How to demonstrate impact in writing
Updated: Apr 26
Sustainability and social justice are still at the forefront of many people’s minds these days. Organisations across the world are trying harder to lower their impact and give back to their communities. And although some shareholders might not be happy, businesses are increasingly putting other factors above profits.
All this means that demonstrating impact has become more important than ever. Instead of the obligatory CSR page in the annual report, organisations are creating newsletters, dedicated social impact brochures, even content-rich microsites. It’s no longer just investors reading – the success of companies like Patagonia or WhoGivesACrap shows that customers and potential hires want to find out more too.
So if you’re going to all that effort to be a responsible organisation, it would be a shame if your customers and other stakeholders didn’t know about it. Appeal letters, case studies, sustainability reports – there are lots of times when reading your content is the only way your audience will hear about your achievements. If demonstrating impact is important to your organisation, the way you write about your work is vital.
Make the message clear
This first piece of advice is by far the most important. Clarity in your writing gives your message the best chance at standing out. If readers have to wade through waffle to find out what you do and the difference you make, they’ll lose interest.
Unilever’s planet and society pages explain their approach to everything from climate change to nutrition. While many businesses would lump all this information into a long (and very boring) report, Unilever have presented it in easily digestible chunks with descriptive headers and straightforward copy.
Klean Kanteen have put their report into a single PDF which, for some businesses, is license to cram in every detail and tick every box. But they’ve kept it clean and minimal, with a very clear purpose to each page.
In contrast, many companies (such as this law firm above) like to list their achievements in long paragraphs. It might seem impressive to the firm, but readers won’t take it in. They’ll skim most of the content and miss all the juicy details.
How to make your message clearer:
Divide your content into easy-to-read sections
Use descriptive subheadings to guide readers through the text
Highlight key points visually, for example, lots of statistics lend themselves to an infographic
Put long lists in bullet points, not in the main text
Stick to one point per paragraph
Show who you are
A story about your founding or anecdotes about your team helps your readers see you as real people. It’s hard to equate a faceless corporation with social impact, so the more relatable you are, the more people will be engaged with your work.
Help Refugees has become a large operation but it started as a social media event. The
story about a group of friends donating essentials to refugees in Calais makes this charity seem approachable. A founding story of humble beginnings leading to greatness makes your achievements all the more impressive.
If you don’t have a founding story, a prominent figurehead, for example, your CEO, can help define your organisation’s attitude and personality. You could also get every team member involved in telling stories on social media or in newsletters – a glimpse into office life or individual achievements can help readers see you as more than just an organisation.
Give tangible evidence
There’s a golden rule in writing: show, don’t tell. Telling someone how much difference you’ve made is pointless. You’re not a trustworthy source when it comes to describing your own achievements. But showing readers your impact gives them proof that you’re doing good in the world.
TOMS’ impact report is full of specific examples that are impossible to deny. For example, whereas many businesses would say something like “we have over 70 partners across the world”, TOMS dedicate an entire double-page spread to listing every single one. And not in the appendix either. While it’s unlikely anyone will read the list, it’s a compelling piece of evidence to support their claims.
Make it human scale
Large numbers are meaningless to most people. Impact is far more impactful when it’s at a scale we can relate to. A story about one village, a single project or an individual is better than trying to talk about everything you do at once.
Charity:water’s September 2020 campaign had the noble goal of bringing clean water to 20,000 people in rural Mali. But 20,000 people is a hard number to picture. It doesn’t have any emotional pull, and, as all fundraisers know, emotion is what makes people donate. So the story for the campaign starts and ends with Bintou, a potter in the Segou region whose life has been transformed thanks to her access to clean water.
Even if you have to change it for confidentiality reasons, having a face and a name makes your work seem real. Hopes and dreams have far more impact than percentages and
budgets. Both are important, but it’s the emotions that help us remember a story.
That doesn’t mean you can forget the numbers. The numbers are still important to a lot of people. But to help your readers relate, talk about them in terms that are easier to understand. For example, 20,000 people is the capacity of the O2 arena. Visual representations work well too.
Let your work speak for itself
Good copywriting should be unobtrusive – the point isn’t to impress people with your language but to bring out the message. If you help your reader by making your copy clear, telling relatable stories, and giving real evidence, the quality of your work will shine through.