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A funny thought about charity comms

There’s a copywriter in Macmillan’s creative department who’s also a stand-up comedian. (Pav, Bath Comedy Festival New Comedy New Act of the Year 2016.) Rather than being a random career combo, like your dentist moonlighting as a lion tamer, there’s a distinct possibility that a talent for comedy should be a key skill for any charity creative worth their salt.

Obviously, the problems we’re trying to solve are no laughing matter. So humour must be used with care.  But that’s precisely because it is so powerful – it will get attention. In an area where people are accustomed to (and may even expect) shocking messages, appropriate use of humour can stand out like a canary in a coalmine or Donald Trump in The Whitehouse. (Sorry – that’s never going to be funny.)

If you’re looking to raise awareness, raising a laugh can be particularly effective. There are few better ways to expose fundamental truths and shift perspectives. It’s that ‘ooo’ moment when a comedy observation hits home so well it hurts.

Water Aid’s #Ifmenhadperiods campaign is a great example of a truth funnily told. Imagining a world with menstruating males neatly highlighted the fact that over a billion women don’t have access to sanitary products.  It went viral, with over 1.4 million views across 15 countries.


More recently Water Aid also raised awareness of the lack of access to toilets through an ad that has office workers building a latrine next to the photocopier as a result of budget cuts.


Of course, some causes are more obvious candidates for comedy. Anything to do with sex is also usually good for an awareness raising laugh as Prostate UK’s recent awkward father/son chat ad shows:


However, you might think a charity like Parkinson’s UK has little scope for humour. But you’re reckoning without Dave the Worm, an online regular giving product that’s raising awareness of Parkinson’s research, plus sponsorship to fund it. Dave posts everything from research updates to daft jokes and is the best dressed worm I know. But there’s a serious purpose – he’s connecting with a whole new audience of men and women aged 25-40 who were previously hard to reach. Dave is also an entry point for new supporters, who then support the charity in other ways. Here’s a typical tweet:


And never underestimate the power of humour to challenge the status quo and build confidence that a better world is possible. The Nazis didn’t – making anti-Nazi jokes was punishable by death. And Kim Jong Un just banned sarcasm. Yes really.

Dictators don’t like jokes because sharing a laugh can deliver a reality check and bond people together in pursuit of change. On Twitter @themanwhohasitall is doing just that by turning sexism on its head so men become the recipients:


Devastatingly funny, it’s the other side of the coin from @EverydaySexism which uses the more straightforward approach of telling it like it is:



Both are powerful ways of telling the same story. Which is more effective? It’s hard to say. But I do know I’m more likely to share a @manwhohasitall tweet than an @EverydaySexism one because sharing a joke is such an easy way to connect with people. And as connecting with others is one of the fundamental drivers of our lives, that’s not unimportant.

Macmillan is a movement of people bonding together to help those facing cancer. We’re for and about real people, so humour is a part of the stories we tell. It can be having a giggle at a Coffee Morning or it can surprise you in places you may not expect to find it –  for example among people sharing cancer experiences on our Online Community. People like Ronny who recently shared this blog on colonoscopies:

 A physician claimed that the following are actual comments made by his patients while he was performing their colonoscopies:

 ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’
 ‘Any sign of the trapped miners, Chief?’
‘You put your left hand in, you take your left hand out…’
 ‘Hey! Now I know how a Muppet feels!’

And the best one of all:

‘Could you write a note for my wife saying that my head is not up there’

And black humour can lighten up some dark times and reveal the human truth, as Gail shows in her excellent stand-up routine

‘Totally Tasteless Tit Jokes’, which includes this line about life after a mastectomy:

After surgery I hoped that people who got on my tits would only be half as annoying’

Here’s the full routine:


The Macmillan brand also has room for wit and humour – fun and entertaining is one end of our creative spectrum.  So, where appropriate, we can be funny to valuable effect. For example, our ‘Love Your Lady Parts’ gynaecological health awareness campaign is enabling us to get women talking about things many normally keep quiet about. Things that can be literally a matter of life or death.

