How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Asking: A Way to Know if Others Understand

May 1, 2024

You spoke about a certain topic. You wrote about it, too. You even drew pictures explaining more. But will your audience understand and relate to the information that you are trying to convey? The best way I know to find out is by asking.

Here are examples about how-to:

  • Teach-back, for spoken communication. After talking about a certain topic, confirm that the other person understands by using a technique called teach-back. Start by putting responsibility on yourself where it rightfully belongs. An example is, “I want to make sure I explained this clearly.” Then ask the other person to tell you in their own words about key points you just discussed. You might do this by asking a focused question like, “When talking with your son tonight, what will you tell him about this test you are going to have?” Then confirm what’s right and clarify what isn’t yet clear.
  • Feedback, for print and web communication. It takes a team to create a readable document or usable website. Team members should include 1) one or more subject matter experts, 2) a plain language writer who knows how to communicate clearly, and 3) several people representing the intended audience. Ask the team for general feedback along with specific questions such as, “Is [a specific term or overall concept] something you think other readers will understand?”
  • Advisory boards, for opinions over time. Chances are that some of your projects evolve over months, if not years. In such cases I find it invaluable to work with a team of advisors who are familiar with the topic, know or represent the intended audience, and support the project goals. Periodically ask them for feedback. You can make this easier by asking them a limited number of focused questions and a way to share general comments. I have done this with great success on a wide range of projects. Working with this team has truly made a world of difference. How do you find out if others understand?

Listen as health communicators share their experiences and advice about the benefits of asking:

This month’s Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip is adapted from Osborne’s award-winning book. Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Third Edition.