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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What creates effective communication? Creating context for the audience is key.

an old fashioned typewriter typing content is king but context is king kong

What creates effective communication? This question is the focus of a series of posts featuring 8 key principles from Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide.

In last week’s post, we explored the fundamental principle of relational communication. Let's build on that...

As nutrition communicators, our communication is evidence-based. We support our messages with research and expertise.

The challenge of providing evidence-based communication is making it meaningful for lay audiences who have minimal or nonexistent backgrounds in science.

This leads us to our second principle: Creating context for the audience is key. In other words…

If content is king, context is King Kong.

What we communicate to an audience is worthless if it is meaningless to them. That is why context is key.

You ask… what is context? According to Mirriam-Webster, context is the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.

For audiences to understand the underlying science, a message must be meaningful and relatable. Communicate using language, illustrations, and examples that fit the audience. Begin at the audience’s current level of knowledge and explain from their frame of reference.

Being able to research the science of food and nutrition and translate it for our audiences is something that sets us apart from non-credentialled nutrition influencers. To be effective, we can’t just know the science, we must know how to make it understandable to our audience, which requires that we understand them.

One of my favorite quotes to share with my nutrition communication students at Purdue is from the International Food Information Council:

“Scientists are from Saturn, the public is from Cleveland. Our challenge is to translate science to the public.”

To be an average communicator… create messages using jargon and explain at the level you understand.

To be an amazing communicator, who effectively communicates… put messages into context that makes the evidence clear and relatable.

How do we create context?

Context can take many forms, depending on the message and the audience. Some of the ways nutrition is best put into context is by making sure the audience understands it in the context of the following three areas:

  • their body (including genetics and how their body works), here’s where you put your knowledge of physiology and metabolism to work.

  • their lifestyle (which includes their eating and activity habits, their personal choices and behaviors) and

  • their environment (that includes their culture, their relationships – because people eat and live with others, shopping and restaurants, media, their opportunities for activity, etc.)

We can create context with well-chosen descriptions, analogies, examples, and illustrations. Consider following these steps to create context:

  1. Determine the information my audience needs.

  2. Determine ways to communicate that are meaningful to my audience.

  3. Select appropriate illustrations and examples to create context.

  4. Begin my explanation cognizant of what they currently know and understand.

What does this look like in real life?

A challenge I experienced as a dietitian working for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, was encouraging women to persevere with breastfeeding. Many WIC participants had minimal breastfeeding knowledge or support, so if learning how to breastfeed was difficult they all too quickly quit.

If I gave women the impression that breastfeeding creates a dreamy state where their baby never cries or wakes them up at night and they'll never experience discomfort, I could be setting them up for failure.

New mothers needed a realistic expectation of just how exhausting the early weeks of parenthood can be. If not, it is common for women to blame everything that goes wrong on breastfeeding and think switching to formula will solve all their problems.

For this reason, I determined they needed to relate the experience of learning how to breastfeed to something they were familiar with.

I decided to relate learning how to breastfeed to the experience of learning how to drive a car or ride a bike, both of which are activities that create muscle memory and start out hard yet end up easy and so worth it.

Here’s an example of what I would tell a new mother….

Babies are wired knowing how to breastfeed if given the opportunity, but a mother must learn. In the beginning, it can feel very awkward, but with practice, it feels easy and natural. Think about how it felt when you were learning how to ride a bike or drive a car.

Until you got the hang of it, you were pretty shaky and uncomfortable, but after a couple of weeks, you barely had to think about how to do it. Can you imagine giving up on learning how to drive a car after your first practice drive because you were a little jerky? You didn’t give up because you wanted to get your license.

Be patient with yourself. You can master how to breastfeed too.

Your turn – how can you create meaningful context for your audience?

“Science is a search for evidence, but science communication must be a search for meaning. General audiences will only care about science if it is presented in a meaningful context.”

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