One of the biggest parts of our work is with comms officers who do not speak English as a first language or fluently. This particularly true with large NGOs, who need more content for blogs, social media and reports than their central-office comms staff (who usually speak English as a first language) can create. We do a lot of training for content-creators, and there’s an important difference between the advice that someone needs to create content in their first language, and the advice that someone needs to create content in their second (or third, or ninth) language.
First of all, let me be honest. I speak French and Bengali badly, and Khmer just about well enough to be polite (most of the time). But the idea of creating inspirational content, in words, for the attention of anyone who speaks those languages natively, is terrifying. I’d do it, but I wouldn’t dare to ask how it landed in case I discovered I’d accidentally made an obscene joke when trying to talk soberly about clean water or education for all.
If you’ve never tried to communicate in a second language, let me tell you: in my experience that is not an outside chance, it’s a near racing-certainty.
So anyone creating content in their second language has my admiration – particularly if that language is English, which is essentially a tank-trap made out of syllables. Content-creators are ninjas. They’re hardcore. They are skilled and brave beyond what I will ever be able to achieve.
The problem is that comms content is a very unforgiving genre to write in. Though empowerment of local staff is a fundamental part of what NGOs should be trying to do, you don’t get extra marks for that from someone who is casually browsing your site; they want to know why they should care about you and why you think your work is worth their money, and their attention span is measured in seconds, not minutes.
The prose you present them with needs to be clear, and short, and exciting, all at once. And in many developing contexts, the staff you have who are fluent in English are likely not to have the time to create written content at the sort of rate you need to engage and grow an audience. One success story a month just isn’t enough.
How can you train staff who are not completely fluent in English to create content for an English-language audience? There are a few tips here, but I’m not about to try and boil them down into a single blogpost. Instead, I want to use this hashtag on the blog here to track my ongoing admiration for, and tips for encouraging, #EALcontentcreators. But to start with, here are some ideas:
Create a simple tone of voice for content creators.
If your primary content-creators will be speakers of English as an additional language (instead of as a mother tongue), create a tone of voice for your organisation that’s simple. Don’t be in the habit of using flowery language in your content; it’s much much easier to get wrong. If you make your organizational voice simple, more people will be able to write in it.
Use single-clause sentences. Encourage people to use simple words for things (‘help’, not ‘facilitate’). Ask them all to read the George Orwell essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which contains about the best advice for writers I’ve ever read: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Don’t be scared.
Encourage people to write, and affirm them when they do. Remove the fear of failure.
Make content-creators safe.
Provide someone who can provide a safety-net – an English as a first language speaker who can proof-read content before it’s published.
Publish, review, and move on. The best way for good content to be created is through publishing, reading, and getting better.