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How Using Plain Language in Health Research Drives Participant Engagement

Avatar By K. Pearson Brown (Director, Communications, Vibrent Health) | December 17, 2020

Eight simple ways to communicate better with your diverse cohort

As a communications professional working with the NIH All of Us Research Program, which relies on remote and digital enabled health research data collection and participant recruitment, enrollment and retention, I have seen the importance of clear communications with participant audiences.

The first step in any type of writing is to first consider your audience. Health research is no exception. As a researcher aiming to better engage and communicate with your all-important study participants, you need to ensure that everything you communicate to them is fully understood. This might seem simple, but to many researchers reducing concepts into plain language seems to go against the professional training that compels them to be exact and academic in their discourse. For that reason, here are some tips for striking the balance between scientific rigor and straightforward language when communicating with participants.

Know your audience: Using what you know about research study participants to tailor your communications

You need to first understand your participants before you engage with them—who they are, what motivates them and what is their level of understanding about the topic you wish to communicate. Thinking through these questions is necessary not only to ensure that your participants comprehend your message but also to properly engage them and earn their trust. Once you have a better understanding of your audience, you can tailor your message accordingly. You’ll have a better chance of writing messaging that resonates with your audience as a result.

Write study participant communications at a fifth- to seventh-grade reading level

The challenge in large-scale health research when communicating with diverse participants is that, because you must reach a broad spectrum of people, it is not possible to precisely know your audience at a granular level. For this reason, experts suggest that health communicators aim to make their messages comprehensible at a fifth- to seventh-grade reading level. One easy way to do this is to avoid using large words (those comprising three or more syllables) and replacing them with smaller, simpler words that are more common and easily understood.

Run a FOG test to determine grade level

To test out the grade level of your writing, run a FOG test by using the standards of the Gunning FOG Index. There are many free tools online that perform this. This algorithm uses a selected passage as a basis and measures average sentence length, counts of complex words of more than three syllables, and then adds the average sentence length and the percentage of complex words multiplied by 0.4. The result is a grade number. For example, a value of 12 indicates the writing is at the 12th-grade level. If your writing exceeds the fifth- to seventh-grade level, rewrite until you get it where it needs to be.

Test using real-world participants

While your communications may pass the FOG Index and seem clear to you and your research colleagues, the best test is to use actual participants who represent the diverse target demographic for your research. Many behavioral health research companies will vet the ideal participants and conduct focus groups or one-on-one studies to determine if any language presents comprehension problems. This is especially critical regarding informed consent language. While this step may add a moderate expense to the research process, it is a wise investment to save time, effort and money in the long run if you are able to identify and correct problem language before commencing a study.

Replace research jargon with terminology that a layperson will understand

Scientific jargon serves its purpose in a professional environment by using precise, concise terminology understood by fellow professionals. But when the recipient of your message is a non-researcher, you need to replace that jargon with words, concepts and phrases that a layperson would use. One tip is to imagine explaining your idea to a child in upper elementary or middle school. Chances are, if you do this, you’ll quickly strip out research jargon and academic words with simpler descriptions.

Use the elevator pitch method to make your messages shorter and clearer

In terms that most researchers will appreciate, a clear message is a distilled message. To create a clear message that can more easily be understood by your study participants, here’s a useful exercise: First start with a long paragraph of four or five sentences. Challenge yourself to express the same message in one or two sentences instead. Think of taking a traditional “elevator pitch,” whereby you have only 30 seconds to explain a concept to a stranger on an elevator ride, and imagine those elevator doors closing — you have to express your main point in 10 seconds. While this is an extreme example of condensing your language, it will at least help you hone in on the main message and help you identify the excess words to eliminate. Don’t be discouraged if you have to edit your copy a few times. It may take longer to write succinctly, but the payoff is that your study participants will be more engaged.

Imagine your study participant as you write

While the general consumer-participant has respect for the competence of scientific researchers, they may not necessarily trust them. This means that, in addition to being understood, for your research study to be successful you must also achieve credibility and earn the trust of participants. By being sincere and authentic in your language, you can convey your trustworthiness.

An effective way to channel sincerity is to imagine your participant as you compose your communications. In the same way that highly effective orators make eye contact with audience members, as a writer you must conjure the face of a participant as you choose your words. This exercise not only helps you to refine your language, but it may infuse your communications with a more relatable (and trustworthy) human touch. This will encourage participants to respond favorably and want to invest their time and energy into your research. 

Using clear language in health research leads to better study participant engagement and retention

Making your communications appropriate for your participant audience increases your effectiveness as a researcher by helping your participant to understand what is expected of them. Just as vague direction nets vague results, clear language and clear expectations lead to unambiguous outcomes. When you take the time to consider the diversity of your participant audience and use suitable language for them, you sow trust and credibility. Best of all, your participants’ appreciation is conveyed by engagement, investment in your research, and more reliable end results for your research project.

This blog outlines just a few of the ways in which good communication and engagement practices are critical to participant engagement and retention. You want to focus on the quality of the communication, not just the logistics. Make sure you have a reliable suite of tools and expertise to help you easily navigate and manage your digital engagement work. Vibrent Health is the Participant Technology Systems Center (PTSC) for the NIH All of Us Research Program and provides the digital health research platform tools and expertise needed for digital engagement and retention.