So a good laugh can do a world of good. It’s a force for change that can enable us to raise awareness, change perspectives and build a movement. And that’s the sort of tool we need to have in our charity comms armoury.  As the American writer Conrad Hyers said, humour is ‘a stubborn refusal to give tragedy the final say’. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

This post makes for some easy reading

This month’s blog post is a collaborative effort from our digital interns Sam Russell and Donald Lam, who explore readability and its place at Macmillan.

In the past few years, readability has become an important feature of digital content. We spoke to Abigail Howse, our Quality and Improvement Officer, who looks after readability at Macmillan. She helped us come up with some useful information on the subject.

Why is readability so important?

Readability is the ease with which a written text can be understood by a reader. It is especially important to Macmillan because we are one of the biggest providers of cancer information in the UK.

Interestingly, the average reading age in the UK is not quite as high as one might expect. A survey in 2011 found that 43% of adults have a literacy rate of aged 14 or younger and 15% under age 11.

Image of UK literacy rates according to media findings

With these statistics in mind, it’s even more important that we make sure anyone affected by cancer, whatever their reading age, can get the support they need from our website.

As part of our content strategy, we are working to lower the reading age of our content even further, from 13 to 11 years old.

How exactly is readability measured?

There are two widely used methods of checking the reading age of content.

The ‘Flesch Reading Ease’ test estimates readability using a calculation of the number of words, sentences and syllables in a piece of text. The scale is measured out of 100 (the higher it is, the more readable it is). Macmillan aims for between 70-90 (age 11-12).

The ‘Flesch-Kincaid grade level’ uses the same technique to estimate what US school grade would be able to read the content. Macmillan aims for grade 6 or 7 (age 11-12).

Surprisingly, it is in fact possible to generate this information in Microsoft Word by following these instructions. There are also many online tools that will check your content for you. The average reading age of Macmillan’s cancer information pages is currently 14 years old.

Okay, so how do I lower the reading age of my content?

Abigail suggested a variety of different simple techniques to increase the readability of digital content. Words, sentences and paragraphs can all be simplified to make a piece of online text more readable.

11-year old boy struggling to read


  • Choose your words carefully. Avoid using idiomatic expressions such as give it a shot/drop us a line – instead use language that is literal. Get rid of redundant words and pick the simplest word to ensure you aren’t excluding anyone. ‘I felt a bit under the weather’ should be changed to ‘I felt unwell.’ However, complicated technical words, such as ‘chemotherapy’, are sometimes necessary.
  • Structure your sentences well. Make each sentence as simple as possible without changing its meaning. Try to make sure your sentences don’t stray too far beyond twenty words. It is best to only make one point per sentence. Passive clauses should be avoided or, avoid passive clauses.
  • Split up your content. Use paragraphs between topics and bullet points, when appropriate, to improve clarity. Images are another great way to break up large amounts of text in a way that is appealing to a reader.

After applying these techniques, someone of a low literacy rate should have the same opportunity to understand a piece of text as someone with a much higher literacy rate.

Who else cares about readability?

Readability is a really hot topic. So hot in fact, that new technologies specifically developed to enhance readability are being developed.

Most notably, Asymmetrica Labs has created an algorithm to improve readability. Asymmetrica inserts spaces into website text in order to break up sentences into simpler chunks. It is a free browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, and reformats the text without affecting the site’s overall design.

Other technologies, such as Readability, turn any web page into a simpler format, making it easier to read on your desktop, phone, or tablet.

It won’t be long before complicated words, convoluted sentences and complex layouts are a thing of the past in the digital world.

I’m still reading!

If you have read this far, you probably know enough about readability to guess the answer to a simple question. Which section of this blog post is the most readable?

The answer…the ‘How exactly is readability measured?’ section, with a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 7.2. And the least readable?…the ‘Who else cares about readability?’ section, with a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 11.4.

So that’s everything you need to know about readability in a nut shell. Readability isn’t about compromising on quality, it’s about getting your content read and read widely. This mightn’t be your main priority if your audience is very niche, but if, like the Macmillan website, your aim is to reach out and support as many people as possible, it’s definitely something to consider.

