Communication about threats: Keep it simple, visual, and specific

Written by Mychal A. Voorhees, MA, health literacy & community outreach coordinator at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of the School of Medicine

Every day, the general public is inundated with news about potential threats such as tornadoes, food contamination, and infectious disease outbreaks. The media keep the public up-to-date on these threats, both big and small. And while the media can be a valuable tool in disseminating information in threatening situations, they often miss the mark of creating useful messages the public can use.

While we hope people turn to trusted, credible sources for steps to take in threatening situations, another unfortunate reality exists: information about threats is often written at a reading-level above the general public’s ability to comprehend. A 2008 review of more than 50 websites devoted to disaster preparedness found most content on the subject was written at a 10th grade reading level or higher. (1) Adults in the United States generally read at a 6th to 7th grade reading level. (2) Those of us in the field of health communication continuously ask ourselves what good are messages that can’t be read or used by the general public—the audiences who need this information most.

The literature on crisis and disaster communication is abundant. There is a lot we can do to reach our audience, but here are a few ways to get started.

Simplify messages.

One of the most effective steps we can take is by simplifying our written and oral messages when discussing threats and disaster preparedness. We can help achieve this goal by using simpler words. A study on food- safety messaging found the term “cross-contamination” was misunderstood by 75 percent of the study population.(3)  The same study found the term “harmful bacteria” was easier to understand by the audience than the word “pathogen.” If you can’t simplify the terms, every effort should be made to explain the term once it is introduced.

Simplifying messages is more than using short, monosyllabic words. It also includes focusing on 2 to 3 key points and crafting messages that contain the most vital information. When creating messages about a crisis situation ask yourself: what is the most critical information the audience needs to know? Does the audience need the history on tornadoes in St. Louis? Or do they need to know the three steps to take to protect their family before a tornado?

While you may worry that your messages are too plain, clear and simple writing appeals to both advanced readers and poor readers. We’ve all skimmed over that 8-page, text-heavy document at some point.

Use visuals, thoughtfully.

Health materials that provide visuals to demonstrate information can be more powerful than words. Visuals can help engage the user, especially those users who find reading difficult. Pictures should be used to demonstrate difficult concepts and specific actions to take.(4)

While images can enhance text and guide the reader, be wary of using visuals that just add clutter to your materials. Ask yourself if the images draw your audience to the materials or aid understanding. Be critical when deciding what to include; extra content will only overwhelm some readers.


Be specific.

In studies of natural disasters, general and vague warnings are less persuasive in getting people to act. Clear guidance and specific, actionable messages get people to act.(5) Messages in threatening situations should include specific details about what, when, how, and for how long.

In addition, the tone of your action steps can make a difference. Your audience is more likely to respond to messages when they feel confident in their ability to take the steps or adopt the behavior. Give the audience steps to take over time, if possible. Give them confidence they can do what you’re asking!

The goal of all communication is to achieve a mutual understanding, but we don’t always succeed. Through use of clear writing, thoughtful visuals, and specificity, we can better attempt to meet our audience’s needs when it comes to preparing for threats.

The Becker Medical Library’s Health Literacy and Plain Language Review Program provides free plain language review services to the Washington University community. We are also available to provide additional health literacy and communication information on this month’s blog topic. Please contact us to learn more.


1.       Friedman, D.B., Tanwar, M., & Richter, J.V. (2008). Evaluation of online disaster and emergency preparedness resources. Prehospital Disaster Medicine, 23(5), 438-46.

2.       National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Adult literacy in America. (NCES Publication No. 1993-275). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

3.       US Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. (2000). PR/HACCP rule evaluation report: Focus group study on food safety messages and delivery mechanisms. Final report. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

4.       Covello, V.T. (2003) Best practices in public health risk and crisis communication. Journal of Health Communication, 8, 5-8.

5.       Leik R.K., Carter T.M., Clark J.P., Kendall S.D., & Gifford G.A. (1981). Community response to natural hazard warnings: Final report. Minneapolis: Univ. Minn. Press