Inclusive communications – a beginner's guide to being a better communicator

Inclusive communications – a beginner's guide to being a better communicator

Inclusive communications – a beginner's guide to being a better communicator

Honor Pollard, Communications Officer, attended the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health workshop on inclusive communications. In this blog she explains the importance of inclusive communication and how to start making changes to ensure we engage with all audiences.

The world of science is full of definitions and vocabulary and communications tools that help researchers talk to each other in precise and efficient ways, picking the right language and medium to use is just as important across all our daily interactions. These days there is more to consider than ever before when it comes to disseminating messages thanks to the expanding communications channels we use to reach our collaborators, colleagues, and beneficiaries of our work.

The principles of inclusive communication are an important basis to use so that people can engage with what you’ve got to say and can understand your messages. Creating an inclusive space on all levels is better for science because all people feel able to do their best work and audiences can provide meaningful contributions to scientific progress and accurately reflect the perception of research. After attending a workshop on inclusive communications, here are some things that I’ve learnt.

What is inclusive communication?

Inclusive communication involves paying attention to the mediums chosen and words used when conveying messages so that as many people as possible can interact with you in a positive way. It is about having an awareness of the barriers that people of different experiences may encounter when engaging with what you do. It encompasses words, images, style and mode of communication.

Why care?

It is key to the success of any messaging, but also demonstrates the values that an organisation or individual holds. For example, here at the Institute one of our core values is integrity, this involves creating an inclusive environment. In practice we make a conscious effort to embed integrity in every way in which we communicate - with each other, with our audiences and with the public.

If you aren’t communicating inclusively, your audience is limited and you are probably missing out on valuable interactions. Diversity of opinion, background and knowledge leads to a bigger and better pool of ideas. The way you communicate can shut out and put off people from joining your network, working with you, or prevent people from benefitting from your research outputs.

Examples of inclusive communications

Words – Most people are aware of the way gender stereotypes can carry across into different words like manpower and spokesman. A simple inclusive swap to make is to find a gender-neutral alternative.

Images – An image speaks a thousand words, and so it is worth thinking about what yours say. Do your images always feature people of the same skin tone, are you including people with disabilities in your images?  

Modes of communication – For people who use additional technology such as screen reading software, how you format documents can have a real impact on how things are translated. This extends to images across social media where alt text is important to make sure no information is lost, this is also helpful for people in areas with lower internet bandwidth. If you’re publishing a video, does it include captions?

Graphs – Especially important for presentations, are the colours on your graphs distinguishable for people who are colour blind or have difficulty perceiving contrast.

Messages – Exclusionary messaging is sometimes seen in job descriptions, where the writing can promote the idea that only a certain type of person would be suitable for the job. Watch out for the style you’re writing in, and for coded language. What is the overall impression that people will come away with after engaging with you?

What are the principles?

Overarching principles are useful for a topic that has such a wide remit as inclusive communications which is to say inclusive of race, disability, and protected characteristics like gender, age and sexual orientation and across all types of communication. This guidance should be useful regardless of the communication you’re doing.

Here’s a list of some basic rules for improving your communications:

  • Make inclusive communications a priority and make it a necessity. Remember the benefits of inclusive communications.
  • Start as you mean to go on – allow time and budget where necessary that allows for inclusivity to be a part of your project from the outset.
  • Make space and include people with lived experience, where reasonable, compensate them for their work. Be an active listener when having conversations with people, creating an environment for constructive criticism of your work.
  • Practice what you preach and be open to being held accountable. The process of producing inclusive communications is an iterative exercise because language changes and there is often room for improvement.

What do these principles look like in practice?

I am working on embedding these overarching principles into my everyday work as a communications professional but also during everyday tasks. My first step has been remembering small checks on my comms which include:

  1. Using the accessibility checker in word documents
  2. Using a colour-blind filter checker for images or only using contrasts I know are suitable
  3. Adding alt text to images I share on social media
  4. Capitalise each word of a hashtag to make it compatible with screen readers
  5. Avoiding over-use of emojis
  6. Checking for gendered terms in my work
  7. Making sure your technology has subtitle capabilities

After learning about and implementing these simple changes, I have looked for ways to take the next step. For me, this has been to ask people their pronouns and preferred name when writing official communications like news items so that I don’t make assumptions, educating myself about how to write better alt text and making space for people of different backgrounds to share their experiences in our communications.

More widely the way we talk about science and include people in our narratives has often been discriminatory. As someone contributing to the documentation of science it is important to break the trends of the past. This means recognising the contributions of everyone involved and being open to having conversations about the past.

The most important lesson from the day was that making a start is the first step of an iterative process, you don’t need to be perfect from the start, especially as you’re learning. Inclusive language is always evolving, and so you might need to keep up by listening to the latest consensus. Take tangible actions as well as laying groundwork for longer term change.

My own reflections

I have my own journey with inclusive communication and can understand that it can be difficult to get it all right, I’m not sure that I do all the time. I was born without thumbs and with missing tendons and muscles in my arms. I don’t usually say I’m disabled even though I have intermittent chronic pain, limited mobility, and difficulty doing things that need thumbs or bendy wrists. I am only disabled by some definitions and only in certain circumstances. At school and university I had to declare myself a disabled student in writing to receive support that let me record lectures and use a laptop in exams. The language of these forms is often insulting and without nuance and would be greatly improved by applying the principles of inclusive communication.

As the audience for different communications during my education, it was important to me to receive lecture notes digitally if I could. The best lecturers were the ones who had already expected this to be a possibility and immediately sent me their slides and notes, while others couldn’t always understand why the handout wasn’t enough.

From my own experience I also know that inclusive language can be about compromise - personally I don’t mind if you ask me for a high five or a thumbs up. I do mind if you ask if I have a birth defect or deformed hands. Language can be emotional and personal and I understand the relief when someone gets it right, or the frustration when someone gets it wrong.