Health Lit Live with Leslie O’Flahavan

Alt: Doug Doodleman, eating a sandwich, sits behind a talk show host desk that says “HL Live!” Leslie O’Flahavan is in the hot seat, waving.

We’re back with a new installment of “Health Lit Live,” where our illustrated host Doug Doodleman interviews movers and shakers on the health literacy scene. This week, Doug chats with Leslie O’Flahavan about her “bite, snack, meal” approach to writing for the web. Leslie is a writer, writing teacher, plain language advocate, and owner of E-WRITE.

Doug: Hello, readers! Welcome back to me, and welcome to my guest, whose name I have here somewhere… Aha! Why, it’s the creator of a tasty little concept we in the biz call “bite, snack, meal” — a certain Leslie O’Flavor-han.

O’Flahavan: Hello, Doug. Lovely to be here.

Doug: Now, Leslie, these snacks and these bites. Tell me, just what kind of celebrity gloop cleanse are you selling? Will it purge my toxins? Tidy up my colon?

O’Flahavan: Actually, Doug, “bite, snack, meal” is a metaphor I developed in 1996 to explain an approach to web writing. It describes a user-centered thinking process in which we acknowledge that different readers are interested in different amounts of information. So we need to do them the service of offering them content in various sizes.

Doug: No diet tips, then?

O’Flahavan: Sorry, but no. The metaphor of content hunger is saying, “I understand you, readers. You’re not all the same, and each of you is not the same every time you engage with the content. So I’m going to alter the way I write my content to meet your needs in all their variety.”

Doug: Ah, I see! Tricky, tricky. So you start off with your tease-y bites, when all the while you’re laying a delicious trap — whetting the appetite, if you will. And before they know it, readers have gobbled up the bite, the snack, and the whole darn meal. Ingenious!

O’Flahavan: That would be cunning of me, Doug. But the point here isn’t to trick the reader. You want to let readers choose. If they’re full after reading the snack and they skip the meal, it’s all good. Or maybe they read the bite and the snack one day, and come back for the meal another day.

Doug: I don’t want to brag, Leslie, but I’ve been told my meals are phenomenal. Life altering. Not to be missed. How do I get my readers to linger at the table over digestifs and a cheese course? Do I torture them with tiny amuse-bouches of content? Save the real conversation for dessert?

O’Flahavan: Withholding the main message is never the right approach. Take a common type of content like Terms and Conditions — that’s a case where the content provider withholds the content until you read and agree to something. And we click “accept” without even reading said terms and conditions! Withholding content is a mean thing to do to your reader — and it doesn’t even work.

Doug: So, let me clarify: You expect me to cook up a beautiful 3-course content menu, and then let the reader gobble up the apps and ditch the entrée? Where’s your sense of leisurely, sophisticated dining? Haven’t you been to France?

O’Flahavan: I can see you’re a doodle of refined sensibilities, Doug. But the idea that we can make people read the whole thing if they don’t want to is just wrong. We can’t. What we can do is engage them so that they read as much as they need. So we entice — with the bite and the snack.

Doug: Saucy! I like it. But seems to me you could say all that without the fancy metaphors. Why’d you start using all the food words? Were you very hungry?

O’Flahavan: I teach writing to people from many different fields. Engineers, actuaries, communication professionals — and they all approach writing differently. When you’ve got them all in one room trying to learn, the metaphor helps everyone connect. And “bite, snack, meal” sticks. People understand it right away, it’s memorable, and it provokes behavior change in writers. And, sure, I was probably a little hungry.

Doug: Engineers? Actuaries? What’s the point of teaching numbers people how to write?

O’Flahavan: People in every field deserve support when their work calls upon them to grow as writers. Writing for online readers can be hard!

Doug: I don’t know, Leslie… web writing seems pretty simple to me. A little clickbait here, a couple hyperlinks there…

O’Flahavan: Well, when I started teaching in the ’90s, the web was a lot of “Click here” and then you’d get a 99-page PDF. I thought, we need to explain that there’s a better way.

Doug: The ’90s, you say? What with kids these days and all the hip new websites, aren’t these snackeroos a little past the sell-by date? [Exaggerated wink.]

O’Flahavan: Actually, “bite, snack, meal” is very relevant today because of the changes around responsive design. Sites present content in tiles that can shrink down to mobile sizing — and the bite and snack are great content units for small screens.

Doug: Personally, when I surf the World Wide Web on my cellular phone, I’m on the hunt for one thing: cat videos. But only when they walk upright like people. How does “bite, snack, meal” apply to cool stuff like cat memes?

O’Flahavan: Well, since the snack is likely to be visual content now, the bite has to carry the weight — er, the message. We can’t have a bite that says “Webinar recording 2019” (or just, you know, “Cats”) and make people watch a 45-minute video to figure out the main message. The “bite, snack, meal” concept stands the test of time because people’s needs haven’t changed, even though we’re presenting content differently.

Doug: What was that? Sorry. I was watching a video montage of cats wearing pants. But thanks for talking with us, Leslie! And readers, head over to E-WRITE and check out the article that started it all: The Bite, The Snack, And The Meal.

The bottom line: Use the “bite, snack, meal” approach to help readers find the serving size of information that’s right for them.

Tweet about it: Ever wonder who invented “bite, snack, meal”? @CommunicateHlth chats with #HealthLit hero @LeslieO:


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