Plain language is not “dumbing down.”

Illustration of tired confused doodle listening to another doodle say "blah blah blah blah what you need to know blah blah blah"

Want to know the quickest way to upset a writer at We ❤︎ Health Literacy Headquarters? Say that writing health content in plain language is “dumbing down” the information. This not only upsets us, but it insults the 9 out of 10 Americans who struggle with understanding and using health information.

A big part of the “dumbing down” myth stems from the need to limit information. Deciding between need-to-know and nice-to-know information is an important step in developing clear health communication materials. We often hear medical experts say that if we don’t give people all the information, we’re doing them a disservice. But we argue that the disservice is in overwhelming people with so much information that they miss the key message.

If your mechanic gave you a detailed explanation of how your car engine worked every time you went for an oil change, you would probably:

  • Have no idea what she was talking about
  • Zone out
  • Start looking for a new mechanic

Most people just want to know whether their car is okay, and if not, how much it will cost to fix it. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.

Being clear, straightforward, and easy to understand isn’t dumb. In fact, it’s really quite smart — and a challenge to do well. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!

The bottom line: Plain language is smart. And when you use it to write health information, there are big payoffs for readers.


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