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Health Literacy Basics: Who is the Audience and What is the Purpose?

Categories: Public health practice

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande argues that people, even experts, often skip basic, critical steps that can determine success or failure in a project or task. He proposes that people use checklists to increase the accuracy and consistency of their performance.  Checklists draw our attention to all the elements in a process, not just a selective few that we remember or feel most comfortable doing.  

Last week’s health literacy workshop at the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media illustrated how often we overlook basic, critical steps in public health communication. Workshop participants used a health literacy checklist to evaluate 2 public health materials. Although the checklist had almost 3 dozen items, the first 2 items – audience and purpose – took up the majority of the discussion period in the exercise.

Participants identified multiple audiences and purposes for each piece. Without a clearly defined audience and purpose, it was difficult, and in some cases, meaningless to go through the rest of the checklist. For example, you can’t decide if a material is filled with jargon if you don’t have a clearly defined audience. Jargon for one audience might be everyday language for another.  Or, you can’t determine if you’ve included the correct health behaviors if you don’t know audience and purpose.

If you want to try a full checklist, see CDC’s plain language manual, Simply Put, Appendix A . Whether you use a checklist or not, try using these 2 questions when you plan, review or revise your next health material.

1)      Who is the primary audience?

2)      What is the primary purpose of this material?

Do you agree these are the 2 most important questions? Can you think of other, equally important questions that have made a difference in your materials?

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