Effectively communicating about complex topics like health, law, and finance requires that we think about what we know and who else needs to know it. The problem arises when we stop the process after verifying our knowledge—and without getting to the reader’s needs. It happens because experts often conflate communicating accurately with communicating clearly. But they’re not the same.
In this engaging interview, Ben Riggs confronts the assumptions that lead to unclear communication and shows us the empathy that we should have for readers facing life-changing decisions. Read on for Ben’s lessons in plain language and health communication through storytelling.
What is your role and how is it connected to clear communication and plain language?
My role is “content specialist” with Kettering Health, a health network serving communities throughout western Ohio. Our team of wordsmiths and strategists—in a larger marketing and communications department—champions stories; conveys advancements; and connects readers to the network’s services.
To do that, we harness the grit and grace of the declarative sentence. We invite readers to encounter the turmoil, humanity, and victories in patients’ lives. We show readers the expertise and precision of our physicians. And we address why the public can have confidence in the care we offer.
Clear communication enables us to do all that. It leads to readers’ confidence, and that’s—at the bottom of it—what’s at stake: a reader’s confidence. Readers aren’t static. They’re likely asking in some form, “Can I trust you with my money, my plans, my family, my dreams—my health?”
Clear communication helps us answer with a resounding “Yes, you can.”
What prompted your interest in clear communication?
After years of accidentally cultivating an interest in writing in my younger years, I put my interest to use as a copywriter. It wasn’t long until I saw a disconnect between what clients wanted (clear, compelling copy) and what I saw in the public square. I read books about and looked for examples of business, marketing, and academic writing. Most of what I read suffered from a prosaic gangrene; it had zero blood supply, no sign of a human writing it, let alone anticipation of a human reading it.
Looking for a solution, I found books by journalists and plain language advocates such as Roy Peter Clark, William Zinsser, and Clair Cook.
How does plain language impact healthcare outcomes and health literacy?
Clear communication—and the plain language that enables it—leads to confidence in the reader. That could be confidence to make a mammogram appointment, confidence to get a vaccine, confidence to trust a physician with a loved one’s care. People make decisions, especially healthcare decisions, primarily when they’re confident. They want to know that you as a healthcare provider will have their best interest at heart. And their confusion or fear or anxiety doubles down on our need to be clear. If readers need to wade through complicated instructions without an expert translating it or cluttered writing absent of meaning, they’ll run the other way.
That’s not to say there aren’t times when things are unavoidably complex. But there’s a difference between complex and complicated. Most readers won’t have the reading level of an infectious disease expert who’s your subject matter expert on vaccines. So, it’s paramount to learn the habits of writing plain language. For instance, if a topic is necessarily complex, find a metaphor or simile that makes it digestible.
I’ll always remember one of my first experiences in a hospital. Rushed to the hospital following a traumatic event, I had to be whisked into surgery. I was young. And because I was young, they essentially had to swaddle me in Velcro and what felt like a thick tarp. With tears rolling down my face, I had no clue what was happening. A nurse turned to me and said, “It’s like we’re making you your own cocoon so you can become a butterfly.” For a scared child, that metaphor was medicine for my fear.
What are some factors that indicate a need to write in plain language?
The first factor is literacy, particularly adult literacy. Most of the time, someone visiting a hospital’s website or sitting in an ER waiting room will be an adult or someone younger than 18 years old accompanied by an adult. That means a medical professional is communicating directly to an adult about a condition, procedure, etc., or is equipping an adult to speak to a teenager or child about a condition or procedure.
The second factor to emphasize is the emotional space someone is in. Someone visiting your hospital’s website may have just found a lump in their chest. Or they’re a grandparent trying to learn about COVID-19 restrictions before they visit a grandchild at the hospital. Most people aren’t stumbling onto a hospital’s website, searching for an article, or visiting a doctor’s office because they’re bored. We all know the “WebMD effect”: no one visits it until they have a headache.
When taken together—literacy and emotions—we see the imperative to use the tactics and tools of communicating in plain language to help others know how to access a healthcare provider, understand what new normals may await them after a visit, or process life-changing news.
Many professions (i.e., law, medicine, finance) are gatekeepers of important information for the public. What obligations do professionals have to communicate in plain language?
