Context first, please!

Construction workers decide whether to put "If you have cat head" before or after the rest of the sentence, "it's important to stay away from dogs, plastic bags, vacuum cleaners, and bodies of water."

We all know how important it is to keep health-related content short, simple, and direct — Orwellian, if you will. But of course that’s not all that goes into clear communication. The order of those concise words matters, too.

When you’re writing content that may not apply to all your readers, keep in mind a super useful convention that we like to call “context first.”

Consider this sentence:

You’ll need to get a blood test if you’ve had a TB vaccine (shot).

Concise and direct? Check. Uses simple, familiar terms? Definitely. But this information is only relevant to readers who’ve had a TB vaccine — and you’re making everyone read all the way to the end before they find out if it applies to them.

So instead, try this:

If you’ve had a TB vaccine (shot), you’ll need to get a blood test.

This way, it’s immediately clear who you’re talking about, and people who haven’t had a TB vaccine can skip the rest of the sentence. Since we know that readers skim and scan (especially online), do yours a favor and clue them in right away if there’s something that may not be relevant to them.

Putting the context first can also help users with limited literacy skills — who may struggle with working memory — get clearer takeaways from your content.

Consider:

Call 911 or go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital right away if your child’s fever is 104 degrees or higher.

When you write a sentence like this, you’re asking folks to read — and remember — several things to understand whether or not they need to call 911. This can be tricky for limited literacy readers.

The solution? Context first — like so:

If your child’s fever is 104 degrees or higher, call 911 or go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital right away.

The bottom line: When communicating information that doesn’t apply to all your readers, put the context first.