Lead Creative Consultant, Tribe
When I first took a job writing about health and safety, I was in the fortunate position of knowing nothing about the subject. Why fortunate? Because I was learning, which put me in the same position as most of the people reading it… we were on the same page. My task was to gather the information I was given and translate it into words and concepts that I, and in turn my readers, would understand.
When you know a lot about a subject, it can be difficult to take the perspective of someone who doesn’t. Ever tried teaching a child to tie their shoelaces? This is a phenomenon known as the curse of knowledge, something we encounter a lot in the world of Health and Safety communications.
The ‘curse of knowledge’ has been demonstrated in a simple experiment – the ‘tappers’ and the ‘listeners’. In 1990, a Stanford graduate student, Elizabeth Newton, asked a group of subjects to ‘tap’ out well-known songs with their fingers, while another group tried to guess the titles.
Before the experiment, the ‘tappers’ were asked to predict how many of the ‘tapped’ songs the listeners would recognise, and they predicted 50%. In fact, listeners only recognised three of the 120 songs – that’s just 2.5%. The ‘tappers’ were so familiar with what they were tapping that they assumed listeners would easily recognise the tune – that’s the curse of knowledge.
We see this situation in everyday life: lecturers and students, writers and readers, doctors and patients, politicians and – well everyone else. Jargon, technical terms and acronyms are well established for the inhabitants of ‘H&S’ land but not necessarily for the workforce. Even ‘H&S’ isn’t a sure thing; we could be talking H&S, HSE, EHS, HSW or even HESS. Making assumptions about what other people know can cause a lot of confusion and let’s face it, staring at a page full of capital letters is a real turn off.
The Plain English Campaign has been leading the fight against ‘gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information’ since 1979. It works with private companies, UK government departments and authorities to help make sure the information they present to the public is crystal clear.
While the Plain English campaign aims to end the confusing language of the likes of insurance companies, banks and businesses, my aim is to do the same for health and safety.
Never has plain English been more important than in health and safety communications. Inexperienced new starters, changing processes, new technology, language barriers and a diverse and global workforce means the language you use is vital.
So, before you start writing your next comms piece, think about what you are trying to tell people. Is it about ‘the importance of reducing fatalities, incidents and lost time injuries’ or are you simply trying to get everyone home safely?
Here are some tips to help you make sure your message is getting through loud and clear:
Talk to your audience
It may help to visualise them. Where are they? What have they been doing? Where have they been? What are they doing after? Talk to them directly – using ‘you’ and ‘we’ – it’s more engaging and helps them identify with what you are saying
Make it relevant
What matters to your audience? What motivates them? In health and safety terms it’s about going home safely to their loved ones at the end of the day and not causing harm. The “My daddy works here” posters you see alongside roadworks are classic examples of this. You don’t slow down because a sign tells you to, you slow down because you don’t want a child to grow up without a parent.
Beware of the cliché
How many times have you heard the claim, ‘Health and Safety is our number one priority’? Find a genuine way of conveying why you care about the safety of your people. A simple ‘We care’ suggests an emotional involvement, ‘our top priority’ reeks of box ticking.
Get to the point
We all have busy lives and workplaces – and increasingly short attention spans. Like sales messages, health and safety messages need to have instant impact. What’s your key message? Get straight to the point – say it upfront. If they only remember one thing – what would it be?
Think about how you can make your message stick. Simple and punchy is memorable – you can always direct people elsewhere for the details. Large numbers and statistics are meaningless and impersonal. Continuing with our road safety theme, compare “Last year 24,530 people were killed or seriously injured on UK roads” to “While you were at lunch, three people died on UK roads”.
Messages like the above can be impactful but positive messages pack a punch too. Health and safety is often associated with a long list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. Don’t run in the corridor. Do wear a hard hat. People don’t generally like being told what to do – even if it’s for their own good. Think about how you can make your message more positive and inclusive; allow the reader to take ownership of their own behaviour. Inspirational work codes include ‘Be the difference’ ‘Safer together’ or one of my favourites, ‘I’ve got your back’.
Use Plain English
Writing in plain English helps readers understand your message the first time they read it and makes it clear what action they need to take.
- Use everyday words where possible
- Explain specialised words if they can’t be avoided
- Keep sentences short (15 – 20 words)
- Avoid formal phrases or cliches (think outside the box…)
- Use the active voice – ‘Wear your PPE’ is active ‘PPE should be worn’ is passive
- Use bullets or lists
Cut it out
This is a biggie. Health and safety professionals are passionate about their work – it’s what makes them so great at it. But when you’re passionate about something there is a tendency to overcomplicate and waffle. Edit your work several times – or ask someone else to read it. Pick the most important messages and ditch the fluff. Delete any words you don’t really need, such as ‘in order to’ instead of ‘to’. Be ruthless with your red pen.
I’m pleased to say I’ve learned a lot since unravelling those acronyms in my early health and safety days. But, in my writing, I always try to imagine that I’m talking to my past self – would I have understood what I am saying?
To gain help with creating clearer messages, feel free to get in touch with us by clicking on the link below.