In Wellness Communication, Clarity is Key and Less Is More
Shawn M. Connors
For years, most wellness communication had been riddled with corporate-speak and jargon instead of clear, concise language aimed at busy employees with short attention spans.
Before you draft emails, newsletters, posters and other ways to explain and promote your wellness program, remind yourself of three probable (and unfortunate) realities about your audience and your message:
- They don’t really want it.
- They don’t really have time for it.
- They didn’t really ask for it.
With that in mind, informing employees about the advantages of participating in your wellness program might be your primary communication goal, but it shouldn’t be your initial one. The original mission is to capture employees’ attention in the first place. A good rule of thumb: You can’t educate or motivate unless you captivate.
Savvy organizations accomplish this by creating wellness communication that is conversational and succinct. They deliver messages with tones and lengths that fly in the face of what other organizations consider to be “proper” and “official.”
Clarity is Key: If Your Messages Aren’t Obvious, They Can’t Be Understood
Businesses that want to sound “official” usually end up sounding confusing or egotistical. The intent of their messages is lost in the delivery, usually because the messages have more to do with the sender (“This is what we want, and this what we think”) than with the receiver (“Here is what you asked for, and this is how it applies to you”).
Today, there’s a Grand Canyon-sized gap between what companies want to say and how they choose to say it. One problem is most workplace communicators neglect to consider the importance of “voice” — the tone of their communication, as determined by their audience. Another reason is workplace communicators eschew clarity — the main ingredient of effective communication — because, well, they use words like “eschew” instead of “avoid.”
The growing disconnect between what employers write or say and what employees read or hear has fueled the “plain language” movement in several industries, including health care. The problem in the medical field is understandable: Highly educated doctors often aim to sound highly educated, and their vocabulary — much like the journals and books they read — are technical. A similar issue often affects company CEOs and presidents, who aim to sound business-like.
But if your wellness messages aren’t obvious, they won’t be understood or acted upon. In fact, they might not even be read or heard. This is especially true when a topic is viewed by employees as important but intricate (improving overall wellness, learning how to make exercise and healthy eating habitual, etc.).
As a workplace communicator, you might have the task of reaching a large variety of workers, including people who struggle to read, and those who can read but either don’t take the time or simply tune out health information. It’s an important challenge. In fact, the National Patient Safety Foundation says the biggest barriers to being healthy are not age, income, education level, race or ethnicity. Rather, studies indicate that the strongest predictor of a person’s health status is his or her ability to understand and use health information.
“We can’t keep focusing on our information instead of our readers,” said Audrey Riffenburgh, founder and president of consultancy Plain Language Works, LLC. “Clear communication is about focusing on what your readers need to know and then delivering that by making sure messages are relevant and understandable. Putting that communication in plain language doesn’t mean you’re ‘dumbing down’ messages. It simply means you understand the importance of having employees receive them.”
Need to Get Clear? Avoid These Common Problems
- Getting technical and clinical. Some organizations try to show off their intelligence by distributing long articles or emails filled with jargon. Keep your messages simple and understandable.
- Covering too much. Say it quick, and make it stick. Listen to seasoned radio sources (politicians, book authors, activists, etc.) and notice how many of them are great at getting their points across in “sound bites.” Decide on your main concept and focus on getting that message across. Then stop. Future messages should discuss related concepts.
- Failing to highlight important copy. Cut the gist of your message down to an “elevator speech” you can describe in a sentence or two. Make those words the first ones readers see. Don’t “bury” the point.
- Creating “brick walls” of text. Don’t make readers scroll down several screens to read an email, and don’t pass out an important internal brochure that lacks illustrations, charts or tables. Include subheads, sidebars, pull quotes, boxes and the like whenever possible, especially when presenting an idea that can be better understood visually on first glance.
- Lecturing. Provide take-away value. Remember, your audience is going to think, “So what?”
Less is More: Does Your Wellness Communication Pass the Scan Test?
The average attention span of Americans today is roughly the time it has taken you to read this sentence. “You only have a minute to gain their attention” is an incorrect maxim. You actually have about 2.7 seconds.
