How We Talk About What We Do Matters
June 2018

Nisa Hussain
Program Analyst, Workforce and Leadership Development


I recently attended an engaging presentation that addressed an overarching challenge the maternal and child health (MCH) field, and public health broadly, struggles with: How do we talk about the work that we do?

Here’s why this is a persistent challenge: In MCH work, we take the time to understand how the social determinants of health can lead to persistent health inequities and poor health outcomes for some segments of the population. While we might recognize the importance and impact of these determinants, those outside public health might not share this understanding. A lack of shared understanding can feel like a barrier when communicating these issues to policymakers, other sectors, and other public agencies. This is particularly challenging on issues that might seem controversial, such as race, gender, and sex education.

In steps Glynis Shea.

On the Friday before the AMCHP Annual Conference in February, the Leadership Lab held an all-day meeting to welcome five cohorts of MCH professionals keen on gaining leadership development skills. (The five cohorts were Next Generation, New Directors, MCH Epidemiology Peer-to-Peer Cohort, Family Leaders, and the Leadership Institute for CYSHCN [Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs] Directors). The Leadership Lab hosted Glynis Shea, communications director at the University of Minnesota, as the plenary speaker to present on social determinants of health in MCH and strategies to frame our messaging in a productive, equitable way.

Glynis’s presentation, How We Talk About What We Do Matters, reminded us that we need to frame our information and our challenges in a way that our audience will not only understand but want to accept. Calling for action with our data is often a priority for health professionals, but we sometimes struggle in mobilizing our audiences. Framing data equitably and in a compelling manner could lead to greater buy-in from our audiences.

Glynis suggested we use a message pyramid to think about how we introduce ideas that are considered “polarizing” to someone who might not understand or buy into the importance of an issue, such as disparities in maternal mortality or sex education. When speaking to an audience that may not easily accept the importance of your work, try communicating your ideas in this message pyramid order:

    • Shared belief: Why should the audience care, and what stake do they have?
    • Category of the issue: What kind of issue are we talking about?
    • Specifics: What is the name and function or focus of your specific issue or program?

This message pyramid tool emphasizes the idea, “Lead with a compelling shared belief, value, or benefit, not a data point.” When presenting your issue as a call to action, try to connect with the audience through a common, human value. After making the connection, you can elaborate with data for context. Data is critical to provide evidence but when speaking with certain audiences, it can help to have them on board first.

Another suggestion was to critically think about how we present our data. As an example, Glynis showed a common bar graph on infant mortality rates by race/ethnicity. The health professionals who created it might have seen this is as a simple representation of the data. They might have even seen this is as important evidence that calls attention to the glaring disparities between races in infant mortality.

While this is true, we were reminded that the outside audience, who is unfamiliar with the complex context of social determinants of health, might see this in an entirely different way. They might conclude that the race with highest rates of infant mortality needs to change their habits and lifestyles. To put the onus on a racial group was never the intention of the health professional. However, looking at the data, it’s an easy interpretation to make from an outsider’s standpoint.

A solution to this misconception was to replace “race” with location or zip code as a better way to group the data. This may direct the reader to acknowledge the social determinants of health that contribute to the poor health outcomes, as opposed to faulting a racial group. This is another important suggestion to consider when trying to mobilize support for your issue or project.

In polarizing times, it can be easy to feel discouraged that the essential issues that you dedicate your time and energy to aren’t always prioritized.  You can feel that looming issues like health inequity, institutional racism, and class discrimination seem too daunting to tackle. However, when we are given the right tools and framework to engage people in our understanding of these issues, we get one step closer to making the progress we want to see. The work that MCH does matter, and it helps to have a few strategies in communicating our value to our audiences.