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Technical Writing: Risk Communication in a Teachable Moment

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Risk Communication in a Teachable Moment

A worldwide epidemic of a novel virus offers a great opportunity
for students to see the positive and negative impact of text
design on readers who depend on technical risk communication
during an authentic crisis.

WHO Advice

Recently, three risk communication professionals at the World Health
Organization (Gaya Gamhewage, Richelle George, and Heini Utunen)
summarized their advice in a membership newsletter for technical
writers ("Risk communication for influenza events," STC Intercom, 
March 2020).  Mostly they addressed policy (cultivate trust, don't 
delay).  But they also summarized relevant drafting techniques that 
any student writing about risks could apply.

The theme of the advice that WHO promotes is to "translate [public
health information] into levels of understanding of stakeholders"
(banner on Fig.7).  Meeting this goal imposes three distinct 
translation responsibilities on a writer:

1. Use a language (English, Spanish, etc.) that the audience
understands well,
2. Choose a vocabulary meaningful to the audience, and 
3. Take account of the "health belief model" of the target
community (p. 11).

Jargon management (item 2) is the big challenge here for young
writers, especially when (as in an epidemic) the relevant technical
terms combine biological, clinical/medical, and economic vocabulary.
This problem has been much researched, with advice summarized in
previous posts in this series.  Fortunately, new studies on the impact
of jargon have just appeared that provide even more helpful guidance.

New Jargon Research

Hillary Shulman and her team at Ohio State University have applied
an astute experimental format to more completely tease out the
reader problems that technical jargon presents ("The effects of
jargon on processing fluency..," Journal of Language and Social
Psychology, January 2020, doi: 10.1177/0261927X20902177 ).
First, instead of just using the usual psychology students as
subjects, they recruited 650 ethnically diverse adults ages 18 to 80,
2/3 of whom were female.  Second, they used texts on contemporary 
science/engineering topics: self-driving cars, surgical robots,
and 3D bio-printing.  Some subjects read jargon-laden text while
others saw equivalent paragraphs translated into "straight-forward
language or simpler synonyms."  But mouse roll-over technology
showed some of the jargon group the same explanatory words (as
definitions) that the jargon-free group saw as basic text.  
Assessment involved questions to detect both "processing fluency"
(content understanding) as well as reader attitudes (interest in
science, personal confidence with technology).  

Engagement Beyond Comprehension

Shulman's experiments yielded three results, two of which significantly
extended past jargon-impact studies:

(1) Understanding.
As expected, jargon-laden text significantly reduced reader comprehension,
while "absence of jargon increased processing fluency" (p. 10).

(2) Definitional Support.
Surprisingly, however, providing explanatory definitions (in mouse-
over added text) did NOT mitigate reader problems with text comprehension.
In fact, the extra clarifying material "seems to augment detriments" to
understanding (p. 8) rather than decrease them, perhaps because of
increased cognitive load when readers had to manage even more total
words.  So unfortunately this is not a successful compensation for
using obscure technical terms.

(3) Reader Engagement
Readers with higher "processing fluency" (the low-jargon condition)
also reported significantly higher engagement (positive attitude,
confidence) with science/engineering than those in the high-jargon
condition (p. 10).  Shulman attributes this to the often-overlooked,
unintended SOCIAL impact of using "exclusionary" words: "when
divergent language, via jargon, was included," readers become
resentful and "more aware of the intergroup dynamics at play and
subsequently reported lower levels of" engagement with science (p. 12).
 
In risk communication public-health situations, readers need to 
not only understand shared information but also appreciate its
value and respect its relevance to them.  Shulman's research shows
students (again) that using needlessly complex terminology reduces
both audience comprehension and their engagement with technical
content as well, increasing the danger that important instructions
or warnings could be ignored or rejected, not just misunderstood.
The text-engineering life lesson is clear to her: "we hope the 
advice offered here helps not only improve message design but also
improve our ability to explain how the language of science can be
improved by the science of language..." (p. 15).

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html 
Want to help students see their writing as another case of 
engineering design--as "text engineering"?  See
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/text.engineering.html ] 
 

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