Beauty and the brief

You often hear creative directors say that the work can only be as good as the brief, and while I’m a stickler for a well thought out and enlightening brief, I don’t think it’s as black and white as all that. I’ve seen good creative transcend a poor brief and I’ve also seen a great brief go to waste with safe or bland creative. Even strategists will sometimes work backwards from a great idea and write their brief to fit, which goes to show that it can be an evolving document.

But in the day to day workings of a creative studio, good briefs generally result in good work. And it’s easy to understand why. A brief is like a treasure map – you want to make it clear that there’s gold in them thar hills but you also want the treasure hunter to work hard to find it.

When it comes to being in the right space to think up the best ideas, trust plays a huge role in creative thinking. Clients put their trust into the team to read, understand and take on board their requests, and creatives work best when they’re given space to interpret the information and develop ideas based on their understanding of the problem.

This means giving the team a clear and thorough explanation of the challenge you face or the problem you need to solve and a detailed description of the audience you’re trying to reach. What makes your product or service unique and why should anyone care? Tell us something interesting about the audience.  What makes them tick? What gets them excited? What makes them mad? Great creative ideas spring from human truths and it’s these nuggets of insight that really get the creative cogs whirring.

As an example, when developing the Old Spice campaign, research into the body wash category showed that a lot of women buy body wash for the men in their lives, which meant there were far more women buying men’s body wash than men. The audience for men’s body wash, funnily, wasn’t men at all – it was women. Women who wanted their men smelling good. That was the audience insight, the human truth that led to this:

In their 2014 short film on briefs, Basset asked creative directors of the world’s most prestigious agencies to describe what a good brief is:

‘A thought starter…’

‘the shorter the better’

‘a clarity of purpose’

‘an open statement of ambition’

‘most importantly, it has to inspire the people who are given the task of solving the problem’

This last one really stuck with me. When you’re reading a brief and you feel the client’s excitement and enthusiasm for the project leaping off the page, it makes you want to get to work immediately. It makes you want to create something brilliant, something that will do justice to their passion. So write your briefs with passion – let your enthusiasm for the project shine through the words. The work will be all the better for it.

Is using plain English the same as dumbing down?

Why do people write things like emails, leaflets or reports? Easy – because they have something to tell others. And by using plain English, they can communicate that message as clearly as possible.

But let’s face it, there will always be people who say that using plain English is ‘dumbing down.’ Or they might think that it’s not right for their audience. But you’d struggle to find a professional writer who thinks these arguments hold any water.

Plain English is always best.


You might ask – what about writing for people like doctors or lawyers? Won’t they find plain English a bit patronising?

It’s certainly true that some sectors are very jargon-ridden (the healthcare sector is a particular culprit). But this is nothing more than a bad habit. A habit that needs to be kicked.

The organisation NICE, which provides guidance and advice to improve health and social care, is firmly on the side of plain English. It says:

‘Plain English gets your message across more quickly, more easily and more directly.

‘Here at NICE we have an important responsibility to communicate complex and technical information to a wide audience.

‘Our audience includes patients and carers, policy makers, commissioners and local authorities, as well as healthcare professionals.’

So that’s pretty much everyone, then – from the woman on the street to the people running the country.

There really are no exceptions.

Even in the jargonny world of legal writing, people have published books encouraging plain English. In his book Lifting the Fog of Legalese, Professor Joseph Kimble writes:

‘I think no reform would more fundamentally improve our profession than learning to express ourselves in plain language.’

That’s quite a big statement – ‘no reform would more fundamentally improve our profession’. It only goes to show – using plain English is a big deal. It matters.

And then there are all the literary greats of the twentieth century who championed plain English, like George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain.

So if anyone ever tells you that using plain English is dumbing down or not right for their audience, please tell them that’s just not true.

No one is too clever for plain English.

And if all else fails, you can always quote the ancient Greek Hippocrates – a man regarded as a genius for over two-thousand years – who simply said:

‘The chief virtue that language can have is clearness.’