George Bernard Shaw said, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”
Professionals occupying roles within industries such as law, medicine, finance, and politics are setting up offices next door to people’s public and private dreams, hopes, and concerns. Their job titles have almost intimate proximity to others’ everyday lives. So, their obligation to clear communication is non-negotiable.
Plain language is what their customers, stakeholders, and clients need. And this requires professionals to slow down and not assume they’ve been clear. It’s one thing to know what you wanted to say; it’s vital to know what you have said—and to know how to make sure the latter is the same as the former.
The past year of navigating the all-encompassing COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the obligations of leaders in these fields to know how to communicate clearly.
What’s the most important—yet simple—change medical professionals can make to public-facing documents to improve understanding?
Acknowledge that accuracy and clarity are sold separately.
A lot of professionals—medical or otherwise—assume they’re clear because they’ve sought to be accurate. That’s not to pit those against one another. You can be clear and inaccurate all the same. However, it’s important that medical professionals doing any public writing know that accuracy and clarity result from two distinct processes. While both require processes of decision-making, the first is shaped by decisions involving verification and approval to answer the question “Is this correct?” The second is shaped by decisions involving drafting and rewriting to answer the question “Is this clear?”
Learn to answer both questions.
Roy Peter Clark, author of numerous writing books including Writing Tools, wrote a great essay looking at the principles of plain language (what Roy calls “civic clarity”) used by former Surgeon General Jerome Adams at a press conference during the early days of the pandemic. I recommend it to anyone.
Beyond writing with simpler words and shorter sentences, what else can professionals do to communicate better for the public’s benefit?
- Value white space. White space offers the same mental break a period does, but for a paragraph or section of copy. Readers see the visual cue that the words surrounded by white space belong together, and it helps readers hang onto those ideas as they move to the next paragraph.
- Leverage shorter paragraphs. Like shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs slow a reader’s pace, which helps them collect and process information. And for the writer, writing shorter paragraphs forces brevity, helping them select words to keep and cut. Clear writing is as much a product of what a writer cuts as it is what a writer keeps. The last thing a writer wants to do is force brevity through a process of compression, the attempt to shoehorn every idea from one paragraph into a shorter one.
What’s one piece of advice that you would offer to help a medical professional start using clear communication?
Cultivate the ability to translate your expertise.
Learn how to translate your expertise and competency into everyday language. Medical professionals, especially those with specialties, live and breathe the language of their field. Over time, they can forget that the habits of thought and language that became second nature to them are not intuitive for others. In which case, when miscommunication happens or there’s confusion, the typical strategy is to “dumb it down,” so to speak, which typically amounts to saying the same thing but slower.
The solution isn’t to “dumb it down” but to “translate it across”: How can you say the same thing but with different words, phrases, idioms, etc.? And, as happens with translating one language into another, it may be that you can’t create a word-for-word translation.
When I interview an expert in any field, including medical professionals, I always ask him or her, “If you were explaining this topic to a second-grade student, how would you do that? What would you say? What examples could you give?”
Having answers to those questions can be a big help.
What’s the most convincing statistic that you can share to convince medical professionals to start using clear communication?
Nearly half of U.S. adults have difficulty reading a book written at an 8th-grade reading level, which is roughly the age range most popular fiction is written at. So, if you’re communicating above the prose of The Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, you’re over their head.
Beyond that, though, I’d offer that 100% of people want to feel safe and confident.
About Ben Riggs
Ben Riggs is a writing coach and author of the book Tell Them a Story. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, with his wife, Emily, and black lab, Lewie. He serves as a content specialist for Kettering Health, is a plain language advocate, and believes everyone should own a copy of On Writing Well.
Plain Language and Clear Communication Interview Series
This interview is part of a series produced in connection with WordRake’s support for the Access for All: Plain Language is a Civil Right conference. WordRake is editing software for sophisticated writers who must communicate clearly. It improves writing by simplifying and clarifying text, cutting jargon, and recommending plain English replacements. WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. You decide when to run WordRake and which edits to accept, so you get quality and speed without sacrificing control. Editing for clarity and brevity has never been easier. Try WordRake for free for 7 days.