Breakthrough Patient Recruitment

: How We Talk to Our Audience and Why They Aren’t Always Listening

How We Talk to Our Audience and Why They Aren’t Always Listening

Managing Editor

As health communicators, we try our best to, well, communicate with our audiences. We aim to motivate behavior change among our audience by delivering messages that resonate with them. To do that, we try to get in their heads, figure out who they are and what they want, and then give them that. Often, we'rereallygood at it. Sometimes we're not.

 

That's why I attended the Center for Health Literacy's third annual conference, Plain Talk in Complex Times, in Arlington, VA, earlier this month. Across the two-day conference, I learned so much about how to create materials that patients want to-and can-read. But the most eye-opening presentation for me was one by Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. of the Weinschenk Institute.

 

Dr. Weinschenk is a behavioral psychologist who has written several books about how the unconscious mind works in the decision making processes and how that impacts the way people interact with websites and other materials. At the conference, she provided attendees with the top 10 things health communicators should know about people and their unconscious minds. Here's a recap:

 

10. People do as little as possible. It's not that people are lazy, just that our brains are asked to do so much, so to protect ourselves, we take in only the information that is necessary. It's instinctual, not purposeful. For example, we may know that a penny is copper colored and that it's smaller than a nickel but bigger than a dime. Beyond that, we're less sure what is written on a penny or which direction Abe Lincoln's face is pointed.

 

9. Too many choices equals no choice at all. As communicators, it's really easy toovercommunicate. We think we need to tell our audience everythingwethink they need to know. But by giving them too much information or too many choices of where to go to get the information, we freeze them, and they often make no choice at all.

 

8. Most mental processing is unconscious. Figuring out how to communicate more effectively may not be rocket surgery, it just may be brain science. Most absorption of information happens without us even knowing about it. That's why it's important to provide our audience with visual clues so that they can orient themselves to the material.

 

7. People can remember/deal with no more than 3 to 4 things at a time. The idea that people can remember seven things plus or minus two is an urban myth. Our brains simply can't hold that much information. This means the information we present must be the most important, and the instructions must be clear.

 

6. People use peripheral vision to get the "gist." In a nutshell, this means that people need context to best understand something. Although it's true that a person will scan a website and focus on the center of the page, side columns with callouts or images are also important. It's where people go to help them understand what they are looking at and to make sure that they are in the right place.

 

5. We pay attention to faces. Our brains have a section devoted to reading and storing faces. It's called the Fusiform Facial Area (FFA). Facial expressions like other body language help us determine who is friend and foe, who is acting nicely and who isn't. So, human beings really like to look at faces! Studies show that materials or websites that feature faces are better received. We recognize faces and can more easily identify or empathize with the person in the picture.

 

4. Hard to read or overly decorative fonts=task is hard. Typography is important (can you hear the cheers of designers everywhere?). If the font is hard to read (such as a script font), the reader interprets the task as more difficult. Remember, we want them to think what we're asking them to do is easy!

 

3. People use look and feel as the first indicator for trust. If a material or websitelookswelcoming and easy to use, a viewer or reader is more likely to trust it.

 

2. People have mental models. We expect things to work a certain way. For example, we know how a book works or which way to turn the faucet to get hot water in the sink. Imagine if you've never seen an e-reader. How might you imagine it should work? As best we can, we need to work within the parameters that people expect us to.

 

1. People expect technology to follow human-to-human rules. We want technology to engage with us as people do. When technology is too complicated, or if it malfunctions, we risk losing our audience.

 

So what's the lesson? People aren't really all that complicated. They want information and tasks to be simple and useful. They don't need to know everything we think they need to know. And we can learn a whole lot by listening to them!

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The Healthy(ist) blog is a platform to share, learn about, and debate topics related to public and social health, scientific research, health communications, and behavior change.
We invite and encourage anyone interested in current public health and health communication trends and issues to join MMG's contributing bloggers in adding their voice to the ongoing discussion about how we can advance health, together.

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