“Patient engagement” has become a buzzword in health care, and for good reason. For anyone whose job it is to get patients to act—to take their medicines, to come in for their A1c test, to change their diet, to make a decision—finding ways to engage those patients in their health is a must.
As we think about how best to do that, it seems no great leap to say that using familiar, everyday words in your health content helps engage patients. How can engagement happen if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re talking about? That’s where plain language comes in.
Consider the word “you.” Using “you” to address your audience directly—also known as writing or speaking in second person—is a fundamental principle of plain language. The word itself is short, simple, and clear. The use of second person tends to set in motion clearer, more direct writing. Strong, active verbs follow. Language gets shorter and simpler. Tone becomes more conversational — all because of this little personal pronoun.
But this isn’t a grammar lesson. I’m here to reveal the power of the word “you,” small but mighty. We use it when we talk to each other, without even thinking about it. But it’s been a different story when it comes to health information. The need to sound authoritative and credible has meant that “you” (and plain language in general) is too informal. Or that was the thinking until quite recently.
I blame it on freshman composition. When I joined Healthwise as a medical writer in the late 1990s, the writing staff weren’t using “you” in Healthwise content very much (with a few exceptions). Instead we relied on “people who have [condition]” and “the person” and the almost always stodgy “one.” As often as we could, we wrote our way out of having to use pronouns at all. I wish I could say that I questioned this practice right away and brought about a revolution in our editorial style after my first week. I didn’t. My background was in academic writing, where the use of “you” had long been verboten. And it still is. A quick survey of a dozen colleges’ online writing labs confirms that using second person in an academic paper remains a surefire way to blow a good grade. “Using second-person pronouns can make your writing sound too informal,” say the annals of freshman composition. Besides, “you never to want communicate directly with the reader.”
Umm, yes, you do. When you are writing or talking about health care to patients, you most certainly DO want to communicate directly with the audience, at least most of the time. Strange and wonderful things can happen when we address patients and consumers directly by using “you.” Even the government thinks so. The folks at plainlanguage.gov share that “More than any other single technique, using “you” pulls users into your document and makes it relevant to them.”
Most of all, “you” is a reminder that there is a real person on the other end of your communication. Even when you have an audience of thousands, each person in that audience is a “you” that you’re trying to reach. Stop to think about who that “you” really is. Let a picture come into your mind not of a faceless, abstract audience but of a series of individuals.
This is the power of using “you.” It reminds us to:
- Make it plain. Think about the people at the other end of your communication. They are probably not health professionals, and even if they are, they may be worried, upset, stressed, or unsure of what to do. Make it easy on them. Use plain language.
- Make it personal. Address your audience directly. Talk tothem, not about them.
- Make it matter. Try to tap into what patients care about. “What does this information mean to me? Why should I care?” If your content offers meaningful answers to those questions, you’ll be a big step closer to patient engagement.
It all starts with “you.” And you.
About the author:
Katy Magee is Director of Editorial Strategy at Healthwise.