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Monday
Feb212011

Dumbing it Down is Downright Disrespectful

It's not uncommon that someone will make a comment to me about how we (physicians) need to "dumb it down" when it comes to publishing information for consumers. 

In fact, this is exactly the wrong approach when you are trying to reach people with important health information.  Instead, what we need to strive for is a smart translation of medical science. 

While it's true that people who are not in healthcare likely won't understand a highly technical medical research study (just as doctors probably wouldn't understand a complicated document in another industry), what isn't true is that our patients, readers and consumers need to have information "dumbed down."

A smart translation means that you are approaching your reader with respect for his or her intelligence and knowledge.  Dumbing anything down is just plain disrespectful.  Attitude comes across the written page and seeps into the "take home messge."  A respectful attitude means that readers are more likely to consider the information presented.  Perhaps to heed the advice and even to share it with others. 

Bottom line: everything that physicians write and publish should be done with the goal of offering a terrific translation for a given audience.  I think about this a lot.  When I don't get it right, it isn't because I dumbed my communication down.  I just didn't quite nail the translation.  Great translations aren't easy, but they are incredibly effective.  Offering important health information along with respect is what we should all aim for all of the time. 

Reader Comments (3)

I wholeheartedly agree. In addition to translating for your audience, it's important to think about what will make your article or book engaging and interesting to your audience. As an author, you're competing with TV, YouTube and other forms of communication. Depending on the audience, we often have to work to make our writing compelling and entertaining as well as informative. That's not dumbing it down, but it sure can require a shift in mindset and how we view ourselves.

Feb 21 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Tener

The mark of truly understanding something is the ability to teach it someone else.

Feb 23 | Unregistered Commenterisaac

It is a real art to write using simple language without dumbing it down. Parents who reviewed my book loved the friendly, practical tone. When I told them that is is written on an 8th grade reading level, they were surprised. They didn't feel like I was talking down to them, just talking to them.

According to the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing (1997), there are many benefits to having your materials written (re-written?) in Plain Language:

"…Plain Language is not just about vocabulary. It involves all the techniques for clear communication – planning the document, designing, organizing it, writing clear sentences, using plain words, and testing the document whenever possible on typical readers….. “Plain Language” has come to signify the kind of fundamental change - in attitude and practice - that we need to finally break the cycle of poor legal writing…

"…When the FCC’s regulations for CB radios were written in legalese, the agency needed five full-time staff members to answer questions from the public… the FCC re-wrote the regulations in plain language and was able to reassign the five staff members…"

There are training and guidelines available.

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