How to write about development without being simplistic, patronising, obscure or stereotyping

It’s all very well writing for wonks, but what about the poor comms people who have to make all those clever ideas about nuance, context, complexity etcmumbo jumbo etc accessible to people who don’t spend all day thinking about this stuff? Oxfam America’s Jennifer Lentfer has a good piece on this on her ‘How Matters’ blog, discussing her work with a class of international development communications students. Her central question – ‘How can a new generation of communications professionals embrace nuance without turning the public off? (After all, nonprofits are competing against cat videos)’

To answer it, she, and a bunch of others, have put together ‘The Development Element’ – a nice new guide to post-patronising comms. Here’s their summary of the main messages:

Comms dos & don'ts

To which I would add a further don’t – don’t publish documents in green that are almost unreadable when people print them out to read on the bus……..

I think there is something else going on here – in an age when people are used to absorbing fragmented messages, we need to get better at telling parts of the story well, rather than thinking we have to tell the whole story every time. We could be much better at simply ‘bearing witness’, including by getting out of the way – webcams in every refugee camp? Follow an activist’ twitter feeds? It’s OK to publish a great killer fact that illustrates a problem without feeling compelled to add several pages of unread recommendations about how to put it right.

And yes, I realize this is a bit rich from someone who writes 500 page books……

See also this Guardian piece from Jonathan Tanner, then of ODI on the tension between complexity and comms.

Update: I have a nagging feeling that I overpromised in the title for this post – this report is good, but doesn’t quite nail it. What other advice would comms people offer?


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


8 Responses to “How to write about development without being simplistic, patronising, obscure or stereotyping”
  1. Pete

    I am not a development specialist but I am numerate.

    I am really turned off by comms that have an implausible killer fact with no link to data that can back it up – and even more annoyed when it turns out that everyone knows the killer fact isn’t actually true anyway.

    However, when the fact is backed up by data (often via a link rather than in each message), then it is even more powerful for me.

  2. Sarah Power is a toolkit website that was developed collaboratively by hundreds of Canadian development practitioners that covers some good practices for public engagement. The website covers seven areas of public engagement, including integrating gender equality, youth engagement, and monitoring and evalution. Many of the tools on the site would be applicable to the work of development comms practitioners.

  3. Jennifer Lentfer

    Thanks for sharing the publication Duncan! People can join in a Twitter chat tonight 9/11/14 at 6pm EST for a discussion with my current class – just use #IntlDevComms. “The Development Element” will continue to evolve!

  4. Mark Wentling

    After 44 years of working in humanitarian and development assistance in every corner of Africa, I’ve found the best way to communicate the complex subject of ‘development’ to the average person is via entertaining but enlightening fictional stories. I’ve found this to be especially the case in terms of reflecting development at the grassroots level. I have set out to achieve ‘development via fiction’ in detail with the publication of my African Trilogy. If one is interested in having a full course on what is involved in meeting Africa’s development challenges, my three novels will more than satisfy that interest.

  5. Gareth Price-Jones

    One quick addition – include terms that people can google, rather than trying to explain everything. Give a top line summary, and let your readers decide if they want to go deeper into the detail. We’re all connected to the most awesome encyclopedia ever, so it can help to provide a metaphorical page number.

  6. Dean

    While I have no great preference for green over any other colour, I really don’t understand why reports like this are not published in plain text version for e-readers? Such a great way to read reports!