Plain Language during a Pandemic

What can a content strategist do during a pandemic? Help communicate important information using plain language.

I’ve defined plain language before, and even presented on how healthcare writing can benefit from plain language. Now we put it into practice to help people. People need content strategy – they need plain language during a pandemic.

Why Do We Need Plain Language During a Pandemic?

The short answer is this: no one knows what “self-isolate” means.

The longer answer: Coronavirus is highly contagious. The longer that people don’t take precautions, the longer that the pandemic will last. And of course, people are more likely to do the wrong thing(s) and pass along germs if they don’t fully understand what they’re being asked to do or not to do.

We need plain language during a pandemic for the same reason people need simple, clear directions during a fire: our brains are panicking. Our health literacy plummets. We skim information.

How to Use Plain Language to Help

One thing to remember about plain language is that language is only helpful if people can relate to it. That means we need to understand the audience. The audience for coronavirus is all demographics, but we can divide our personas into behavioral segments.

Let’s focus on reactions. Here are four common reaction types, which I’ll divide into reaction segments. (Note: I can’t very well call them behavioral segments, having done zero research into peoples’ behaviors. I’m just seeing reactions on social media.)

  • The Hedonist: “It’s the Apocalypse! Live it up before we all die!”
  • The Panicker: “It’s the Apocalypse! I can’t handle this. We’re all going to die.”
  • The Self-centered: “Everyone’s overreacting. I don’t know anyone with the disease, so it must not be a big deal.”
  • The What-Abouter: “How dare you [make a change to limit exposure]? Think of the children/economy/workers.”

Each of these segments needs language that relates to their view of the world. For example, while it’s tempting to say “you all need to stay home. The WHO says so, and it’s the only way to stop the pandemic,” that’s not clear enough. It’s small words and a short sentence, but it’s not relatable to our reaction segments. Neither is data like flatten the curve, for all that it’s an image and easy to grasp at a glance.

Here are some examples of more specific, relatable ways to respond to our reaction segments:

Coronavirus Content Resources

Here are a few resources to get you going, as you create your own content:

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