Communications are important for supporting the success of policies - here are some of the key principles.
It is important to get the support of the general public for sport and development policies. This is particularly true given that some might question why a government is implementing them.
On the one hand, it may not be clear to everyone why investment in sport should be a government priority when there are so many other needs. On the other, the political climate in certain western countries may mean sports programmes face the same challenge that other development work does - that sections of the population believe the money would be better spent ‘closer to home’.
Following good communications practice is important not only for communicating with the public but also with those closer to policy. It is important for getting the support of other government departments, for example.
If you are working in sport and development policy, here are some general principles that can help you get your message across.
Adapt your writing style
It is often said that there is a gap between policy and practice, which needs to be bridged. One of the reasons is that the language of policy tends to be formal, technical and academic. A press release written like a United Nations resolution or government white paper will not be widely read or easily understood.
Most modern English style guides prioritise simplicity and clarity, urging writers to put their readers’ needs first by writing in a way that speeds up comprehension. This principle is even more important in the internet age, where most people are skim readers. Research shows that online the average reader reads at most 28% of the words on a page.
Some people argue that simplifying writing style is ‘dumbing down’ your work or that texts can be more complex when the target audience is people in your field. However, research has found that people who are more educated and who have specialist knowledge in a field are even more likely to prefer text written in plain, simple English. Someone who works in your field might understand your writing but that doesn’t mean they want to read it - complex writing will slow their comprehension and take more of their time.
Explaining complex topics in simple terms is not easy. That is especially true when you are an expert in a field, when you are likely to be affected by what psychologist Steven Pinker describes as the “curse of knowledge.” That is, in Pinker’s words, “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”
Here are a few starting tips to help you to convey your message effectively:
- Keep sentences short. Many style guides advise a maximum word per sentence limit, usually pitched at 25. Research by the American Press Institute shows that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand 90%; at 43 words, it drops to 10%. Long sentences slow your readers down and dilute your message
- Avoid jargon. When you can avoid technical terms, avoid them. When you can’t, explain them. Don’t assume that even commonly used terms such as ‘multi-sectoral’ and ‘capacity building’ will be universally understood or that everyone will have the same understanding of what they mean. Such terms are imprecise, which obscures clarity. Everyday language works best
- Use simple words and phrases. “In accordance with the parameters set out by the ministry, the project will commence in February in close proximity to the border” is a long-winded way of saying “The ministry has said the project will start in February near the border.” The latter is clearer and doesn’t force your readers to work
- Use acronyms and abbreviations sparingly. These benefit the writer but disadvantage the reader, who may not understand them. Advice often states that you should spell it out the first time, then use the acronym throughout the rest of a text. Even this can create problems. The casual skim reader might scramble around to find the first reference to the acronym or give up altogether and stop reading. Some organisations, such as UNESCO and UEFA, are better known by their acronyms. Those are fine
- Use the active voice. “It is planned that the policy will be rolled out next year” feels indirect and a little unclear. “The department plans to roll out the policy next year” feels stronger and more natural. In some sentences, such as the first example above, the passive voice might create confusion by omitting who performed the action. It is usually better to avoid it, although there are exceptions
- Delete unnecessary words. “The two countries released a joint statement.” Two countries released the statement so do we need the word “joint”? Clutter like this is common in writing but deleting it makes your writing more powerful
For more comprehensive advice, many style guides and toolkits for writers are available. The following are particularly relevant to policymakers:
- Writing advice from the United States government
- Content design: planning, writing and managing content (from the United Kingdom government)
Use inclusive language
You have to take care when describing certain topics to avoid inadvertently causing offence or patronising a group of people. That is likely to be particularly relevant when writing about your target groups. Below is a list of resources to help.
- Accessible Language: A Guide for Disability Etiquette
- CAFE Disability Awareness and Etiquette
- Access for All: Inclusive Communications
- Words to Use and Avoid When Writing About Disability
- Portrayal Guidelines for Gender Balanced Representation
- Gender Sensitive Indicators for Media
- Trans and gender diverse language guide
- Mind Your Language! Time to change
- Global Mental Health Communications Toolkit
- Buzzfeed’s Style Guidelines for Writing About Mental Health
Working with refugees
Become an expert networker
Meeting people and talking about what you are doing is one of the best ways to communicate your work. Whether you are looking for partners or simply to raise awarenesses, networking is an important part of your communications toolkit.
Conferences in particular are popular spots in which to share experiences. It is worth talking to the organisers of leading conferences in any field relevant to your work to see if there is the opportunity to present. For events in sport and development, it is worth regularly checking the sportanddev.org calendar and subscribing to the newsletter.
While some people take to it more naturally than others, networking is a skill like any other. It can be developed and honed. If it is an area you would like to improve on, here are some resources to get you started:
- Coursera: Online courses on professional networking
- Future Learn: Business Fundamentals: Effective Networking (Open University)
Capitalise on the role of elite sport
Athletes, teams and other sports figures enjoy a huge amount of popularity. Engaging them as advocates or ambassadors can help you to get your message across.
Sports programmes have the potential to engage members of the public who may otherwise not be interested in development issues. High-profile figures can help to do that. Likewise, major sporting events can be effective platforms for public education and communication.
Work with the media and national broadcasters
The media have a vast reach. They affect public opinion and reach influential people. They generate discussion, inform policy debate and even stimulate policy action. If successful, using the media to publicise your work can be cost-effective.
It is important to bear in mind that what is interesting to the media is not necessarily the same as what is interesting to you. Stories which stand the best chance of being reported are timely (currently relevant), prominent (featuring a celebrity or government official), impactful (a lot of people are affected) and local (relevant to that media source’s audience).
Stories with an element of conflict are also more likely to be reported. For example, if there has been disagreement over which sport to use or whether sport is even the best response to a particular problem, the media may well consider the story more interesting. Obviously this may have disadvantages as well as advantages.
In some cases, you might be able to develop a more long-term partnership with a media source. One good example is ABC, who between 2015 and 2018 worked with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. ABC provided frequent coverage of the Australian government’s Pacific Sports Partnership project, as well as communications and media training in six countries in Oceania.
Use social media
Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have a huge reach. In 2018, the global number of social media users was 3.196 billion. Policymakers can use them for a variety of purposes, including:
- Sharing research
- Raising awareness
- Building networks
- Engaging with leaders in your field
- Advocating for sport’s use in development
- Gaining support for a campaign
Social media is a huge topic. Which platforms to use and how depends on the organisation and its goals. However, much advice is available online. The following resource from the United Kingdom’s government is tailored for a British audience, but the principles it contains are more widely relevant.
- Social media playbook (tips and guidance from the British government)
One of the best ways to establish a name for yourself within sport and development is to publish content on sportanddev.org. The platform brings together governments, intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, sports federations and others. It helps raise the visibility of sport and development, improves the quality of policy and practice and encourages partnership building.
It is free of charge to post articles, videos, research, events, job opportunities and publications. Regular contributors include the governments of Australia, Germany and Japan, the Commonwealth Secretariat and United Nations agencies, and sports federations such as UEFA and the International Olympic Committee.
If you would like to share your work on sportanddev.org, the first step is to set up a Team Player profile. Once your profile has been approved, you can submit content for publication on the website. If you have any questions, email [email protected].