Making Friends with the Unknown

Alt: Two doodles stand together, looking unamused. One of them asks, “…is there something you want to tell us?” to a third doodle, who stands, shrugging, in front of a giant elephant.

True or false? As health communicators, it’s our job to clearly communicate what we know. Okay, that was a trick question. It’s true, of course — but it’s not the whole story. Why? Because it’s also our responsibility to clearly communicate what we don’t know.

In health communication, it can be tempting to steer clear of the unknown. When you want to be seen as an expert, putting what you don’t know in writing can feel a little “off script.” Public health authorities and organizations may worry that admitting what they don’t know will make them seem non-credible or untrustworthy.

But guess what? It’s actually the opposite! Being transparent and telling your audience what you don’t know can build trust in your health messages.

Say you’re writing a fact sheet with findings from a local environmental health assessment. Your audience is a community that’s located near a former factory, and residents have voiced specific health concerns that the assessment aimed to address.

In terms of results, you have a list of things you know for sure — for example, the water’s safe to drink. But the assessment also produced results that aren’t so clear — for example, it’s possible that the soil isn’t safe for growing food, and you need more tests to know for sure.

So, what do you say about those fuzzy findings? Just be direct: “We don’t have enough information to say for sure if the soil near the factory site is safe for growing vegetables. The health department wants to do more tests to find out.”

This kind of openness might seem radical — but in the absence of clear answers, full transparency is the way to go. So fight the urge to be vague or dodgy! Your audience will thank you for telling them the truth.

The bottom line: Transparency builds trust with readers — so embrace the unknown in your health writing.

Tweet about it: How do you talk about what you don’t know in #HealthLit content? Here’s @CommunicateHlth’s take:


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