Who are we writing for when our audience is the general public? “The general public is an amorphous concept,” said plain language champion Cheryl Stephens in her talk at Communication Convergence. “I wrote 20 years ago that there was no such reading audience as the ‘general public,’” she wrote in a handout. “I said that any organization would have gathered data about their customers, clients, patients, or participants through their marketing or client-service research. They would share this information with their communication consultant.”
“But I’ve come to see that this does not happen or does not solve the problem,” she continued. “Too many of my clients were not collecting the sort of information needed for better communication.”
What Stephens proposes is an approach to understanding who might be in your general reading public so that you can take steps to make communication more universally effective. First, we must try to overcome the curse of knowledge—“when better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.” We also have to acknowledge that people from different cultures think and see things differently. Most importantly, we need to consider some of the hidden reasons our communication may not get through as intended.
Cognitive biases arise from information-processing shortcuts, the mind’s limited information-processing capacity, emotional and moral motivations, and social influence, among other sources. They’re good for evolution because the shortcuts let us process information in less time, but they can lead our thinking astray and cause inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretations, and irrationality. A person’s construction of social reality—not objective input—determines behaviour. When you put together your communications, ask yourself, “How are people going to misunderstand?”
Stress and anxiety
Stress interferes with our capacity to focus, process information, and think clearly. Stress can arise from any number of sources—harassment or abuse, physical or mental health problems, personal or work problems, poverty, fear, and even exposure to excessive noise, just to name a few. Post-traumatic stress disorder and grief also interfere with comprehension. Stress can be transient and situation specific, or it can be chronic.
Aphasia, autism, dementia, head injury, neurological diseases, and hearing impairment can all affect language comprehension. And Canada, being a country of immigrants, has a large proportion of people learning English as a second language. Images can be a huge help: people process images instantaneously, and with a different part of the brain.
These illnesses can be mild, hidden, undiagnosed, or unrecognized. “If it’s hidden from you, it may be hidden from the person who has it.” Stephens said she could tell us first-hand that diabetes interferes with thinking. Mood disorders like depression can also affect how well a person thinks. Patients who have chronic complex diseases have six or more diagnoses and are typically on several medications at a time. Whether from the diseases or as side effects of the drugs, disabling fatigue and difficulty thinking and remembering are characteristic of this group. Many of them are also in severe pain. They would not have the patience for material that takes too long to read.
Ontario defines “disability” as follows:
(a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
(c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
(d) a mental disorder, or
(e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997; (“handicap”)
(From the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001)
Disabilities may be
- visible or invisible
- congenital or acquired
- mental or psychiatric
- intellectual or developmental
For example, said Stephens, one out of twelve people have some degree of colourblindness, and often the only clue that something is a link, for example, is the colour.
Forty-two percent of working-age adults have low literacy skills (level 1 or 2 as defined by the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey). They have limited vocabulary and lack the skill to parse sentences and so can’t draw intended meaning from text. Some readers may have emotional or psychological problems that interfere with comprehension or may lack knowledge of the content.
“The legal system discriminates against people,” said Stephens. She said that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes differences that are disabling because of external barriers or stigma imposed by societal norms, procedures, and institutions. In other words, discrimination is socially constructed, and it can lead to functional limitations, real or perceived.
“Everybody appreciates material that’s simple, clear, and well designed,” she said. As communicators, we should acknowledge that people with reading difficulties aren’t a separate target group—they are all of us, at some point in our lives. By considering these invisible impediments to comprehension, we can better empathize with our readers and be sensitive to their needs.
Stephens has written a paper that explores these concepts in much more detail. Contact her to get a copy.