Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Dont talk to me like that! I wont stand for your bad language!

There is nothing more irritating than someone trying to tell you something but you just don’t get what they are saying. Yet health professionals do it all the time, especially health communicators. Just because you are an expert in your health area, does not mean that you are any good at explaining to other people! We have all be there, a health professional is talking to you in what sounds kind of like English but you don't understand a word they are saying. Or you read a pamphlet and need a dictionary to understand what the hell it all means.

IF you are one of those health professionals, who do not get that they SUCK at communicating with us normal people, let me explain it to you.

When we use language, whether we are speaking or writing we choose words, which have some relationship to us as an individual. What our word choices tell people, either consciously or subconsciously, is about who we are. For example, it can give people clues about our age, education, and cultural background.

In an oral context, language is more fluid. We are more accepting of the different way people talk. We don’t usually try to get people to conform to a “normal” beyond encouraging them to use situationally appropriate language, e.g. don’t swear in front of your grandmother. In a written context, people are less accommodating. This is in part due to the rules of grammar but also because society has traditionally standardization written communication more so than spoken language.

The standardization reduces our ability to communicate to specific target audiences.  This should be common sense and is, for a large number of people, with the exception of many health communicators. There are still reports, health promotion materials, social marketing campaigns and a variety of other written communication, which does not communicate in the language of the target audience but rather uses the language the author prefers. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

When writing for an audience, we need to consider word choices which our audience has some relationship with; not what the author would like to read. Words that the audience can see themselves in, that they use, that describe their world and their community. Doing this will help you communicate the message more effectively. Commercial marketing understands these principles better than any other group. They want their audience to see themselves using the product. Picture the lifestyle they could obtain by purchasing the product. And to part with their $$$ and buy the product. What health communicator’s want is for the target audience to see the relevance of the message, the usefulness of the message and take action. These principles are the same whether you are advocating for change to government of you are working with clients to change their behaviour.

In an oral context this principle is speech accommodation and in a written context, from a health perspective it is health literacy. If we consider health literacy, from a linguistic view point, Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) would be the most appropriate theory.

The theory of SFL there is 3 metafunctions;
  • ·       Ideational function
  • ·       Interpersonal function
  • ·       Textual function

Ideational function has 2 separate components;
  • ·       Experiential function
  • ·       Logical function

It is the experiential function which refers to the grammatical choices that enable speakers to make meanings about the world around us and inside us. It is this function we need to consider the most when writing for an audience.

Without going into more details about the theory, health communication needs to always remember that language is something that is “experienced”. It creates emotions, visual images and meaning for a person. What that experience may be for the author may not be the experience for the reader. Therefore understanding the reader’s context is vital for communicating effectively.

Essentially, if you don’t want to waste your time, energy and money let go a little. If you want to be successful in communicating your messages and really make a difference, let someone who knows the business of communicating do it for or at least with you. Think not about how you would like to be communicated with but rather spend the time to understand the audience and communicate in a way they will understand.

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