Complex issues, but a simple approach

Written by Vicky Burman on . Posted in Effective communication, Language

2017 was not a great year for good communication, says the Plain English Campaign. It bemoans a global drop in standards, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg calling a reliance on foodbanks “rather uplifting”, which won him its Foot in Mouth Award.

But looking at the campaign’s more desirable awards, there are positive signs that information aimed at some of society’s most vulnerable people is being communicated more simply and clearly. And as a result individuals are not only better informed, they are better protected and reassured.

Simple is not the same as superficial. Just because something is written in a straightforward way, this doesn’t mean it can’t address complex and sensitive issues. And it certainly should not be patronising.

For instance, the Children’s Commissioner for England produced child-friendly guides to Facebook terms and conditions to help young social media users understand their digital rights and what they’re signing up to.

And the Independent Age charity won an award for its Coping with bereavement and Scamwise advice guides.

These are challenging topics to write about. People seeking information on bereavement are likely to be a state of shock and loss, anxious, lonely and fearful. The content needs to hit the right note, recognising their feelings while providing practical advice.

One way Coping with bereavement deals with this is by including the contributions of real people, using direct quotes on their personal experiences. This supports the guide’s overall message that everyone deals with loss differently, but the reader is not alone.

Similarly, it’s important to find the words to alert older people to the risk of fraud, and explain how they can avoid being a victim of scams, without scaring them. Scamwise uses practical language and a simple structure, like Do and Don’t lists for different types of scam, to get the most important points across.

Independent Age’s chief executive says making the charity’s public information accessible and useful to older people and their families is a priority, as is producing guides that make “complicated issues easy to understand”.

The impact can be considerable – and well worth the effort of writing and rewriting content, inviting comments and contributions, and testing draft versions with the target audience.

Hello, my name is …

Written by Vicky Burman on . Posted in Effective communication, Talking care

Sometimes the simplest communication has the most impact – and we really miss it when it’s not there. Take ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ for instance. They may come automatically, but they do make us feel more human, more appreciated, more connected to the other person.

Focusing on the individual is now recognised as a crucial element of health and social care. Providers of health and care services have standards and processes, visions and values that are all about being ‘person-centred’.

But it took a clinician seeing things from a patient’s perspective to pinpoint a big gap in everyday communication that makes a world of difference. Dr Kate Granger, a young hospital consultant who had terminal cancer, became frustrated by the number of staff who failed to introduce themselves to her when she was being treated in hospital. And so the ‘Hello, my name is’ campaign was born.

It is a simple idea – remind staff to go back to basics and say hello to patients properly by giving their name. Kate – who sadly died in July 2016 – saw this as the start of “making a vital human connection, beginning a therapeutic relationship and building trust between patients and healthcare staff”. She felt it was especially important to create that connection and trust in an environment and situation where people are often fearful, vulnerable and unsure.

The campaign has spread rapidly through social media, inspiring nurses, doctors, therapists, receptionists, porters – every sort of staff member who may come into contact with a patient. Many NHS organisations have pledged to promote the campaign among their own staff, and Kate’s husband and other supporters are taking the campaign worldwide. Posters, badges, lanyards and stickers are among the many promotional items now being used to keep pushing the core message – tell patients and their families who you are. If they always know who is looking after them, that will help them relax and feel safe.

NHS trusts that have signed up to the campaign are also reminding staff to ask each patient how they prefer to be addressed, and to introduce them to colleagues who take over their care at any point. Just making sure staff name badges are always visible can offer patients extra reassurance. The campaign has had feedback from patients across the country, saying what a big difference something small like knowing someone’s name can make.

 

Creativity counts

Written by Vicky Burman on . Posted in Effective communication, Talking care

The basics of good communication may not change, but that doesn’t mean the way you communicate shouldn’t. Thinking creatively about how you reach the right people and achieve what you want from your communications can be a skill in itself, and should be given appropriate time and effort.

I was impressed by a speaker at the Association for Healthcare Communications and Marketing annual forum at the end of last year. Social media specialist Drew Benvie heads communication agency Battenhall, where one of the basic principles is the ‘20% rule’ – one in five hours is spent on experimentation and innovation.

As the agency says on its website: “We believe deeply that to innovate, you need to work differently and foster different ways of applying ideas and technology. We know this from experience: our own first forays into what is now mainstream digital and social media came from our own personal experiments in new technologies.”

Yes, it can be scary, but it’s also exciting to look beyond tried and tested channels and products. Of course, the bottom line is always whether they are going to meet your specific needs and circumstances – there’s a difference between experimentation and creativity and change just for the sake of it or to be ‘on trend’.

Drew gave an example of thinking differently that stuck with me. Battenhall recruited a 17-year-old intern during the summer who his colleagues quickly realised had a different approach to office communication. He didn’t really read or reply to emails – instant messaging and texting were his ‘default’ means of contacting people and being contacted in return.

Even for experienced digital communications professionals like Battenhall, this was food for thought about what the younger generation expects and feels comfortable with that they’ve taken on board in developing communication approaches for their clients.

Creativity should be part and parcel of communication, but for that to happen you need to nurture it with the proper attention and resources.

Rumour loves a gap in communication

Written by Vicky Burman on . Posted in Effective communication, Talking care

Gossip and rumour are a part of everyday life, including in the workplace. And where communication is poor, or there is an absence of communication, you can be sure that rumour and hearsay will quickly fill the gap. The right communication, at the right time, can prevent a situation escalating by clearly stating the facts. People may not like what they’re being told, but this is better than being told nothing at all.

Communication, by its very nature, criss-crosses between individuals all the time, from side to side and up and down, and vice versa, within teams and across professions.  And effective communication recognises and supports that. A by-product of effective communication is better engagement, something recent reports strongly recommend. Ambition 8 of Professor Bruce Keogh’s review of the quality of care and treatment in 14 hospital trusts is that: “All NHS organisations need to be thinking about innovative ways of engaging their staff.”

I don’t believe you can have engagement without good communication. I think of it in terms of having a conversation with someone – if you feel they’re not answering your questions honestly or fully, seem bored or distracted, clearly not listening, not volunteering information, not asking your views or anything about you, or they come across as patronising or dismissive – how does that make you feel?

NHS Change Day – real people, real communication

Written by Vicky Burman on . Posted in Effective communication, Talking care

NHS Change Day is a wonderful, inspiring example of what can happen when people are encouraged to communicate in their own way, honestly and openly. Over 382,000 individual pledges online show that NHS staff in every sort of role, NHS suppliers, patients and members of the public have all made a commitment, in writing, to do something that will make a difference.

To borrow another large organisation’s slogan – every little helps. Reading specific pledges is a fascinating exercise in its own right and in offering an insight into the day-to-day work of many people within the NHS. The words they use, their tone of voice – even in a short sentence – show that they care, and that what they have pledged to do is something they personally see as important.