Bank of England Writing Week: What Is Good Writing?

The Bank of England’s approach to communicating with the outside world is receiving a lot of scrutiny, both internally and externally. Only last month former Deputy Governor Howard Davies wrote in the Guardian that central bankers must learn to speak in plain language.

This article cited a speech given by Chief Economist Andy Haldane in March, which revealed some of the Bank’s internal thinking about how to re-energise its approach to communicating with the outside world, especially wider audiences.

So it was a privilege to be invited to join an internal Bank panel, ‘What Is Good Writing’, arranged last month as part of the Bank’s Writing Week. This was a series of internal events designed to elicit ideas and discussion on writing best practice; and on the Bank’s plans to broaden and diversify its communications with both professional intermediaries and the wider public. The panel was chaired by Andy Haldane, reflecting his prominent role in the Bank’s ongoing communications initiative.

Three panellists – Sarah O’Connor from the FT, Anushka Asthana from the Guardian, and I – were asked to share our perceptions on the Bank’s communications, our experiences as writers and editors, and tips on drafting, language and accessibility; followed by a short Q&A session.

The rest of this blog summarises some of the themes covered at the panel, without attributing topics or views to individual panellists.

How well does the Bank communicate currently?

Twenty years ago the Bank of England did barely any communication aside from the annual Mansion House speech. That approach has changed radically, as it has for many central banks.

Certain principles, including accuracy, clarity and consistency, have always been important objectives in the Bank’s communications, as I recall from the time I spent writing correspondence to stockholders on the Bank’s gilts register. What has changed is the sheer variety of channels through which the Bank and other central banks are now communicating.

The panel’s view was that although the Bank is making huge strides, it still has a way to go to make some topics clear – even to expert intermediaries, let alone the general public – given the complexity of many of those topics.

As an example, faced with the question ‘Isn’t Quantitative Easing just printing money?’ the answer given was something like this. ‘No. It is a technical form of monetary policy whereby the Bank creates new money electronically to buy financial assets, like government securities, with a view to directly increasing private sector spending in the economy and returning inflation to target.’

The simple answer that could have been given was ‘Yes’.

Credibility can be undermined by contradictory messages and jargon, including the many abbreviations employed by the Bank and other organisations. It is hard to reduce some topics in economics to 120 words. But some of the Bank’s content is so complex that it’s hard to understand even for someone with an economics degree.

Who should the Bank’s communications be targeting?

There was a clear consensus on the panel that the answer is the wider public, as well as MEN (Media, Economists and News) intermediaries.

The recent initiative to arrange town hall meetings with communities not historically on the Bank’s radar screen was welcomed with enthusiasm. Attending these had been an eye-opener for panel members. What the niceties of monetary policy mean in practice, for many people, is shopping around for a 10p discount on a loaf of bread.

That’s the reality. And it reinforces the need for more concrete, simple exposition of the ideas behind monetary policy, expressed in understandable, human terms as well as in technical language for the benefit of the MEN sector.

Finally, and just as important, the educational stream. This goes wider than information about the Bank of England itself, and into the whole area of money, saving and the general economy. The question was raised why financial literacy is not part of the standard educational curriculum, from an early age (five upwards).

To this end, the Bank’s Future Forum this month, arranged in partnership with Speakers for Schools, a UK-wide education charity which provides state secondary schools with free talks from high-profile figures, will focus on this theme. The Future Forum will include an event at which the Bank will discuss what it has been doing to make the economy and its work more accessible to all; showcasing its new education programme, revamped major publications and new website.

More widely the Bank will be aiming to gather feedback from different sectors including business, education, charities and the wider public, to improve its understanding of what people would like help with, and to shape what it does next.

Tips for writing for different audiences

The panel came up with a number of thoughts on how the Bank – and individual members of staff writing for the Bank – could make their writing more targeted and engaging.

Knowing who your readers are, and why you’re targeting them, was perhaps the top tip. A big part of this was listening, humbly and carefully, to the views and concerns of the communities and readers the Bank is trying to reach.

In communications aimed at a wider audience, the Bank could use simpler vocabulary, which engages rather than intimidates. For example jobs instead of GDP, prices instead of inflation.

The Bank could make more use of summary messaging and integrated visual devices. This could be part of the ‘layered’ communication approach which the Bank is starting to favour, with summary messages, visual and technical content all available, but targeted at different audiences.

Key messages, in simple language, should be right at the top of all the Bank’s communications – even its in-depth technical reports – given the predispositions and limited attention span of online readers.

Good summarisation was seen as vital. There was some discussion of the discipline that the Tweet format (140 characters) encourages in terms of summarising messages – even if Twitter itself is acknowledged to have less reach than some other platforms (e.g. Facebook) as a communication channel.

Tell the story

The Bank could make more use of stories. There was significant public engagement earlier in the year with a story about marmite potentially being removed from supermarket shelves due to price increases triggered by the pound’s depreciation. This episode helpfully illustrated the likelihood of prices in the shops beginning to rise in the period ahead. It was economic information with narrative content and a personal touch, which made it more effective than traditional ‘dry’ central bank messaging.

The new Punk FT portal and the Guardian’s online money pages were cited as good examples of new, more engaging styles of communication on complex political and financial topics.

But it was also acknowledged that many of the Bank’s own communication and education initiatives and new content channels – including the Museum, the Knowledge Bank educational portal and the independent Bank Underground blog – are already credible and creditable in their own right.

Finally it was noted that Bank staff writing official content, whether for internal or external purposes, need to take individual responsibility for continuing to improve the professionalism and accessibility of their own writing, whether through ongoing education, continuing professional development or just sheer practice.

Curved Roofscape

A welcome sign

From a panellist’s perspective, the whole idea of the Bank’s Writing Week – and this panel in particular – was a welcome sign of the Bank’s willingness to continue to challenge and improve its own communication processes. And the panel itself was a rewarding and engaging experience, certainly for the panellists, and – I hope – valuable for the Bank attendees too.

On a personal level I am extremely grateful to Andy Haldane for inviting me to join; and to the other panellists and attendees for their incisive, insightful views and questions.