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August 9, 2016
Clearing the Path to Understanding
People seek health and science information for many different reasons. They may be trying to understand a loved one’s disease, learn more about their own health concern, or discover more about a topic they saw in the news. Truly grasping the topic is important for making informed health decisions. But reading about unfamiliar health or science topics can be daunting, as scientific articles are filled with technical jargon and difficult concepts.
How can we help our readers through this process? As science communicators, we can provide a simpler path for the non-expert to access research by translating studies into clear language. This doesn’t mean “dumbing it down.” It means providing a straightforward explanation using clear (or plain) language. Here are three strategies to help pave the way to a better understanding:
Organize Your Message
The first step toward clear communication is figuring out what to share about a study. Organizing your article around the main ideas can help readers decide if they want to read the entire story. Clearly state the article’s main points up front and include section titles or headings, if possible. Be sure the point of each section or paragraph is obvious. When appropriate, include images, tables, graphs, or bullet point lists to simplify information. This allows your reader to pull out key messages at a glance. Be consistent with your content’s structure, using the same style throughout. These strategies let readers simply scan for key messages or dive in deeper if you’ve sparked their interest.
Use Everyday Words
Language can serve as a shortcut to communication, or as a barrier. So choose everyday words and simplify scientific concepts so they can be understood by a broad audience. The scientific literature is filled with acronyms, abbreviations, and technical terms. Don’t make readers start their own glossary to read a story. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations whenever possible. Use jargon only when absolutely necessary. And if you must include technical language, choose a strategy to explain the concept based on how much your readers may already know. Ask yourself: Do they need to be reminded, oriented, or is the term completely unfamiliar to them?
Four ways to help people understand technical terms:
- Use parentheses.
- Allergic rhinitis (hay fever) is common for all age groups in the United States.
- Use apposition.
- Allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever, can strike infants as young as 6 months old.
- Use a description.
- Allergic rhinitis occurs when the immune system overreacts to airborne allergens, such as those from pollens, animal dander, dust mites, cockroaches, and molds. These environmental allergies can cause symptoms such as sneezing, a runny and stuffy nose, and itchy or watery eyes.
- Use a definition.
- Allergic rhinitis is a medical term for inflammation in the nose caused by substances, called allergens, that generally don’t affect other individuals.
Make sure to consider the perception your word choices create. For more about choosing reader-friendly terms and providing proper context, see Choice Words and Word Choices.
Science can seem inaccessible to the non-expert for several reasons. There’s the jargon, of course. But there’s also a convoluted tone—or the sound of “academic speak.” Science should be objective. So scientists often write or even talk about their findings in the passive voice, particularly when describing the methods. This way, they come across as an observer reporting about nature. For example, “Experiments were designed to test the cells.” This passive voice can be a stumbling block to clear language. But the scientist is not the point of the article. The cells are—at least from a scientific point of view. Simply changing the wording into the active voice can make the science more straightforward: “The scientist tested the cells.”
Another way to lessen the sound of academic speak is to write from the second person perspective. This helps make information more relatable to your reader. Ask yourself, for example, which of the following seems more personal:
Physical activity can help people maintain their health and mobility.
Physical activity can help you maintain your health and mobility.
Other quick tips for making communication pieces more accessible: use short sentences and contractions, make text less wordy by deleting redundant ideas and extra words, and find phrases that could be condensed into just one word (e.g. replace “due to the fact that” with “because”).
To read more about clear (plain) language visit:
Do you have other strategies for creating clear language? Please share your thoughts with us by sending an email to the NIH Science, Health and Public Trust Communications working group.