Inclusive writing and communication

By Simon HallOur inbuilt bias can get in the way of achieving our aims when wielding words, but there is a smart trick to make sure we create just the right impression...

An old and wrinkly dog

I've just disproved the familiar proverb about how you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

And I must say, I'm very happy about it. 

(What a fab old dog in the picture, eh? I didn't choose him because I wondered if I might look like that in canine form (ahem!))


Anyway, I've been working on a fascinating project for the University of Cambridge, producing a prospectus for one of their courses. 

Although I can't tell you which, what I can say is that each cohort is usually dominated by men. 

That's despite there being a large number of women in the subject. 


One of my tasks, apart from making the course's offering shine...

(Not difficult, it is a fantastic Master's degree.)

Was to try to encourage more women to apply. 

And so came the problem. 


I like to think of myself as inclusive, as I imagine most of us do.

I'm privileged to teach and work with an incredible range of people here in Cambridge.

They're from all ages, backgrounds, identities and outlooks...

And every single one gets the very best help and support I can offer, of course. 


But! And as ever in life, there's always a but.

I'm aware we all have our inbuilt biases, from our upbringing, experience and influences.

So when I'd written the prospectus, bearing in mind the need for it to have broad appeal...

I fell back on the help of a couple of excellent entrepreneurs I work with here in Cambridge, who've founded a company called Citispotter.


Their system that can check your words for positivity, gender bias, readability, clarity, style and impact in an instant...

And guess what?

I was pleased to find my writing was positive and upbeat, clear and readable...


I also discovered it was heavily male coded, and likely to put women off from applying. 


To be honest, that was a big surprise.

Given my brief to appeal to more women, I'd tried hard to make sure my words were inclusive...

Yet I'd failed magnificently.

All because of my inbuilt biases. 

Which was quite a lesson. 


Fortunately, my blunders were easily remedied. 

I just popped my text into Citispotter, it identified the male coded language...

And, a few minutes, and a few edits later...

I had a much more appealing prospectus. 


It's a lesson I was very happy to learn, and I'll be sure to remember in the future.

After all, why communicate exclusively, when you can do so inclusively, and in just seconds?

Whether it's customers you seek, investors, partners or whatever...

The more people you appeal to, the better your chances of success.


This blog, for example, has been through the Citispotter analysis, and comes out as inclusive, readable, upbeat and clear.

I wonder if you'd agree, having read through it?!


By the way, you may be asking whether these subtle changes to the language you use really make a difference. 

The answer is an emphatic yes. YES, in fact!

Here's an example.

Thames Water inadvertently carried out an experiment with a job advert, which turned out to be very revealing.

This was the text of their original ad:

  Are you a confident sewage champion who can see off the competition to land your dream job?

  You should have a background in an industrial setting to help ensure sewage is treated effectively and efficiently.


Guess what percentage of women applied in that case?

The answer...

Nine. Just nine per cent.

That despite there being plenty of women working in that field. 


So the company rewrote the advert to make it read like this:

  This is an excellent opportunity to make a real impact on the delivery of wholesome water.

  Join a team with a close knit family feel.

  We welcome people who want to learn and be team players, and offer mentoring support to help you feel at home.


Now what percentage of applicants do you think were women?

The answer...

46. Yes, 46%. Almost half of the potential talent pool. 

Quite a difference from the first time around.

That's the power of choosing your words wisely.


By the way, if you want to give Citispotter a try, and I'd certainly recommend them, you can find the company here

In the interests of transparency I do help them with their work.

But that's as a mentor, as I do for several startups, meaning I don't get paid. 

This is simply a genuine testimonial for what I believe to be an excellent offering by a couple of very fine entrepreneurs, who have a lesson for us all in the importance of how we use language.