‘But you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.’

Is it okay to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’? The answer is very simple – yes.

The idea that it’s grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction like ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘so’ is just a myth.

I know, I know. It’s probably not what you were taught at school. But the fact is – wait for it – your teachers were wrong.

And don’t just take my word for it.

The Chicago Manual of Style, an authority on all things grammar, says rather emphatically:

‘There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

‘In fact, a substantial percentage of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions.

‘It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.’

But this debate is nothing new.

For years, people have been standing up for their right to start sentences with a conjunction.

All the way back in 1953, Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in a book called The Complete Plain Words that:

‘There used to be an idea that it was inelegant to begin a sentence with “and”. That idea is now as good as dead.’

Ernest may have jumped the gun a bit there. But who can fault his optimism? He couldn’t have known that this myth would still be flying around 60 plus years later.

So where has this myth come from?

In the book The Story of English in 100 Words, grammarian David Crystal gives us some answers. He blames those uptight Victorians. It reads:

‘During the 19th century, some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like ‘but’ or ‘and’, presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing. 

‘But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are.’

So there you have it.

For over a hundred years, people have been debating (read: arguing) about this issue, all because of some overzealous schoolteachers.

But there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with words like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘so’ or ‘or’. And it’s never been any other way.

Fountain pen on a paper

Being kind to writers and editors

September is Be Kind to Writers and Editors month, I know you’re probably frantically thinking about all the ways you can show your editors and writers some love. So to help you, Libby and Rebecca from the editorial team have pulled together some tips for working with your editorial team to make sure that they feel appreciated the whole year through.

It’s brilliant being an editor. If you’re someone who loves words: written, spoken, on a screen, on a poster, in a book then there are few finer callings. We’re nuts about grammar, so if you see a ‘hilarious’ grammar joke*, why not send it on to your nearest editor? We’ll appreciate it, even if nobody else does.

We care about communication. Our job is to make sure that everyone can understand your ideas. That’s why we make the suggestions that we do, so don’t take them personally and we promise to do the same.

Since we’re Digital folk, we love thinking about new ways of doing things. If you’ve seen something great on your travels across the web then tell us about it. Talk to us about your digital ideas and we’ll do our best to make them a reality.

These practical tips will make you and your editor friends for life:

  • Track changes in a document. This means we can see what you’ve changed and your reasons for doing so. It makes it easier for us to make a decision if we understand the rationale.
  • Get your assets ready and help us to find them. Send them as attachments instead of pasted into the body of the email or in a Word document. Or even better…
  • Save the originals in a folder that I can easily access. In fact, save everything to do with an editorial project in one place. You’d be surprised how much time it saves us. Speaking of which…
  • Be clear about your deadlines from the start (which is when you should involve us in your projects by the way) we all like to be able to plan our time.
  • ‘This is just a five minute job’ is hardly ever the case. So, when you can, please give us notice about small amends too. Little tweaks can be more complicated than they seem. Why not ask your editor what it takes to make the changes? They’ll be happy to explain, and then you can decide together how important it is.

So that’s our wishlist for BK2W&EM. We’d also like to say a huge thanks to the writers we work with. The copywriters, the people who put together our patient information and for all our stakeholders who put their creativity into words to inform, engage and inspire. You’re brilliant.

Let us know in the comments if you have a tip for working with writers and editors, or tell us about a great book you’ve read recently. We’re interested in those too.

*The past present and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

Marketing podcasts

Okay, so many of you may have thought of this already, but it only dawned on me the other day. ‘What?’ I hear you say. Downloading podcasts that actually might help you do your job better. I was a wee bit amazed to find a load of podcasts about copywriting in iTunes and not so amazed to find an absolute shed-load about marketing.

So, first step, download iTunes. Second step, type in ‘marketing, etc’. Third, download them.
Stuff you’ll find includes the following:
Marketing podcasts from Marketing and Communications Strategies Inc http://www.mcshome.com/ and Guerilla Marketing http://www.guerrillapedia.com/
Copywriting podcasts from loads of A-list copywriters.

Our tweets