A guide to inclusive language

By Lorna Marsh, Senior Editor

When content creators let bias creep into their writing, even unconsciously, the implications go much further than a careless word or two.

Language is loaded with power and it’s not enough to simply avoid non-discriminatory terms. We all have unconscious biases, but it’s important to recognise and challenge them. And, as writers and editors, we must actively make sure we’re inclusive of everyone we’re talking to. Not only does this ensure that everyone feels included and represented but that your messaging is more likely to cut through.

How to create inclusive and respectful content

Whether we’re delivering life-saving audio messages to pregnant women and new mothers in India, or using interactive mobile messaging to improve maternal health in South Africa, inclusive and empathetic language is crucial to Thrive’s health communications strategy.

The guidance in this article is based on our team’s experience delivering health communications to global audiences and observing how other organisations talk to them too.

Learn more about our life-changing projects over on our case studies page.

Never make assumptions

Consider the different circumstances of everyone who could be consuming your content – and never make assumptions about what those circumstances might be. Question your own beliefs and actively avoid stereotypes, biases and judgements about any element of people’s lives.

For example, when writing for parents don’t assume you’re talking to a heterosexual couple where the dad is the main breadwinner and mum is in charge of childcare. Using gender neutral language is essential. Aside from couples who long abandoned traditional gender roles, your audience will also include same-sex couples, single parents and non-parent carers.

Welcome users into your content creation

When you’re writing broad health content, unless it’s truly relevant and essential, you should avoid referencing specific characteristics or backgrounds, including ethnic heritage, body shape, gender identity, sexuality, age, religion, socio-economic status and disability.

But what about when it is relevant and essential? For example, if you’re writing content about health conditions that affect certain groups of people or you need to identify when people might be affected differently? In these instances, getting input from users is vital.

NHS Digital’s team have recently updated their written content and imagery of skin symptoms using extensive research insights, including 1-to-1 interviews and surveys, so it’s more inclusive for people with various skin tones and people with visual impairments.

Consider the whole content package

In combination with inclusive and respectful copy, visual assets are a powerful way to promote inclusion and diversity. All the content you produce – whether audio, video, illustrations or images – should reflect and embrace the audiences you’re talking to.

A shining example of doing this are the images used by Sport England campaign This Girl Can, showing women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and ages enjoying exercise. It also has a free-to-use, rights-free image library other organisations can access.

Meanwhile, the UK government’s Stay Home Covid-19 advert was an example of how not to do it and was widely criticised for stereotyping women.

Inclusive content essentials

Whoever you’re talking to or talking about always make sure you:

  • Use respectful, neutral, positive, person-centred language and avoid labelling people.
  • Ensure your content is clear and concise to widen its reach and that it also meets accessibility standards.
  • Factor peer review into your content production process to harness other perspectives.
  • Welcome feedback and be sensitive to change – society and our awareness about inclusivity are changing rapidly.

Lorna is a Senior Editor at Thrive. She is adept in planning and delivering successful projects for a range of audiences and brands, and developing messages that have the power to really resonate.

Download our free white paper on the link below to learn how femtech and other digital platforms can overcome barriers to health access for women: 

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