Speaking Plainly

I’ve found that when you’re passionate and knowledgeable, succinct writing is a challenge. Greater challenge still is when you are writing for a wider audience and you want those few words to be interesting and meaningful.  Writing in the Health Communication field certainly checks off all of these boxes in my mind, so I was happily anticipating my conversation with HBHE alum Holly Derry– who is a Behavioral Science Team Leader at the Center for Health Communications Research here at the University of Michigan- because I knew she’d be able to shed some light on the topic. I also wanted to know something of her background, because everyone here at U of M has a fascinating career journey.

 PK: What is your background- where did you obtain your MPH? Did you do a lot of Health Communication research during your time in school?
HD: I got my MPH from UM SPH in 1997 (I’m old!). I tried to take as many health comm classes as I could, but fewer were offered at that time, compared to now. Back then, the major focus of HBHE was more in the community organizing side of things, so I had fewer options. Still, Vic Strecher had just started, so it picked up eventually. Since then, I’ve audited some classes – Ken’s Health Comm class, Brian’s Sticky class, and Ken’s MI class.

PK: What drew you to the field of Health Communication research? What made you chose CHCR as a place of work?

HD: I was a psych major in undergrad and had always had my eye on clinical psych… until I did a semester-long stint at a crisis hotline calling center (with no training) and felt like I was in WAY over my head. Around that same time, I was taking a health psych class, and it really felt right. Then, I started to look into MPH programs (I didn’t even know they existed until then)… and got into UM. Once at UM, I met Vic Strecher at orientation (literally day 1!!), and he sold me on the principal behind CHCR: get all the people who develop health interventions  (designers, programmers, writers) under the same roof so they work together, speak the same language, and learn from each other. I was hooked. My second year of grad school (1996), I worked here at CHCR as a student… and then got a full-time job after I graduated.
 PK: Is there a specific population or topic you are particularly interested in?

HD: I’m fairly agnostic about the population and topic I work on – my general interest is tailoring the approach, technology, and (of course) messages to ANY topic and population. And frankly, this is what keeps my job interesting… for example:  thinking about designing an intervention for 65-year-old type 2 diabetics vs. 12-year-old girls in an after school exercise program.

PK: Do you have any tips/resources for me as an aspiring content/health comm writer about writing in plain language? [plain language: is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. read more about it here]

HD: I’m so excited you’re asking this question! It means you’re thinking about it – which is more than can be said for a LOT of others!!
1. It’s very difficult to switch from plain language writing (for lay people) and writing for your professors or funders. That said, *everyone appreciates plain language*… so writing plainly is ALWAYS a good thing. You’ll elaborate more and be less worried about multi-syllabic words in academic writing… but using the inverted pyramid and active voice are always always always good things.
2. I went to a health literacy workshop in Maine a few years back. It was helpful and had some good hands-on practice… it’s pricey, though, so you may want to wait to ask your first employer to send you to this or something like it.
3. Read “Letting go of the words.” Then read it again. Live it. Love it. Memorize it. Spread the word!!
4. If you need to target a certain reading level, I recommend using the SMOG test for reading level. It’s free and highly recommended by literacy experts. (Technically, experts recommend another one first – maybe Flesh-Kincaid? or Fog? can’t remember – but it’s expensive.) There are tons of websites where you can copy and paste your text and get a SMOG reading level. I use this one  Do NOT use Word’s built-in reading level calculator, if you can avoid it.
5. NCI offers this 1-hour online training, which isn’t bad. If you’re already fairly good, it may not be that helpful… but it’s only an hour (and it’s free)!
6. Please never ever ever call it “dumbing it down.” If you’re dumbing it down, you’re not doing it right. Plain language is about taking complicated ideas and wording and structuring them in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience. It’s partially about word choice… but it’s also about formatting it in a way that matches how people actually read.
7. Other resources (you probably already know about these):
8. If someone wants you to get down to 3rd grade reading level, be skeptical. In my experience, this request comes from either a) committees, or b) people who don’t really understand plain language and literacy issues, or c) both. If an audience’s reading level is concerning (low) enough, you probably shouldn’t be using written words at all. Instead, consider audio or video delivery. If people are literate… then an 8th grade level feels reasonable. Any less than that will alienate stronger readers and be stilted / awkward to read. Of course, this is an oversimplification and definitely represents a soap-box of mine… but there it is.

PK: How much has technology become a part of the health communications you create? Are the majority of your experimental interventions technology now?

HD: Technology is as integral as the words I write in our programs. I could write the best words in the world, but if they’re on a brochure in a grocery store lobby, no one will read them. If it’s on a device in their pocket… now we’re in business.
And yes, all of our interventions are tech-based. They have always been computer-based, because the tailoring we do starts from a computer-operated system. But back in the day, our tailoring system would generate print materials individualized for a particular person and then be mailed off. Now, we have a system that will deliver our tailored content in any way we can imagine – it will call people using IVR (interactive voice recognition), or deliver content to texts, websites, and mobile apps.

PK: Do you have a mentor or colleague in your professional life that has been influential?

HD: There are a LOT of people who have been influential in my career… At SPH, Ken Resnicow and Brian Zikmund-Fisher remain influential. Brian also works with Angie Fagerlin (at CBSSM –Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan), and I’ve learned a ton from them and their research. Between these 3, they’re the ones I go to when I need advice or have questions.

PK: What are some trends you have noticed in the health communication field that would be important for me to be aware of/keep an eye as I go forward in my career?

HD: Mobile. Mobile. Mobile. We have to think about smaller devices (less real estate for the info we provide). We have to imagine that people aren’t reading our carefully-crafted paragraphs while comfortably seated in their quiet, private offices and giving us their undivided attention. They’re at a bus stop. They’re in a meeting. They’re at a red light. They’re having a conversation at the same time. They steal minutes (or seconds) to check something between (or while) doing other things… and so how do get our intervention to be the thing they check – to track what they eat, their exercise, whether they’ve taken their meds, etc. For that matter, how can we get the device to track things automatically so they don’t have to answer so many questions?
Related, how much information will people read at any one time? How do you craft an intervention that’s responsive to people’s reading styles? On the internet (as you’ll learn if you read “Letting go of the words,”) people skim and scan. This is why plain language is SO IMPORTANT. Use headings. Use the inverted pyramid. Step away from “walls of text.”
I think some answers to these questions include:
– use fewer words (say the right things, not all the things)
– find teachable moments (say the right things at the right time)
– infographics (say more with fewer words by using images)

Thanks very much to Ms. Derry for letting me interview her. I hope this helps anyone interested in Health Communications or any other potential writers out there- speaking plainly is not as hard as you may think! 

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