How to write health promotion documents

The health sciences have their own language. And those who don’t understand it can simply feel like they’re not part of the club. If your remit is to communicate health promotion messages to the public, you need to walk a tightrope between scientific fact and digestible chunks of practical health information. Your message needs to be both authoritative and accessible. The trouble is that when you spend most of your time communicating with colleagues, it’s easy to forget that you have developed a vocabulary that is somewhat at odds with the general population.

Studies have shown that the number of words people have in their vocabulary ranges from 600 to 5000 depending on level of education and profession. But there is a pool of common words that most people understand and are comfortable using. The secret is to think of your reader first and choose words they will connect with.

That’s not to say that this is easy. Writing that persuades, educates and informs doesn’t happen by accident. Critically appraising scientific findings is a very different skill from communicating these findings to laypeople. It involves a specific set of writing skills that have to be learnt. In the same way that a physics degree doesn’t fully prepare someone for the NASA space programme, professional health qualifications do not prepare people to become effective writers of health promotion material.

Health promotion is about persuading individuals, groups and communities to take action, so the messages must be crystal clear. The public don’t want to read reports, leaflets or articles which skirt around issues. They want a definitive viewpoint.

From the writer’s point of view, this can seem like a risky prospect, especially if there are complex policy changes and even legal implications to consider. Clear writing gives you no place to hide, as your goals and reasons for writing become transparent. But effective writing is a powerful tool that can improve people’s lives, so it is well worth mastering this skill.

Don’t get lost in translation

Imagine your brief is to create a range of leaflets and bookmarks for a pharmacy chain to help the poorest sectors of society to give up smoking. What title has more impact? ‘Smoking cessation advice’ or ‘How to give up smoking’?

The second option is punchier and is far more likely to get your target audience to sit up and take notice.   The phrase ‘Smoking cessation advice’ just isn’t something that most people say. And here lies the problem. These phrases find their way into public health promotion, because the writers have become completely immersed in healthcare language. The messages become lost in translation and lose their impact.

Your work may be informed by medicine, psychology, epidemiology and public health science, but the needs of the reader must come first.

Ask yourself:

  • Who will read the document?
  • How much experience do they have of the topic?
  • How much do they know about it?
  • What is their likely attitude towards it
  • How involved in the topic are they?
  • How interested are they in the topic?

Once you have answered these questions, consider your purpose for writing the report, leaflet or other document. Think about what you really want to achieve with your message. Often we use buzz words, talking about things such as ‘advocacy’, ‘social mobilisation’ and ‘community participation’. But it can help instead to think of the discrete actions you want your reader to take.

Jargon is not always the bogeyman

Writing in plain English doesn’t mean you have to dumb down. You can still include technical information, as long as you focus on your audience. For instance, jargon such as ‘body dysmorphic disorder’ will be commonly understood to mean ‘bad body image’ for some laypeople.   For others, it will be a meaningless medical phrase. In contrast, abbreviations such as NHS have moved into common usage. Unless you are writing specifically for an immigrant community or for people whose second language is English, it’s likely that they will know that it stands for ‘National Health Service.’ Don’t spell out every single abbreviation if it’s not necessary, but don’t stuff your document full of terms that may perplex your readers.

Remember that most people overestimate how much their audience knows and so use an inappropriate number of technical terms. Keep asking yourself whether your document is instantly readable. If not, keep revising it until the meaning is clear.

Finally, your writing needs to be more than grammatically correct and scientifically sound. It needs to connect with your reader. So try to ignore well-meaning advice from your colleagues if they have little knowledge of your audience.

Six steps to better writing

Keep it short

Keep your sentences short and simple and avoid flowery phrases. Aim for an average length of 15-20 words and stick to the rule of one sentence, one idea.

Use active language

Write ‘the Government invested £15 million in this new health initiative last year, rather than ‘last year an investment of £15 million was made by the Government in a new health initiative.’ The second version, which says ‘who’ before ‘what’, is livelier and easier to read.

Cut the clichés

Cutting out redundant phrases, such as ‘of paramount importance’ simplifies your messages and makes them easier to read and understand. So instead of writing ‘It is of paramount importance to eat a healthy diet,’ write ‘Make sure you eat a healthy diet.’

Use bullet points

If you’re dispensing advice, bullet points work well because they make the text stand out. Make sure that they are not too wordy and stick to one bullet for each piece of advice.

Use verbs instead of nouns

Verbs add movement to sentences and make them shorter and easier to understand. Use ‘consider’ instead of ‘give consideration to’ and ‘provide’ rather than ‘the provision of’.

Be specific and include people

Putting people into writing makes it more powerful. Writing ‘one in a hundred people’ is likely to produce a much bigger reaction from your readers than ‘one per cent’, even though they obviously mean the same thing.   And when writing for the general public, one reader’s story can override even the most powerful numerical evidence. So don’t be afraid to use case studies or stories about real people. People connect with other people.

Perfect presentations

These guidelines also work well with presentations. But when speaking, your sentences can be even shorter. This helps you to make your communication even punchier, to help your audience follow your line of thought. Remember that in writing, your readers can re-read sections if they choose, whereas in presentations, you pre-determine the sequence. Create an effective structure for your presentation by asking yourself the questions: what?, where?, when?, how?, why? and who? You can then lay out your core idea first, and expand on it in the rest of the speech.

Analogies, such as ‘the thought of giving up smoking is as bad as the prospect of root-canal surgery’, are a useful tool for engaging your listeners. Alliteration also works well. For example, you can say,’ this is the most effective help for heartburn sufferers.’ The repetition of the ‘h’ sound makes the words jump out.

Your job is to take your listener from passive to passionate. Arranging your important messages in trios gives a sense of movement, progression and resolution. This is especially powerful when you are making closing comments or recommendations. Saying, ‘Fad diets can be dangerous, unpleasant and ineffective’ for instance pushes the message home that you are recommending a healthy, balanced way of life. By then including a couplet in your recommendation, such as ‘fruit and vegetables’, you further emphasise that balance is at the heart of your health promotion message.

is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.

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