Helen Osborne: Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and your host of these podcasts, Health Literacy Out Loud.
In these podcasts, you get to listen in on conversations with some amazing people.
Today, I’m talking with Leigh Curtin-Wilding, who is a content author, strategist, storyteller and marketing communication professional.
Her passion is making health information usable and meaningful for today’s consumer. Leigh serves as Director of, and teaches at, Boston University’s Online Graduate Program in Health Communication.
I’ve known and worked with Leigh for many years in her role at BU, but it’s only recently that we really started to talk more about content strategy. It’s opening up a new world to me that has a lot to do with health literacy.
Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud, Leigh.
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: Thank you, Helen. Thanks for having me this morning and it’s just a delight to speak with you.
Helen Osborne: Content strategy, you’ve been educating me little by little about what that’s about. Can you share for our listeners? What do you mean when you use that term?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: Content strategy matters because as writers or as developers of information, whether it’s for research purposes, learning or transactional, we all want all our information and our content to be discovered, read and used by readers and by some audience, so more and more information is available to us as consumers and users.
Helen Osborne: When you talk about content strategy, does that mean using strategy so that it can be discovered? Is that really the gist of what that’s about?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: That’s exactly right. Having a strategy is a way to roadmap and understand who your users are, who your audience is, how they’re using information, how long they stay, where they go and what gets them there so that the content you develop can be maximized.
Helen Osborne: In health literacy, the work that I’ve been doing for what feels like a zillion years, has been focused very much on the content, the words, how we phrase it and what order we put information in. You’re saying that part is a given, but now we also need to consider all these other factors. Is that correct?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: That’s right. Of course, it depends on who your audience is, no matter what kind of writing we do. The way to start is to have some research and have an idea about who you’re writing for and how you’re developing it. That also dictates the approach you’ll use and what elements you’ll use besides just words.
Helen Osborne: We only have the sound right now in this conversation. Can you tell us a story? Make this come alive for us. What would this be like?
Just give an example of a type of communication and a type of audience and how you would put strategy in place to help people understand.
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: We start off with wanting to make the content as usable as possible.
I should just backtrack a little bit and mention that there’s an agile approach that is a mindset at the core of content strategy now, versus using longer-term plans and editorial calendars, which are still used and useful.
We need to adapt to changing market conditions and changing health policies, and we need to make our strategies adaptable and agile so our content teams can use shorter bursts and shorter timeframes and be able to adopt content for all of the various platforms that our audiences are finding information on now.
Helen Osborne: To put that in other words in my world, when I think of being agile I think of the word spry, or ready to change pretty quickly.
Yes, we have that core content such as diabetes, but we have to be ready to shift pretty quickly in how we communicate that core message. Is that an example of being agile?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: That’s a really good example of being agile. Other examples are, again, getting back to understanding the user journey if you will, so making our content relevant for our users, their emotions and how they’re thinking about the information they need.
We know our content can be accessed pretty much whenever the user wants it, at any time and for any duration, so what makes me want to go to someone’s website? Is it credibility?
In the health world, we know that the NIH, for example, or the CDC has extremely credible and easy-to-use content for health consumers, and yet studies show us that more and more, people go to WebMD, the Mayo Clinic and Healthline.
It has a lot to do with how they present their content. It’s short, it’s chunked up and it’s easier for people to use. You can find a term. You can find tick bite and then you can find what you want to know about tick bite.
Helen Osborne: That’s interesting. People are choosing not to go on those more formal sites, but where they want to go.
You’ve made several references to different audiences. Let’s say I have had diabetes a long time. I’m pretty savvy at finding information. Would you present that to me differently than someone who might be in his teens who was just diagnosed with diabetes? We’ve got the same core information. Would you do this in a different way?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: I think that’s a really interesting scenario because what we’re seeing now is, based on the platform and based on population health findings that we know more about. Yes, you absolutely would.
If you’re younger, if you’re Latina, if you’re in a different population, how you find and where you go for the information, how you use it or if you go at all is definitely going to be part of what content strategists call your journey map.
In content strategy, we start with an understanding as we all do, whether it’s a written work, for the web or for whatever platform. You start with an understanding of your audience.
Beside that driving your message, you also want to understand more about where they’re going. You want to get a holistic view, if you will, of where they’re getting information, what their actions, thoughts and emotions are, what drives where they go and in what sequence they make those decisions. I’ll give you an example.
Helen Osborne: Great.
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: I was a volunteer at a cancer hospital for a couple of years and I helped patients stay comfortable. I also took qualitative surveys and I would ask them about their experience and their treatment experience. I would ask them about the information that they got and if it was adequate or if they wanted more and in what form.
I found that although the hospital had a fantastic website, a lot of patients did not go to the website for information while they were in treatment.
I asked the social worker why this was. The social worker said to me, “It’s because when they first researched the hospital that they were being treated in, that was probably their highest and most frightening point along their journey.
“To go back to that website for research-driven information is just too frightening. They preferred at this point in their treatment to get information from their doctor or an independent website.”
