Health communication is designed to shape progressive health communicators, equipping them with the tools needed to effectively impact public and personal literacy. Truly persuasive health communication messages are difficult to create, regardless of the change you are trying to elicit in your audiences. When you are seeking a behavioral shift, the challenge is even greater. Therefore, creating social change and changing people’s attitudes, external structures, or modifying or eliminating certain behaviors involves skilled communications professionals to craft and disseminate messages with clarity and authority on topics that influence public and personal health.
Health communication messages can fail or succeed. McGuire’s hierarchy is one theory that can help explain successful message designs. McGuire posits that before taking action, audiences must:
- Tune into the message
- Attend to it
- Maintain interest in it
- Understand it
- Think about it
- Develop related skills
- Agree with the position in the message (attitude change)
- Store the message in memory
- Pull the message from memory when relevant
- Decide to act on the information (intention)
In order to implement these steps intended for its due purpose, McGuire goes on to say that successfully accomplishing each of these steps depends on the following communication variables:
- Characteristics of the message source (e.g., attractiveness, credibility)
- Design of the message (e.g., organization, style)
- Channel characteristics (e.g., directness)
- Characteristics of the person who receives the message (e.g., mood, education)
Health messages that focus on various input communication variables and what we should know about their ability to impact on one or more of the steps can help lead to successful (or unsuccessful) behavior change. However, what increases success of reaching one step may decrease success at another step. For example, fast-placed, flashy messages may grab attention but hinder understanding. In addition, different audiences typically require very different messages, even when working toward similar goals.
Some criteria to consider when developing a persuasive message is to make sure:
- The message will attract and maintain the attention of the audience.
- The strongest points are given at the beginning of the message.
- The message is clear.
- The action you are asking the audience to take is reasonably easy.
- The message uses incentives effectively.
- Strong evidence for threats and benefits is provided.
- The messenger is seen as a credible source of information.
- Messages are believable.
- The message uses an appropriate tone for the audience.
- The message uses an appeal that is appropriate for the audience.
- The message will not harm or be offensive to people who see it. This includes avoiding “victim blaming.”
- Identity is displayed throughout.
An increasing number of health care organizations are getting on board. Pfizer has a fairly sound policy regarding health literacy, outlined on its website. Pfizer’s stance is summed up in this paragraph: “Health information can confuse anyone. Clear communication helps us better understand and act on health information. This can include following instructions after a doctor’s visit, treating a chronic illness, or taking a medication properly. For health care providers, clear health communication guides which words are used, how directions are given, and what materials are used to communicate with patients.”
We as health communicators can use these message design initiatives to inform and influence individual and community decisions that enhance health, which can ultimately prompt action, influence, reinforce knowledge, advocate on health policy, or cause change that can maintain a new health behavior. Understanding what health communication can and cannot do is critical to communicating successfully.
For a more detailed of the recommended message design list, please visit http://www.thcu.ca.