In this blog, we’ll look at a few ways you can make sure that you tailor the language in your writing for your audience – whether that’s your charity’s supporters, patients, or the public.
When thinking about communicating medical research with lay audiences, there are few different things you need to consider. Getting the structure right will make it easy for your audience to find their way through. A well-placed diagram can make complex topics easier to understand. Videos can make complex topics relatable in a way that text can’t. And at all times, you need to check your attitude to make sure you’re getting across the information without being patronising.
The language you use is crucial. Jargon can make your audience feel confused, or that you’re not ‘on the same page’ as them – leaving them feeling disconnected from what you have to say. Ultimately, rather than bringing people towards you and your charity, complex terminology will push them away.
On the other hand, finding a common language which you and your lay audiences can use helps explain tricky topics, and brings them closer to your charity and cause.
Here are a few ideas of how to pick up on the language used by your supporters, patients, and the public. Given that none of these groups is homogenous, I recommend using a range of these measures.
Speak to them
It’s pretty obvious – if you’re struggling to find the right language to talk to your supporters and patients, make sure you speak to some, regularly. Go to events with supporters or patients or your charity’s beneficiaries – thank them, listen to their story, and what they have to say. You ideally should be doing this anyway, of course, unless you hate people and/or working at a charity. But if you really need another reason to, perhaps you can also use these kinds of interactions pick up a few tips on the terminology they use (or don’t use). And next time you write something, you can think “Would Brian who I met at the support group meeting understand this?”
Friends and family (and colleagues) test
It’s an old trick, but if you want to know whether a particular word would be understandable, ask some of your friends or family – they’ll tell you straight up whether it’s a word they know or gobbledegook. Or check with one of your colleagues from another team in the charity – they’ll be glad to help, I’m sure.
A to Z of NHS health writing
A quick short cut to figuring out the kind of language that would be appropriate for most people is the NHS’s A to Z of health writing – the NHS ‘style guide’ for medical writing if you will. So, for example, people writing for the NHS tend to use ‘medicine’ rather than ‘medication’ or ‘drugs’, ‘condition’ rather than ‘disease’, and ‘poo’ instead of ‘stools’ or ‘faeces’. You may disagree with their choices, but I reckon this is a good starting point. You can read more about how the NHS put together their A to Z here.
Working out the terms that people use when they’re searching for something on Google – also known as ‘keywords’ – is a good tactic for finding blog post ideas. It’s also possible to use keywords to get a sense of the kinds of language that people use.
Sites like Answer The Public provide actual search terms that people are using. Tools like Keywords Everywhere or Google Trends can give a sense of the ‘popularity’ of a particular phrase, which you can compare to others. This approach is probably most useful for understanding what language the public use, though it could also help when writing for patients too.
The language that people casually use on social media is more likely to reflect their everyday language than what they might search for on Google, or write in an email. Look at the comments people make on your charity’s social media posts – ignore any dodgy spelling or punctuation and get a sense of the types of words that people use a lot.
Online forums and Facebook groups
Are there Facebook groups or forums where patients hang out a lot? Does your charity run such a group? Drop-in regularly and see what people are saying, and the questions they ask. This is a fantastic place where your charity could help a lot – as long as you’re genuine and contributing, not soliciting donations or ‘case studies’. It could also be a great place to understand the language that patients use when talking to each other about their condition. (Be mindful that closed groups can create their own language, as anyone who’s seen Mumsnet’s forums will understand).
The kinds of queries that might get sent to your charity’s email inbox or social media DMs might reveal what people want to know about the illness condition and the language or terms that they use. Particularly pay attention to the phrases people use to describe something when they don’t know the ‘proper’ word for it. These phrases are the phrase you should really be using in your writing.
Support groups and helplines
Does your charity provide services like support groups for patients, or helplines to answer queries from the public or people living with the condition? If so, your colleagues running these services will have a good sense of the language (and the variety) that people use when talking about the condition. People who work on your ‘supporter services’ or ‘supporter care’ phone lines will also have good insight. Speak to them! Could you also ‘shadow’ one of your colleagues as they work on the helpline or run a support group, to hear for yourself how patients talk?
Grammar checking tools
There are a few different tools which can help to make writing easy to understand. One of my favourites is Hemingway, and you could try ProWritingAid or Grammarly. One part of these tools typically uses variations on measures called the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade levels. These are a mathematical formula which assesses how easy your writing is to read, based upon how long your sentences are and how many syllables in your words. The theory is that the shorter your sentences, and the shorter your words, the better.
While they can be useful, I’m personally a bit sceptical of these tools, as I think they can encourage you to make your writing a little dry. There are also lots of words which might be long, but I think most people would understand. For example, ‘immediately’ and ‘endothelial’ are five syllables long, but they’re not equal in terms of how widely they’d be understood. They can give you a guide of whether your writing would be understood by a ‘typical’ secondary school student, but maybe not whether your audience would feel like it was written for them.