Working with service users who are often unwell, afraid or facing complex challenges means that communications need to work harder to be effective. Confusing explanations or advice can easily cause anxiety or worse, make the person disengage from support altogether.
As communications professionals we are skilled at producing engaging copy, but with large workloads and tight deadlines, it’s tempting to produce communications in isolation. However, if we can utilise the knowledge of our internal colleagues, work with people who use our services at the start of our projects, and ensure audience-centred comms is at the heart of what we do, we are more likely to achieve the best outcome for the user.
Many of the people we work with access substance misuse services at a time when they are anxious and very vulnerable. But after reviewing our charity’s tone of voice, we recognised that we often used official sounding jargon and our language was perceived as clinical and cold – not what we wanted at all.
That’s why we started a project to rewrite our content in a way that worked for those that it was most important for us to reach – our service users.
Given the type of charity we are it’s important we adhere to a range of legislation to keep the people we are here to help safe and a key component of this is our consent leaflet. So that became the focus of our project. This meant developing our original consent information taking onboard the fact service users told us they wanted a leaflet to remind them of the process they had signed up to. Their message was ‘tell us like it is.’
Changing copy is easy
Our challenge was to use language which enabled people to fully understand the legal process of consent but to describe it in a way that was clear and compassionate.
Initially our approach was to ask our copywriter to remove the formal phrasing which people with varying levels of literacy might find challenging. For example: “We will honour your wishes regarding who your information can be shared with, however, this can be overridden by legal requirements.”
We also removed medical jargon like ‘pharmacological interventions’ and cut out phrases that could potentially cause people even more stress such as: ‘We want to be transparent with you about what would happen to your information in the event that you die.’
Then our copywriter set to work rewriting the leaflet in plain English.
Was it as simple as applying our new tone of voice to the existing leaflet though?
An improved version – or was it?
Our refreshed leaflet now read:
We never want you to feel under pressure at our services.
Before we give you any support packages or treatment, we’ll make sure that we have your consent.
To check on our progress, we shared our new copy across the departments responsible for obtaining consent – Legal, Quality and service managers. They felt that some of the important legal information had now been lost and that a service user might read the first sentence and wonder, ‘Should I be feeling under pressure?’
We realised we needed to go back to our audience.
The importance of focus group testing
We developed a set of general questions about the consent process and specific questions about our copy. Next, we spoke to a group of peer mentors – people who had used our services and who were now supporting people entering treatment. Did they find the text friendly and easy to understand?
The feedback showed us that even though we had reworked our leaflet, it still wasn’t meeting people’s needs. This was due in part to us rewriting a leaflet without realising the true impact of giving consent at a time when a person is already anxious.
Interestingly, the phrase flagged by our staff about being ‘under pressure’ was read differently by our group. They said they found the phrase reassuring but the information that followed didn’t live up to their expectations. One participant thought the tone of the leaflet was ‘lecturing,’
The group suggested how the emphasis of the leaflet could be changed. One said:
People think this is a Change Grow Live thing, but it’s the law – we should be upfront about the reasons why we need consent – to access medical records to avoid mixing medication.
They also highlighted the use of professional terminology often made people feel nervous and we knew this could be avoided if the leaflet explained consent as an easy, seamless process.
Back to the drawing board
We regrouped with our colleagues. Although the focus group had delivered some useful insights, we realised that one test with an isolated group may not be representative of the whole country.
Also, we acknowledged that the people who participated in the testing of both the original and amended leaflet were all stable in their treatment. This meant they were not in the same mindset as someone entering support for the first time.
We realised to truly test how our leaflet was received, we would need to deliver it in an actual service and review its impact several weeks later. The time frame should be short enough for the person to remember the interaction. However, the leaflet’s impact would need to be confirmed at a time when treatment was underway, to avoid our questioning causing further anxiety. We continue to work with our legal, and quality departments to identify a local service where we can test further as it’s important to get our comms right.
As one participant said: ‘Perception is if my doctor knows and my social worker knows, police know, it’ll jeopardise me seeing my kids, I’ll go back on bail etc. People need to understand it’s only for the purpose of making this a much more seamless, frictionless process.’
Here’s what we learnt
- Applying tone of voice to copy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘fixed’.
- It’s valuable to involve your audience before you start to write, so you clearly understand their issues and fears. Your audience knows how you can best address their concerns through your copy.
- Working across departments can deliver valuable insights about your audience and any legal requirements.
- To avoid bias, you need to define a robust process of testing at the right point in your audience’s journey.
- To test effectively, you need a range of research activities which consider varying groups of service users and regional differences.
We know that people who visit a service for the first time are anxious and our communications can play a crucial role to encourage engagement. We are continuing to explore different methods of user testing and research and we are interested in sharing and collaborating, if you’d like to get in touch.