What we’re learning is that, again, this gets back to the actions and the emotions of the user along their journey. It could be making a decision about a hospital, a particular treatment or choosing a doctor. Consumer businesses are using this form of research as well.
Helen Osborne: I can very much relate to that as you’re telling the story. Thank you for sharing that.
I know when I had something scary and yucky happening to me, there was a point in that journey I went through where I didn’t want to hear any more information other than what my doctors were telling me. I had only so much energy to put into this, I was totally wrung out and that’s what I needed to save it for.
Where somebody else I know going through yucky stuff, they just gather and gather information.
What I’m gathering from you as you’re talking about being agile is we need to respect our differences, our differences in our users, the kind of information they need, when they want it and how they’re going to get it. I think I’m getting a better sense of the why of all this.
Our podcast listeners all care about health communication, but we can be doing all sorts of different kinds of work. What tips do you have for us about what we can do every day to be more agile in how we communicate?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: I think there are a couple of different levels. First, I teach Advanced Writing for Health Communicators at BU and I tell students, “Always start with your audience. We’re writing for an audience, not for what we think.” As much information as you can gather about who this information is for is critical.
Then we can think in terms of, as I like to say—bites, snacks, and meals. We can think of chunking up our content to make it more agile by delivering it in shorter bursts.
This might mean headlines, use of questions to engage your readers, things that can be adapted for your social messaging or things that might be adaptable for text messages, which are parts of different content strategies to drive people to content that is longer form that might be in a snack or a meal form on your website.
Helen Osborne: We certainly have the bite-size information. We have our audience. What about the role of visuals and all that?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: Visuals are playing a much stronger role in content development, and certainly, writers are needing to work alongside designers and have our words complement the design elements that help users do things. This is something we’re all used to now in this Amazon age. It’s design elements that might help us choose.
For example, you go to an insurance website and it asks you, “Are you shopping for an individual or an employer?” It asks you questions that help self-identify or design elements that calculate for us. An example might be how you can use your reward points and convert those into gifts.
Helen Osborne: Don’t make it so hard for us. It seems like it’s “make it easier to find that information.”
There’s one area I’m really curious about. What are your thoughts on emojis? I know when my friends are texting me, and we seem to be doing that more and more these days, often now instead of even a reply, they’ll send me a smiley face or some variation of a smiley face. Are those being considered as a form of communication?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: Absolutely. I think they’re still new in health communication and they’re still being experimented with, but they’re definitely a form of visual expression. They go alongside with design elements and increasing use of those and information-bearing links as devices that help deliver the content that people are looking for at that moment.
I have seen some interesting usage of emojis out there. I think New York Hospital had a sexual education campaign that used an emoji like a monkey with the hand over its mouth that expressed how to go about getting confidential access to information about contraception for a younger audience.
There are studies about younger audiences using them, but not exclusively.
There is also some information that I read just a couple of months ago about the emojis, just a smiley face, a frown face and a neutral face, that are being used for patient-reported outcomes and to help understand patient experience in clinical trials.
That’s being used instead of the traditional pain scale of 1 to 10. When you think about it, from a health literacy standpoint, it makes perfect sense because it doesn’t require a language and it transcends health literacy bounds, so there’s a place for it.
Helen Osborne: Wow. That’s even smaller. You talked about bites and snacks and meals. That’s like just one single potato chip, but it sounds like it’s accomplishing a lot.
I so much appreciate you making these issues so much more clear for all of us. Leigh, you’ve shared so much great information about the why we need to communicate more agilely and some of the hows to do it.
Briefly, can you just give a heads up to listeners about the BU program that you teach at and work at?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: Thanks for asking. I do teach at Boston University at the Online Health Communication Master’s program. Anyone that might be interested in learning about the courses that we have can just look at Boston University Health Communication.
I teach in the Advanced Writing for Health Communicators course, but people can come in and take any of our online classes as a non-degree student or opt for the certificate program or the entire Master’s program.
Helen Osborne: That’s great. We’re going to have a link on your Health Literacy Out Loud web page.
Just before we go and say our goodbyes on this podcast, I want to ask you one more question. You talked about the importance of being agile in how we communicate. Looking ahead, if everyone was as spry and agile as you would want, what do you think health communication would look like in a few years?
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: It would look like a world where people can make sense of information that is critical for their care and their individual needs. It would be usable, plain and discoverable.
Helen Osborne: How great. I wish that, too.
Thank you so much for being a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud and for letting us all know about how we need to now communicate great information in nibbles, snacks and full meals. Thank you, Leigh.
Leigh Curtin-Wilding: My pleasure. Thank you, Helen.
Helen Osborne: As we just heard from Leigh Curtin-Wilding, it is so important to not only consider how we communicate but when we communicate and how much we communicate. In other words, we need to be agile in communicating health information. But this can be hard to do.
For help clearly communicating your health message, please visit my Health Literacy Consulting website at www.HealthLiteracy.com. While you are there, feel free to sign up for the free monthly e-newsletter, What’s New in Health Literacy Consulting.
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Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.