The politician I saw on TV yesterday morning clearly wanted to convey his earnest concern over an issue with ambulance delays. He was doing a pretty good job, too…right up to the point where he said his goal was “positive health outcomes.”

Oof.

Few areas offer the chance to connect emotionally to an audience than health. The love we feel for a sick or injured family member, our compassion for people who are suffering, our hunger for stories of triumph over adversity: health offers countless avenues to emotional engagement.

So why would you ever use a bloodless, clinical phrase like “health outcomes” when you’re talking to a general audience?

I guess I know why. It’s a handy catch-all. It describes everything from a full recovery to sudden death.

But that’s exactly the problem. It describes everything… which means it doesn’t evoke anything concrete or specific. And that means it’s a lot less likely to prompt an emotional response, or to lodge in your audience’s memory.

What does evoke emotion? The specific kinds of outcomes you’re talking about, good or bad.

  • Fewer young people will die from overdoses.
  • More adults won’t be able to run a block without stopping to catch their breath.
  • More cancer patients will recover, and they’ll recover more quickly.
  • Dementia will strike earlier, and with more devastating impact.
  • More children stricken with deadly or debilitating diseases that vaccines could have prevented.
  • Coming home from hospital two weeks earlier.

I’ll bet at least one of those struck an emotional chord with you. Every one of them did with me, for different reasons.

“Outcomes” has its uses (in research or health administration, for instance). But when you’re trying to communicate with the public — especially if you’re trying to change behaviour, or win support for a policy measure — be specific and concrete.

It’ll lead to much better communications outcomes.