Words Matter: Speak the Language of Your Audience

Health is complex, just as the words are that explain one’s condition, stage, treatment, and state of mind. So in health content, while being medically accurate and breaking down complicated medical information in a way that’s easy to understand is important, it’s not enough. Using the right words and tone to address your audience can mean the difference between trust and disengagement. This can come down to the nuances of a word. Health and pharma brands need to understand the difference that taking a whole-person approach makes.

With empathy at the forefront of Healthline’s style and brand, we create content that meets people where they are along their journey and acknowledge all of its complexities. Healthline’s VP of Content & Operations, Rachael Maier shares how the team is proactively shaping the conversation around using destigmatized language and delivering both credible health information and compassion for the human experience.

Conscious at Its Core

People attribute value to language. Language reflects how we’re seen and heard — and that’s no different for people with chronic conditions. Like everyone else, they want to feel understood, validated as a whole person, and less alone.

The media landscape has been progressing towards person-first language, which puts the person before any qualifying aspects of them, such as their condition. But we can do more by using conscious language from the onset of content development.

Conscious Language Explained

Conscious language recognizes someone’s reality without making judgments about it. It guides the editorial playbook, tone, and voice of our content, and ensures that we use language that promotes inclusivity and compassion, is warm and understanding, and is never condescending, patronizing, or superior.

Mirroring the language of your audience takes time, effort, and diligence, but the results can have a significant impact on users’ perception of your brand. Consider this framework to bring forward conscious language in your content and communications.

  • Don’t tell people how they feel, how they should feel, or what their experience is. Don’t say: “Your symptoms are embarrassing,” or “You’re probably very depressed.” Instead, write in generalities or possibilities, such as: “IBS can lead to feelings of frustration…”
  • Acknowledge the nuances of language that are important to people in the community. While some language is decidedly unacceptable (for example, “handicapped”), other instances of language depend on personal preference. For example, some people in the autism community prefer to be called autistic, while others would rather be described as a person living with autism. Just as not every person experiences the same condition the exact same way, not everyone has the same preference for how they like to describe their lived experience. Acknowledge these differences by deferring to the person living with the condition to determine how to talk about it.
  • “Treatments” fail; “patients” don’t fail treatments. Don’t say: “The patient failed treatment because she was not compliant.” Instead, say: “Treatment failed. The patient stated that she could not afford to consistently take her medications as prescribed.”

There are great specific examples of how to use conscious language in Healthline’s “How to Be Human” series: Talking to People with Addiction or Substance Use Disorders and Talking to People Who Are Transgender.

It’s important to use conscious language in health because receiving a diagnosis can feel overwhelming. Being labeled on top of that can change the way you think of yourself and who you are in the world. Living with a condition can feel isolating if your experience is talked about with language that is stigmatizing or not inclusive.

When you talk to people from a place of respect and empathy, you’re helping them feel understood, seen, and supported. You’re maintaining their humanness, no matter their health status.

Two-Way Communication

Getting to conscious language is an ongoing and two-way process. Published content and products are not the end of the road. Consumers today are taking a stand and making their voices heard.

Acknowledging, listening, and leveraging user feedback — in addition to staying current on new clinical guidelines — is imperative to keeping your content and language up to date. Topics, experiences, and tolerances are constantly evolving across the healthcare landscape, and brands need to strive for the best representation of their consumers’ needs.

At Healthline, our editorial feedback team reviews and evaluates over 7,000 user comments every month to identify content that needs to be updated. We’re also proactive about keeping our finger on the pulse of different communities and understanding their language preferences. And we’re able to dramatically evolve and optimize our content and user experience based on what we learn.

Read more about Healthline’s HIV Task force that revamped content based on listening in the community.

Quality Health Content Best Practices

Conscious language is an approach and a work-in-progress, not a definitive playbook. So whether you are responsible for creating your own health content and communications or you work with agencies or partners, here are some health content practices to ensure that your brand is using conscious language:

  1. Stand for inclusion and against isolation: Advocate for everyone to own their health and well-being and support them in making the choices to achieve that. Consider the whole person and their community. Cover topics objectively and defer to personal preference when describing an individual’s experience and journey.
  2. Never stop listening: Keep an open ear to new terminology, phrases, and emotional responses that surface within communities and groups. In an era dominated by social media, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are important platforms to discover language preferences and dialogue with your audience. Acknowledge you’ve heard them and commit to ongoing updates.
  3. Anticipate your path to action: Conduct an audit of your tools, resources, and talent to ensure you have the right process in place to address the changing landscape. Be timely; words matter.

By ensuring that our teams — editorial and beyond — have internalized the concept of conscious language, we are living out our mission to be our readers’ most trusted ally in their pursuit of health and well-being. If you’d like to share your thoughts or learn more about the use of conscious health language, please email us at corpmarketing@healthline.com.

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