Sh*t on a Stick

words matterYou don’t want to get this wrong and it is not as though you get much practice  – twice in ?4 years. So having the instructions handy is vital. Vital for the validity of the Bowel Cancer Screening test and very important to get the mechanics and sequences right while poking the sample turd – sorry ‘stool’ or ‘sample’ – not just once but twice with the rather bendy pointy cardboard stick and never in the same spot; smearing the window: not too much? not too little (how much is enough? Shall I add a bit more?). Sweating slightly now – do not rub forehead with hand holding stick. Dump the sticks and close that flap before the germs fly out and take over. Made it without phoning ” the programme hub” for advice – would that be the robot  Marvin Programme-Hub?. All that now remains after this first rather nerve-wracking first go  is to do it twice more within 14 days which should be OK – even for those with the slowest transit times. One point to bear very much in mind – better do this at home. This is not a travel kit and and it is only UK postage paid. (Thanks postie – I did follow the ‘seal it well’ instructions. Presumably they tested putting the full name of the exercise as the addressee – you would have thought the programme managers had to make sure that this clear identification was an incentive to the Royal Mail to process this mother asap – not for the post box clearer or the sorting team to throw it away in disgust? Would ‘Super Speedy – Sh*t Sample’ be better or worse? )

It is hard to get the tone right when talking about a smelly, rather undignified DIY clinical procedure. Taboo topic for many. The letter and the leaflet adopt the style which would approved by the Plain English people. Theunadorned – po(o)-faced?-  language uses terms that are not too clinical – ‘bowel motion’ ‘sample’ is about as technical as it gets. You can imagine the editorial conferences – is it enough to say “Use a clean disposal container eg an ice cream or margarine tub”? Should we add “empty”? The authors had to chart a difficult course between the isles of clarity, calmness and encouragement to do this life-saving thing. Not to put off but to take part.

In the traditional world of public information, it was cost-effective to write for all using a language designed not to offend; that did not use slang or terms that some would find offensive or frightening.  The Civil Defence leaflets that made nuclear war something that we all could cope with by hiding behind the dining room table with a few tins of Spam were classics of this genre.

But as the title ‘Beyond Leaflets’ of a workshop at the 1st May  PIF Annual Conference acknowledges, that one-size fits all approach is no longer necessary. There are ways of reaching different audiences with language that they connect with. True – the efforts to do so risk being too self consciously hip – what price the app for young people talking about health ‘Well Happy’? – but the direction of travel is to be encouraged.

Would the predominantly over-50 audience for this test – now extended to the over-70s (thanks v much) – respond to an invitation to take part – I pluck the phrase from the air – in a ‘The Crap Test with Save Your Life Results” Would we find that the only people upset would be the under 30’s (often rather prim and easily shocked) while older adults are more relaxed about their bods and associated functions?

PIF should run a competition – open to all including mainstream newspaper columnists – on writing about difficult clinical topics in a way that captures the way that people talk about stuff like this nowadays. The National Co-production Advisory Group has written that sharing power – and that is what developing new ways of communication is about – “means taking risks. Take a chance!”

The new NHS boss will be looking for ways of communicating what he is about and his plans for the NHS. Now would be a good time to develop that new vocabulary, syntax, style that discards ‘the Gods on Mount Olympus have spoken’, all-knowing, de haut en bas (abolish all pretentious quotations from foreign languages for a start) attitudes in favour of a people’s language that all can connect with.

Maybe not – or not yet.

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