woman cooking healthy while looking at laptopWho in America doesn’t already know you should eat fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly and quit smoking to be healthy? Like most healthcare communicators, I’ve read, written and edited those same messages thousands of times.

Yet with so much information available on how to lead a healthy life, the levels of heart disease, diabetes and lifestyle-related conditions remain stubbornly high.

You could call those numbers abysmal. Knowledge is power — but it’s very often not strong enough to change our behavior.

Change is hard

Doing what’s in our own best interest has never been easy for us humans. Even 2,000 years ago the apostle Paul wrote, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” And he is a saint who survived shipwrecks, imprisonment and authored a huge chunk of that all-time bestseller — the New Testament. Is there hope for mere mortals to do the things that lead to better health and life?

What can healthcare communicators do to encourage individuals to make positive, healthy choices? These behavior change strategies can help.

Start with clear, easy-to-understand content

First, the fundamentals have to be right. Healthcare content needs to be written in plain language. It should also avoid medical jargon and consider the reading level and health literacy of the reader.

However, clearly telling people what they should does not go far enough to bring about behavior change. We have to consider the barriers to change and address those. That’s quite a challenge since we don’t know much about who the content will reach and each individual’s circumstances. But we can apply strategies from psychology and behavior economics like the ideas below.

Tell a story

We are wired to remember and react more to a story than facts. Fundraisers know sharing one child’s experience in a crisis brings in more donations than just statistics about how many children were affected. Advertisers know a scenario with characters using a product works better than touting the product’s features.

Of course, we need medical and health advice to be factual — based on scientific research and proven data. But a patient’s story can bring evidence to life and be the spark that inspires change in another person.

Consider a mixture of motivations

When we attempt to develop a good habit, our chances of success are much better if we find our “why” to sustain the change. Writers can help readers connect to their motivation, but motives can vary widely — and aren’t always rational.

An older man with high blood pressure told a parish nurse that he just couldn’t remember to take his medicine. The nurse knew he served his church and community and loved being with his grandchildren. She helped him connect taking his medication to his ability to continue doing those things. A light came on, and he found his “why” to remember to take his pills.

A physician trying to encourage teenagers to postpone sexual involvement tells a story about a young woman who didn’t grasp the serious consequences of teenage pregnancy. Not being able to finish high school or get a college degree seemed too abstract to the girl listening to the story. But when the teen realized she couldn’t be a cheerleader if she got pregnant — she found her “why”!

In these situations, the health provider could dig into what matters to that individual. Healthcare content creators don’t have that opportunity. A personality profile tool, like the Enneagram, can help us understand a variety of viewpoints. For instance, someone who’s a three on the Enneagram may feel motivated by a competitive challenge, while an Enneagram seven will respond to tips for healthy changes that make life more fun.

Author Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework may be another useful resource. It’s designed to answer the question, “How do I get people — including myself — to do what I want them to do?” The categories of upholder, questioner, obliger and rebel can give insights into how different people respond to expectations.

To reach more readers, your content can include a mixture of ideas for encouraging behavior changes that appeal to different personalities, such as:

  • Support groups or accountability partners
  • Measurement tools such as fitness trackers and food diaries
  • Rewards or recognition for hitting milestones

Encourage readers to be SMART and start small

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” says the Chinese proverb.

The need to make significant lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming. Encouraging small steps toward a big goal breaks down the long “journey” into a quicker trip.

A useful technique to achieve change is setting SMART goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Remember this SMART approach when writing content and encouraging behavior change. The vague “exercise more” becomes “walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week for the next two weeks to feel more fit for my vacation.”

While these behavior change strategies may help motivate individuals, connecting with the reader — rather than lecturing — can be powerful. Content that doesn’t merely inform, but also influences positive changes, comes out of and understanding of how difficult change can be, offers encouragement and a place to start.

If you’re looking for content support to encourage patients and consumers toward healthy changes, WriterGirl can help. Drop us a line to learn more.