How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Dealing with Uncertainty, Responding with Urgency, Acknowledging Divergent Beliefs

Feb 1, 2021

Remember when “all” we had to deal with when communicating health information was word choice, graphics, and such? That was already a lot. But these days there is even more to consider given rampant uncertainty, urgency, and strongly held yet widely divergent beliefs.

Here is what I’m learning from guests on my podcast series, Health Literacy Out Loud.

Dealing with uncertainty. Glen Nowak PhD is Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Director of Grady College’s Center for Health and Risk Communication. In our podcast, “Communicating Complex Health Messages in a Complex World,” I asked Nowak about ways to deal with uncertainty. Here is part of his response: “One of the things that happens with most health issues, but particularly with new infectious diseases, is that there is uncertainty on the side of the scientists and public health officials in terms of how this plays out and who will be affected. On the flipside, people are looking to health officials and doctors for advice. We want certainty, yet often what we find is that they’re giving us answers that are contingent. This can be really difficult from a communications perspective, particularly if you convey too much certainty early on. People are going to say, ‘Wait a minute. You told me it was safe to do this, and now you’re telling me it’s unsafe.’”

Responding with urgency. Iris Feinberg PhD is Associate Director of the Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University. She also is a research assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and a health literacy researcher. Feinberg and a team created the easy-to-read booklet about COVID-19, Answers to Coronavirus Questions. In our podcast, “Creating Materials to Meet Urgent Health Needs,” she spoke about doing so when time is of the essence. “Normally, in research, when you’re creating materials, you have a focus group and run things by your intended audience. You assess them and you iteratively create things. We didn’t have that kind of time. People were dying.” And so they printed and distributed the booklet, getting feedback all along the way. Georgia State University’s Adult Literacy Research Center now also offers COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy Videos in multiple languages with more resources coming soon. Keep checking. These videos are amazing!

Acknowledging divergent beliefs. The booklet that Feinberg and team wrote is for readers from many lands, languages, and cultural beliefs. The team was asked to present information in ways that refute myths and explain truths. An example from this booklet is refuting a commonly-held belief of many intended readers, “If you come from a hot country then you won’t get COVID.” The team then presented this as a truth, “People from all countries can get COVID.”

Your audience might have strong opinions and either welcome, or strongly disagree, with your information. Nowak describes this. “For those people who are already on board, they probably would welcome supporting information that reaffirms what they’re doing and what they believe.” But when giving information you audience might strongly disagree with, he recommends “looking at the world through the eyes of your audience or the individuals that you’re trying to communicate.” Tailor information by keeping in mind their priorities, beliefs, concerns, and questions.