Language use is the key to understanding
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is taxing. What sufferers, their families and carers need is information that advises and supports them, and that they can all understand – the last thing they need is confusing texts. This is not always easy, since information about medical treatments, forms of therapy and prevention can quickly become too complex for people unfamiliar with the field. Various evaluations carried out by the Swiss Cancer League confirmed its fears: many of its texts were too challenging for the general public to understand.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate” is the Cancer League’s headline for its early detection campaign and the reason why the NGO’s Media and Communications department made the decision to communicate more clearly and simply – with texts written in such a way that they are understood by medical professionals and laypeople alike. This is where plain language comes in.
Learning and implementing strategies for comprehensible language – in three languages
The vast majority of people understands plain language. Why? Plain language communicates at the intermediate B1 level, which is the level understood by the general population without prior knowledge of the topic. Specialist texts about medicine, law, insurance and other fields are thus made accessible to the general public.
But how do you go about communicating in plain language? A thorough training course was provided by Supertext to break things down. All staff members from the Cancer League’s Media and Communications department took part – they are, after all, responsible for the organization’s online and offline publications, which include everything from patient letters to informational brochures. And they do this in German, French and Italian.
The training took place via individual online sessions, “a great option during the pandemic, where the participants can flexibly determine their off-peak time and learning pace,” says Tino Heeg, Head of Media and Communications.
The employees learned the rules of plain language over 21 interactive lessons. Using examples from each language, they learned why short texts, specific words, active sentences and formulations that don’t include jargon are important. Various exercises then got them putting plain language into practice in their own writing style.
Sentence in Plain Language
“Administration of medications takes place in the morning.”
“The doctor gives the medication every morning.”
“The resection of the caput pancreatis...”
"The removal of the head of the pancreas..."
“The practice texts were super helpful for us because we could directly apply the examples from medicine and law to our everyday work. The whole thing made an immediate impact.”
Tino Heeg, Head of Publications, Swiss Cancer League
The lesson? “Plain language is a powerful tool.”
The Cancer League’s Media and Communications department wants to speak plainly in all its future communications. It is now also busy promoting plain language in-house – after all, other departments also have direct contact with those affected. Simple written and oral communication will benefit everyone, says Heeg:
“Plain language works everywhere, regardless of the field it’s being used in and the language in question. It’s a very powerful tool.”
Cover image via Supertext
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