the council magazine, which is different again from a social media post about the subject, which is different from a technical white paper, which is very different from a letter informing residents about it.
Understanding who we are writing for and then using our skills and knowledge to tailor our content is a crucial skill in communications, but too often ourselves or colleagues seem to overlook our audience and do not give them the respect they deserve.
Indeed, putting into practice what I preach, I then wrote a letter back to the relevant person at the council – keeping in mind my audience and trying to be as crystal clear in my complaint as possible!
Author: Jonathan Lovett
Jonathan Lovett is an editor, journalist and author of 25 years’ experience specialising in feature writing, interviews and case studies.
For the last ten years, he has worked for various communications teams in London bringing his storytelling skills to numerous projects including books, magazines, newspapers, exhibitions and campaigns.
In the last five years, he has have delivered workshops on storytelling and writing to fellow journalists and community groups - using his expertise to help set-up a number of community newspapers.