When language needs to change - we have to help charities keep up

James Barry By James Barry

Macmillan are right to challenge the use of terms like "cancer-stricken" and "victim" – but it’s not just the media using divisive or irrelevant language. We have to use insight to help charities find an authentic voice too.

A few days back a Macmillan poll* hit the headlines. It highlighted how much of the language around cancer used by the media, and much of the public, has very little relevance to those who have the disease. In many cases words that aim to avoid causing offence end up having quite the opposite effect.

In recent years Macmillan have been proactive in addressing the negative impact of clichés like ‘battling cancer’. And it’s encouraging to hear Karen Roberts, chief nursing officer at Macmillan, saying: "… we want to encourage more people to talk about the words they prefer to hear, and stop the damage that can be caused to people's wellbeing and relationships."

All power to Macmillan for this stance. But this poll also highlights something else for me: the role charities themselves play in shaping the language we use around particular causes – and how they so often fall into the trap of pushing certain clichés that no-longer resonate with their audience.

Once certain terminology becomes part of the national vernacular – it’s hard to redefine it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – as Macmillan are commendably doing here.

Still too often, charities are speaking a different language to the people they support (and the people who support them) – and I believe that as creative agencies we’re not always doing enough to challenge that.

How do we uncover problematic phrases and terms?

Simple. We talk. We spend time listening to those who’ll receive our messaging and we take on board to what they say.

Insight has become such a vital part of what we do now at Consider. And whenever that insight work involves conversations with people, invariably we start to notice patterns in the way individuals speak that are at odds with the messaging of the charities working so hard to represent them.

Most fundamentally, we should also listen to what people don’t say. As strategists and creatives we have a chance to see where the project brief or tone of voice guidelines don’t sit right with the target audience.

It’s truly fascinating to go along to a charity event, as I did recently, and discover that every supporter you meet refers (with great fondness) to the charity running the event by ‘the acronym that shall never be uttered’ as far as the brand guidelines go.

How do we change things?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that as agencies we should ride roughshod over brands left right and centre and call charities whatever takes our fancy. But what we should be doing is keeping our ear to the ground and getting a sense of the conversations supporters, beneficiaries and other stakeholders are having. And where we see that things don’t match up with the accepted terminology, we need to speak up.

Because for a charity to be truly relevant to the people they support, and the people who support them, we have to all be speaking enough of the same language to make sense. And when the entire audience of a charity refers to it in a way that’s at odds with the way the charity identifies itself, you know that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To that end, as an agency we’re determined to combat any internal complacency around clichéd dogmatic language such as ‘people living with cancer’.

Because how often do ‘people living with cancer’ really say ‘as a person living with cancer’ to their loved ones? It’s up to agencies like Consider – and those we share space within the sector – to challenge that kind of language where we feel we should. Doing so will help make sure that what we write feels indisputably authentic to those reading it.

It starts with challenging ourselves.

As a copywriter-turned-Creative Director I’ll be leading my team to challenge our clients around dogmatic language. Because the ultimate goal of any project should be to strike a chord with its target audience. It should never be an exercise in toeing the party line at the expense of the audience – and in turn the charity’s ROI.

That way, we get closer to the people who rely on charities - and the people those charities rely on. And what’s not to like about that?



James Barry

James Barry

Creative Director

James believes passionately that great copy and design are nothing without an even better idea at their foundation – he's playing a key part in growing our creative team and what we can offer clients. His past life as a fundraiser means he’s a natural fit when it comes to leading projects for our charity clients. You can find out more about James over on the Consider blog.