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Wednesday, 19 October 2011 05:13

Example of how to rewrite an article about hearing to help modernise society's attitudes

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A drummer and his hearingMany of us involved in hearing care automatically assume that Society's attitudes to hearing care are inherently negative and believe this is the reason why many individuals will delay seeking timely treatment for any difficulties they might be experiencing with their hearing.

Yet ironically, by assuming society has such an attitude, the Profession has a tendency to communicate in a way that reinforces those very same negative attitudes that make the provision of hearing care harder.

In order to illustrate this, I have taken an article that recently appeared about a famous rock musician who is now wearing hearing aids.

The messages presented and the words that are used in the article are typical of those that might be found in much of the current communication by the Profession, so it serves as a very useful illustration of how by subtly changing the way we phrase things, we can leave the reader with a more positive attitude (approach) rather than reinforcing old-fashioned, negative stereotypes (avoid).

To do this I have provided a commentary on the original article (which has been anonymized for the purposes of illustration), and then provided an example of how it might be rewritten to employ the principles of Modernising Attitudes to Hearing Care.

The Original Article

When writing we need to constantly ask ourselves, will this create an avoid or approach response?

[name of band] drummer [insert name of musician] reliant on hearing aids

The word “reliant” suggests somebody who is helpless and needs 'a crutch'. It therefore immediately tells readers, in just seven words, that you only need hearing aids if you reach a stage where you can't cope without assistance. Readers will compare themselves with this image to see whether it applies to themselves or not. Do they feel they have reached that stage of 'dependency'? If not, they will consider themselves to be 'not ready' or their hearing's 'not bad enough' - one of the main reasons identified in the EuroTrak study for why people proscrastinate over the issue. By nature people like to be independent, and will often do what they can to retain their independence. Consequently they ask themselves: “What would wearing hearings say about me: to myself and to others?”

A long life as a musician in the rock band [name of band] has left its mark on the drummer [name of musician]'s hearing, but the rocker is still active.

There is nothing inherently wrong with “left its mark”, providing the message we want to convey is that actions (e.g. not using hearing protection) have consequences. But the message of this article is not overtly about protecting hearing; it does not appear to be being presented as a “word of caution” to younger drummers.

By combining the idea of “marked hearing” with the phrase “but the rocker is still active” implies that hearing loss is so bad that you would find yourself lucky if you can still manage to do anything! This promotes a negative self-image that people either want to avoid or don't see as reflective of themselves. If the 'threat' to that self-image is too great, people feel vulnerable and so try to protect themselves from that threat by ignoring it, or convincing themselves it doesn't apply to them.

Years of playing loud music has made [name of musician] hard of hearing and reliant on hearing aids.

“Hard of hearing” is a label. Labels are mental shortcuts that pull up baggage with them. It's best instead to use words that describe the 'function' of the reduction in hearing, e.g. “has reduced his range of hearing”. Whilst here are many people who are happy to refer to themselves who are hard of hearing, there are plenty of others who don't want to see themselves as 'joining a club'. So keep it functional.

There is also an undertone of blame or "told you so" in this article, with hearing aids being portrayed almost as a punishment for years of loud music. People tend to avoid punishment, so this will apply to hearing aids too.

“I guess it was inevitable and hardly surprising given what I have been doing for the past 40 years,” the [name of band] star says.

There is a running joke in [name of musician]'s house, that no matter which question you ask the [name of band] drummer, the response is always the same.

References to jokes about hearing problems should be avoided as it reinforces the idea that people with difficulties with hearing are fair game for being made fun of. Note also that "running joke" is the commentary by the author, not the rock star.

We have to remember that a significant number of people have a reduction in their hearing range that is so significant that no matter what treatment is available, it will always leave them with a residual reduction in their hearing ability. Society needs to be supporting these individuals, not making fun of them. We don't make fun of people who can't walk up stairs because they're in a wheelchair; that's seen as bullying.

