As the next in my Top Ten Tips series, my fourth maxim for running a great consultation is to be clear. An obvious one, right? But it’s where so many consultations fall down.

Instead of communicating in clear, simple terms  consultees can undersand, too often developers/architects/planners/transport consultants/engineers/ecologists (or a multi-disciplinary team of all the above!) bamboozle people with impenetrable jargon.

This causes several problems. By hampering people’s understanding, the feedback you’ll get will be much less useful.

They may get unnecessarily concerned about your proposals if they misconstrue them.

People will be put off from getting involved if they have to struggle to get their head around what you’re telling them. If you’re presenting, they’ll stop listening. If you’ve given them written material, they’ll stop reading.

It also sub-consciously puts up barriers: it tells them you’re not people like them. If there’s any scope for them to be suspicious, negative or hostile, this will make it worse.

So what does it mean to communicate clearly?  For me, it’s four things:

1. Paint the big picture. You may be intimately acquainted with your scheme but your consultees probably aren’t. So stop assuming prior knowledge.  Start from the beginning and explain your proposals in simple terms and a logical order.

Think of it as telling a story – which is exactly what it is. And don’t just outline what you’re proposing: explain why.

2. Use simple language. Consultations tend to be riddled with unnecessary jargon. There’s no excuse for talking about ‘infrastructure development strategies’, ‘sub-regional connectivity policies’ and ‘ecological mitigation methodologies’.

OK, occasionally you will need to address technical issues, but even these can generally be explained in everyday terms.

3. Stop overcomplicating things. Think about how much detail people really need. Often an overview is better than an in-depth account which will lose people.

4. Be approachable in your style of communication. So many organisations commit two cardinal sins.

Firstly, they put everything in the passive. So ‘X scheme is proposed’ and ‘Y development has been designed’.  I feel this often stems from an unconscious anxiety that people won’t like proposals. Organisations like to imply they’ve been drawn up by some anonymous entity rather than having the confidence to put their name to them. If you’re at the stage of consulting on a scheme, be bold enough to say its yours.

Secondly, where organisations do refer to themselves, they do it in the third person. Normal people just don’t speak like that.  It turns things into officialise and puts up barriers. Instead of ‘Organisation Y would like to receive feedback from members of the public’, why not simply say ‘We’d love to hear your views’?


In fairness, people rarely deliberately set out to obscure issues. It’s usually because they’re too close to the subject and unused to talking to ordinary human beings as part of their day job.

This is where it can be invaluable to have help from communications specialists with an objective view. They’ll be able to put themselves in your consultees’ shoes and find the best way to make your consultatoin story understandable and engaging.


More tips to follow soon. 

Meanwhile, you can find out here about our public consultation services.