And then you have to keep their interest so they can act upon your communication? That’s not easy. You are trying to reach employees at the same time they are updating a file while also instant messaging with a co-worker while also straightening up their desk while also listening to a conference call.
How can you get employees to view — let alone read — your wellness communication?
“If a worker views something for a few seconds, he or she should be able to describe at least the gist of what you’re saying,” said Alison Davis, CEO of employee communications firm Davis & Company, and coauthor of the book Your Attention, Please: How to Appeal to Today’s Distracted, Disengaged and Busy Audiences. “If that can’t be done, your communication program is going to suffer a quick death.”
Many employees turn a deaf ear to anything involving topics they don’t understand fully. So when they see an email about important changes to the company’s wellness plan, for example, their tendency is to delay reading it until they absolutely must.
“It’s such an unkind reality — yet such a critical realization — to understand that most
employees need to be told why they should care,” said Sharon Long Baerny, principal of Seattle-based communications agency We Know Words. “Whatever you’re communicating, it’s much more important to you than it is to your recipients. To make your messages more effective, you must begin to think more like them.”
The key is brevity. So, think of teasers and billboards. Make your messages easy and scannable. Cut your articles to a couple hundred words. Get your videos down to one minute, max. Stick to the main concept.
If you do, your emails, newsletters, and posters will come with credibility, not just copy. Employees might even start looking forward to receiving it. They’ll realize something you already know: Your organization’s wellness communication is well worth their time.
Need to Get Concise? Try These Tips
Truth is, people don’t read. They scan. We are a populace versed in instant gratification.
Relish the role of making your wellness communication simple, not just essential. Here are four tips:
- Use short sentences. Keep in mind how you would tell people if you were talking to them. Instead of … Joe utilized numerous strategies to achieve his goals of increasing his daily activity and decreasing his consumption of unhealthy foods. Try … Joe had two goals: adding activity to his day and eating less junk food. He tackled his goals in many ways.
- Be positive and inspirational. You want to encourage healthy behavior. Be a cheerleader, not a scolder. Instead of … Smoking is bad for you. You should give up this unhealthy habit before it’s too late! Try … Giving up smoking can help you to feel better and live longer. Why not give it a try? Here are some simple ideas that may work for you.
- Use bulleted lists when including steps or tips. Organizing information into bulleted lists makes it easier to read and process. Instead of … During our next monthly meeting, we will be discussing changes to our program, in addition to new incentives and an update to our points system. Try … During our next monthly meeting, we will be talking about:
- Changes to our program
- New incentives
- Update to our points system
4. Include actions to take or where to go for more information. Don’t leave readers hanging. If you’re including a story, determine what you want your readers to do with the information. If you want them to sign up for a new weight-management program, tell them so and provide them with a link, e-mail, or location of where to sign up. You may also want to include a few steps they could take on their own to get started on managing their weight — a sneak peek of what to expect with the program.
5 Wellness Communication Assumptions to Avoid
- Assuming you can get employees to act on your messages without telling them why and without asking them to act
- Assuming employees will read, instead of simply scanning, your content
- Assuming it’s not worthwhile to encourage employees to make seemingly minor healthcare changes and choices
- Assuming professional-sounding language is better than simple “plain speak” in your wellness communication
- Assuming all employees absorb and retain communication in the same manner and prefer the same medium
About The Author
Shawn M. Connors is president of Hope Health. He believes behavior change requires a mix of both art and science. He founded the International Health Awareness Center, Inc. (IHAC) in 1981, which focuses on the importance of communication in positively affecting workplace cultures. Recently, he worked with a talented team to develop a workable, realistic health communication system, empowering thousands of workplaces and community-based clients to communicate more effectively with new media. Shawn has earned the respect of marketing professionals and health educators alike.
About Hope Health
Hope Health, based in Kalamazoo, MI, is an experienced, multimedia content provider offering new perspectives in wellness and benefit communications to workplaces and community organizations.
Hope Health’s Website at www.HopeHealth.com includes many free tools, reports and articles you and your Wellness Committee can download and use.