Of course there's a difference between people who temporarily can't walk (e.g. broken leg) and those who permanently can't walk (e.g. paralysed), and we often draw a distinction between the two, harmlessly teasing the former but supporting the latter.

Furthermore, society would normally have no problem in recognising such a difference between these two different situations: picking on someone permanently confined to wheelchair is seen as cruel bullying; teasing a mate who's broken their leg skiing is often quite acceptable. But of course here the disabilities are 'visually evident', so drawing that distinction is obvious to most observers.

Not so with hearing, which is hidden by nature. When we joke about someone not hearing us (with all the associations that might have for our readers), it also targets those who are powerless to do anything about it.

So it's best the Profession avoids making jokes about not hearing, unless the context ensures it won't lead to the reinforcement of a negative attitudes and stereotypes.

“Half-past seven is my standard reply,” [name of musician] says with a smile. “It doesn't matter whether they've asked me what I want to drink, watch on TV or where I want to go on holiday.”

Behind the private joke lies the uncomfortable truth that one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music has suffered dramatic hearing loss.

“Uncomfortable truth” makes it sound sinister and disturbing, something humans will want to avoid.

It is also possible that a priming effect takes place here, so that “uncomfortable” becomes associated with hearing aids (one of the other main reasons people say they don't want to wear hearing aids). Furthermore this language runs counter to the aim of 'normalising' hearing problems: we're saying “it's bad to have something wrong with your hearing”, rather than “problems with hearing are so common they're almost normal”.

The word 'dramatic' cues the audience to “be shocked” – another feeling people want to avoid.

The word “suffered” is a strongly negative word and conjures up other forms of suffering – think of the contexts we use this word in: “suffered injury”, “suffering from starvation”, “suffered at the hands of her murderer” – then think of all the feelings we associate with those images. Do we want these thoughts and emotions to be running through people's minds when they're thinking about hearing aids? Do we want to risk them getting attached by association?

“My wife was the one who kept pointing out that the TV volume was up too loud, though I could only just hear it. Then I kept missing out on dialogue in films and at dinner parties and social gatherings I couldn't understand what people were saying. It felt strange and frustrating to a point where I was starting to lip-read. I realised my hearing wasn't what it should be,” the drummer explains.

This is already a good and powerful paragraph because it identifies the problems in everyday terms so other people can apply it to themselves. When readers don't have a fully formed attitude of their own they take mental shortcuts, and one of the most powerful ones is to "follow the crowd" or follow people they like or admire.

[Name of musician] is now wearing hearing aids in both ears. Luckily, the hearing loss has not affected [name of musican]'s vocal range, but his hearing aids are a great help. “I can still pitch perfectly but without the hearing aids I don't hear the intricate high parts of the actual spectrum. It goes all 'woofery'.”

The word “luckily” says, “Phew, that was close”. What does this say to the readers? Again, if the article was based on preventing noise induced damage to hearing, then perhaps it would be right to use this kind of language. Similarly with “hearing loss” – people are naturally averse to loss, so the term “hearing loss” should only be used when a loss is preventable or avoidable. But when it has already taken place (as in the case above), “hearing loss” shouldn't be used because it triggers the grieving process which delays the seeking of timely treatment.

The word “but” has the effect of dismissing the previous phrase. The question is, why should the fact that his vocal range is not affected be something we want our readers to dismiss? It shouldn't; it's a good thing. Instead this vocal range should be linked with being able to hear (because of hearing aids) the “intricate high parts of the actual spectrum” so he's equipped to continue to pitch perfectly across the spectrum.

[name of musician] is not the only rock musician struggling with serious hearing loss e.g. The [name of another musician] is also suffering from hearing loss, so the [name of band] star feels he is in 'good company'.

Is he struggling? Still? Does that mean his hearing aids don't stop him from struggling?

The image we are left with here in our mind's eye at the end of the piece is a negative one: it's the idea of all these mature rockers, who at one time may have been top of their game, but are now dumped in a corner as damaged goods, suffering and struggling (and all the images we associate with this).

