Following my rant on the term ‘secondary drowning’ last week, Dr. Justin Sempsrott was kind enough (and brave, given my endless questions) to spend over an hour on the phone with me to teach me exactly what ‘drowning’ means. Much of it was news to me, even after 8 years in the field.
Based on this information, I wrote an article directed at parents, a basic ‘what you need to know about drowning’. A huge thanks to both Justin and to Dr. Linda Quan, who provided information and quality review for the article. I encourage you to read the article, even you experts may learn something new, but rather than repeat the information here, I’m going to talk about how I translated medical and academic information into parent-friendly format, in the hope that we can all communicate more effectively with the public.
Know your audience – My audience was parents. Time-crunched, caring, uninformed parents who are being bombarded with information on hundreds of topics related to their children’s health and welfare and are trying desperately to make the right decisions for their children. They are not medical professionals. They are not water safety experts. They may not even know that drowning is a common cause of death or the steps they can take to avoid drowning. Many had their first jolt of awareness with the recent surge of media attention about ‘secondary drowning’. My job was to identify what parents need to know and give it to them straight.
Describe one key action – ‘If a child’s (or adult’s) mouth or nose was covered in water and is having trouble breathing or is coughing for more than a few minutes, you need to get them to the emergency department immediately, because they are drowning.’ In the same, or similar words, I communicated this action to parents five times during the article. I even used a rare bold and larger font with the word ‘Important’ with this action, because if my reader remembered nothing from the article, I wanted to drive home the importance of seeking medical care for specific symptoms. I was specific and used simple language, ‘trouble breathing or coughing’.
Avoid jargon – Use words that an 8-year old would understand. I did not use all the medical terminology I learned from Justin. I buried the organizations that have blessed the term ‘drowning’ at the end, because it’s not ‘needs to know’. Even though I included the info (at Justin’s insistence), I used the opportunity to reiterate, in simple terms, what ‘drowning’ means and some other common medical terms explained in layman’s terms. My goal was to give parents the vocabulary to identify the problem and communicate to the medical staff why they were at the emergency department.
Tell them what you are going to tell them – Title: Drowning – What You Need To Know’. Says it all. After that you have one short paragraph or sentence to keep them reading. I started by referring to the current news stories and the confusion they’ve caused to instill doubt that what they’ve heard is accurate. And, using ‘secondary drowning’ in the first sentence will put the article higher in the Google search, which should help spread accurate information. I explained this was an unusually long article, and why, and what I was going to cover, and then I did it. I made sure the desired action, the one thing I want them to remember, appeared often and throughout the article.
No scare tactics – Drowning is terrifying to parents, so fast, so silent. Three times I reiterated that if parents understand and follow the one key action, it is likely their child will be fine. I gave them the facts. I gave them the range of frightening outcomes, but I gave them what they need to know to avoid those outcomes. I gave them some stats that reinforced the value of the desired action. I reassured them that they have control over their child’s health and safety. If you frighten parents to the point of avoidance or inertia you are causing more harm than good.
Why, What, How – Why do they need to know. What do they need to know. How can their action make a difference. In that order. Assume most people won’t read the entire article so make sure the most important information is at the beginning. Why they should read, one thing they need to know. Most people won’t remember everything. If you want the one action to make it into their brain permanently, explain why it deserves a place there, but spend most of your time reinforcing the action.
Keep it short – On first glance, the article failed, it’s the longest I’ve ever written, but justified given the huge amount of buzz over the term ‘secondary drowning’. On second glance, there is one short takeaway action message, repeated regularly: If a child’s (or adult’s) mouth or nose was covered in water and is having trouble breathing or is coughing for more than a few minutes, you need to get them to the emergency department immediately, because they are drowning.
Ask for help – Everyone says ‘share this’ these days, and few share. First I ask people to share the information (not the article), then the article, but I explained why it was important they share. Now, will you help by sharing the article?