Preaching to the Choir: Overused Scicomms Tactic Hurts Public Health

Preaching to the choir

by: Eeks

When I scroll through social media sites and see what self-proclaimed  “public health” communicators post for a large following to read, I often ask myself, “Who is their target audience?!”

I ask myself that because many times I find their posts straight-up arrogant and condescending. I conclude that the posters are simply preaching to their choir: they are in it for praise, likes, and reposts from their peers and people who already agree with them, but they certainly aren’t in it to change minds or motivate health behavior. (And if they are in it for those things, boy, should they pause and take a minute to evaluate their approach.) I’ll go as far to say that their preaching-to-the-choir approach does more harm to public health than good.

There is no room for arrogance or condescension in public health communication. Any communication coated in arrogance and condescension comes from fragile egos…, a place of insecurity. Similar to its sister tactic credentialism, it puts people down and tries to shut them up. It makes people feel like “other” which does nothing for public health.

Before I write about how to improve upon ineffective preaching to the choir, I recommend being brutally honest with yourself. No one likes to do that because it’s a painful process, but you always come out better in the end. Ask yourself, are you a health communicator who condescends and puts people down? Do you use personal insults? Are you arrogant? If you think you are, ask yourself why you communicate that way.

Most people lack self awareness when it comes to how they come across to others. They aren’t in touch with how their own insecurities drive their interactions. It’s my belief that you need to become more self-aware and work through those insecurities and places of fragility before you can become an effective communicator.

Public health is health for the entire population. At its core, it’s building a trusting relationship with the population, and like any relationship, that starts with communication. Who is in the population? Oh gosh, lots of people. In America, it’s lost of people with diverse backgrounds, views, motivations, religions, priorities and political opinions. It’s people with no God to people with multiple Gods. It’s people with opinions and politics that may disgust you. I advise anyone who gets in the business of public health communication to first understand that simple fact: At times, you will be communicating to people who think nothing like you. Yet your job is not to force your views on them. Your job is not to isolate them, it’s to resonate with them. It’s to connect. You won’t always succeed, but the mission remains the same. And the minute you resort to arrogance, condescension or personal attacks, you put up a barrier and lose.

Preaching to the choir is easy. You don’t have to change any minds- you just get a bunch of people who already agree with you to cheer you on. It’s masturbation for the ego, and there is no art in that.

The art of public health communication is forging a connection to the choirs who don’t understand or agree with your choir.

How do you do that?  I’ll share my approach below. You can take it or leave it.

First, it’s understanding that you’ll be outside your comfort zone. Get okay with that.

Next, as with any health communication intervention, know your target audience. Learn as much as you can about them. What drives them? What do they care about? What can they teach you? What can you learn from them? Where can you comfortably meet them? How can you show them that you understand where they are coming from and you are on their side?

Next, craft messaging with the goal of resonating and not isolating. Make it a collaborative effort and share your messaging with others for feedback. (You can call this “low-budget message testing.”) Ideally, try to find a couple individuals in your target audience and see what they think. Listen to their feedback and tweak your messaging as needed: Create, test, tweak, repeat.

When you’re ready, share your message. If it resonates, great. If it backfires, that’s okay too. (You should expect backfires.) Don’t go into “attack mode”.  Once you enter attack mode, you lose. Instead, take some time to figure out why your style of communication backfired and how you can improve upon it in the future.

Remember, the goal is not to make people think like you. The goal is to connect to people who think differently than you. Despite your differences, you want them to understand that you consider them teammates, and together with those differences move forward to create a functioning “public health equilibrium”.

Speaking of preaching to different choirs, my friend Gabe Nathan, a mental health and suicide awareness advocate, does this well. Much of his advocacy centers around educating people about risk factors for suicide, a big one being owning a firearm. He had a Volkswagen Beetle called Herbie (yes, identical to the car in the film The Love Bug), that sported a large suicide awareness message on its rear. Gabe took Herbie to car shows where, despite not being a gun guy himself, he’d engage in conversations about suicide prevention with folks who were passionate gun owners. He’d talk to them about temporary safe storage in times of deep stress and anguish. He listened to what they care about too. Many folks were sensitive about anything that even slightly threatened gun ownership or 2nd Amendment rights, but still Gabe persisted. Sure, some people got angry and told him to “f off” but he also made connections. He connected to “other choirs.” That sort of health communication is meaningful versus the self-stroking, meaningless kind.

It’s unfortunate that there are so many preaching-to-the choir, self-proclaimed public health communicators on social media with large followings. It’s not their intention but I believe it’s only damaging to public health. These folks often complain about antivaxxers, quacks and conspiracy theorists in echo chambers without seeing that they themselves have created an echo chamber: their choir sings, their voices echo.

Thanks for reading-


Other musings to ponder:

The Public Health Equilibrium

Credentialism vs Anti-Credentials

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