Instead, we need readers to be left encouraged by the power of the ability we have today to treat a reduction in hearing.

Whenever we communicate, we need to be sure we understand what impression we want to leave our readers and what our core message. Think: how could I sum up my core message in the length of a tweet (140 characters). A tweet, because of its brevity is a good, modern equivalent of the copywriters' "back of a cigarette packet" principle.

So if we think what our core message is BEFORE we begin writing, and think about eliciting an APPROACH response from our readers, we'll find we begin automatically shaping the words to that message.

So now here's a rewritten version of the same article...

Digitally Enhanced [name of band] Drummer Still Rocks

[Name of musician] is well known to many as the drummer in the rock band [name of band].

As with many rock musicians before the days when hearing protection was readily available, years of playing loud music has left its mark on the drummer's hearing.

But that's not stopping [name of musician]: he is now equipped with a state-of-the-art digital hearing system.

The system targets individual areas of sound that have been damaged by 40 years of loud music, and enhances them, placing them within his audible range.

“I can still pitch perfectly,” says [name of musician] whose vocal range is still intact, “but without this technology I don't hear the intricate high parts of the actual spectrum. It goes all 'woofery'.”

Before being fitted up with the hearing system, [name of musician] says, “It didn't matter whether I was asked what I wanted to drink, watch on TV or where I wanted to go on holiday. Half-past seven was my standard reply,” [name of musician] says with a smile.

“My wife was the one who kept pointing out that the TV volume was up too loud, though I could only just hear it. Then I kept missing out on dialogue in films and at dinner parties and social gatherings I couldn't understand what people were saying. It felt strange and frustrating to a point where I was starting to lip-read. I realised my hearing wasn't what it should be,” the drummer explains.

But the [name of band] star now feels he is in 'good company'. Other famous rock stars such as [name of another rock star], have also discovered the power of digitally enhanced hearing. And when you're regarded as the one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music, getting everything you can out of your hearing is something you take very seriously.

Explanatory notes:

Headline: Here we tare signalling that using hearing aids actually keeps someone doing what they enjoy. In other words, they become a solution that people want to approach rather than a negative 'punishment' that people seek to avoid.

Paragraph 1: Here we are not shying away from the fact that hearing can be damaged by loud music, but we are also providing two things: a practical lesson to be learnt by younger musicians; an excuse for those who may be in the same position as our rock star so it minimises their defensiveness.

Paragraph 2 & 4: Same principles as the headline. Also notice: "that's not stopping". Not only is this the present tense (i.e. hearing technology enables life to continue as before), but it's also adopts an air of defiance: "I refuse to give in to problems with hearing", which provides an attitude for others to mirror.

Paragraph 3: Explains what the technology does in practical terms, again reinforcing that idea of it being a solution.

Paragraph 5: We have turned the 'joke' into self-deprecating humour rather than being made fun of, but we've also put it in the past tense as something that has now been overcome thanks to the hearing technology. We are also setting up the twofold principle of what to avoid (the inappropriate responses) and what to approach (the technology that stops such embarrassing occasions).

Paragraph 6: Left intact for reasons stated in commentary on original article.

Paragraph 7: We use 'but' here to negate the problems described in paragraph 6. The 'good company' is no longer others struggling, but others who have done something positive about their hearing. We are setting an example for others to mirror.

We close the piece by emphasising why hearing is important and that 'doing something about your hearing' is getting the best out of your hearing, rather than just letting it (and you) fade away. This is the CORE MESSAGE we wanted to communicate. Remember, emphasise what can be changed (approach response), rather than what can't (i.e. loss - which people avoid).

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Curtis Alcock

Curtis J. Alcock is Founder of Audira » Think Tank for Hearing.

He was involved in design and marketing for 12 years before making the transition into hearing care nearly 12 years ago. He now runs an independent family-run hearing care practice in the United Kingdom and has spoken internationally on shaping the future of hearing care.

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