Resources for researchers

Creating easy-to-understand materials

“We’re worried our brochure may be too high-lit and hard for people to understand.” This is a common concern we hear from researchers about their study communications, whether they are for recruiting or retaining participants, or for providing useful information.

Among the services the Health Communication Core offers are writing and editing to ensure materials are clear, understandable to the target audience, and meet the material’s communication goal.

Following are some of the steps we use to evaluate and simplify materials that you can use as well:

1. Define the audience.

Take a moment to clarify the audience who will be reading your materials:

  • Colleagues at a conference?
  • English-speaking smokers who are ready to try to quit?
  • Recently immigrated women in their 20s who speak little to no English?
  • Middle-aged African-American men who have just been diagnosed with prostate cancer?

You need to know the audience you’re talking to, as precisely as possible, to communicate well with them. Write down what you know about your audience, and learn what you can about their literacy levels.

If your audience is broad, think about who is most likely to respond to the material and target the literacy level accordingly, or be sure it’s accessible to people with the lowest literacy levels who may read it. Clear, concise information that’s easy to read is appreciated by everyone and won’t exclude anyone.

2. Include a call to action.

What do you want your audience to do as a result of reading your material? Make sure you have explicitly told your audience what you want them to do (go somewhere, call someone, visit a website, fill something out, share with a friend), as well as why they might want to or how it will benefit them to do so. Be sure the specifics on how to do this action are included.

3. Read through your material from the audience’s perspective.

As you look at the material through your audience’s eyes, ask some questions:

  • Is the information clear?
  • Does all of the information need to be there, or can some be cut?
  • Does anything need to be explained more? Have someone read the material who isn’t familiar with the project to help identify these things.
  • Is the most important information up front or higher up in the piece? This is important in case your audience doesn’t read its entirety.

4. Change longer/more complex words to simpler words.

This might mean using more words to say the same thing, but if the words are simpler and clearer, that’s good for an easier literacy level. For example:

  • Use instead of utilize
  • Get instead of acquire
  • Something that causes cancer instead of carcinogen
  • People instead of individuals (also look out for referring to your audience as patients, which is sometimes appropriate, but often indicates a perspective most people don’t share about themselves)

5. Get rid of jargon.

Just because a term is familiar or used often around you doesn’t mean it’s not jargon. Consider whether several people on the street would understand a term or if it is particular to research or academia?

Morbidity, outcome, risk assessment, and screening are examples of words that should all be simplified or explained when writing for a general audience.

6. Get rid of extra words.

Most of us put extra words in when writing; sometimes they’re helpful, such as explaining more complex terms or providing a conversational tone, but sometimes they’re just giving your audience extra information to read. For example:

  • In order to can be shortened to to
  • Phrases like it’s important to understand that are usually unnecessary and can be deleted
  • Descriptive words like very, really, extremely

Free consultation

If you’d like help making your materials easier to understand, contact us for a free consultation.

Additional resources

Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for:

Visit the National Institutes of Health website for: