Friday, October 21, 2011

Who Knew Theory Was So Popular?

by Lori Alexander

In an organization as practice-oriented as AMWA, the audience at Thursday morning’s “Using Composition and Persuasion Theories to Improve Your Medical Writing” was extraordinary. Panelists Tom Lang, Helen Hodgson, and Dan Jones had estimated that the topic would draw about 50 attendees, especially considering the always-strong competition among open sessions. All of us were pleasantly surprised to see a standing room–only crowd fill the enormous room!

Tom discussed the evidence base for writing, highlighting the importance of two documents: Document Design: A Review of the Relevant Research and Guidelines for Document Designers. Tom provided an overview of the importance of language usage and framing, a practice that he referred to as the “real ethics problem” for medical writers (above authorship issues, even!). He described framing as a form of cognitive bias in which the context organizes perception. As a classic example of framing, he noted that people are more likely to choose a procedure that has a survival rate of 85% than one that has a fatality rate of 15%.

Helen summarized several composition theories, noting how medical writers can use the theories to evaluate their own work. For example, in critical/cultural studies, researchers examine systemic and cultural injustices inflicted by dominant social groups on those with less power (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc) and read texts carefully to determine how language and structure reinforce the power dynamics. “As medical writers, you need to be aware of these issues, and modify writing to redress the power imbalance and reflect understanding of the discourse community,” she said.

Rounding out the session was Dan Jones’ discussion of contemporary persuasion strategies that medical writers can use to reach consensus in the workplace. Dan focused on the science of persuasion—specific strategies that have been scientifically proven to be effective. Among the most widely used are six weapons or principles of influence described by Robert Cialdini: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Dan encouraged attendees to think about how to put these principles into action not only in their writing but in their workplace relationships.

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