Age-Friendly Communication: Facts, Tips and Ideas – Formulating your message

When you communicate with the particular group of seniors you want to reach you have two approaches to choose from. You can:

  • Single out the specific clients or customers and give them information designed specifically to meet their needs and expectations.
  • Adopt a new approach in dealing with all your customers and clients, making sure that your communication is always clear and universally accessible—checking regularly to make sure your messages have been received and understood.

The second approach may well be more effective, because adapting a message or medium for a senior audience helps everyone get more from it. What's more, in thinking about whether to single out older people with "special" information products and communication approaches, consider the risks of alienating clients or customers by creating stigma, embarrassment or shame.

You've done your research to find out about your audience and their preferred information sources. You've thought about the potential of the various media to reach your audience. Now you have to think about formulating a message to suit both the audience and the communication medium. Formulating the message means making decisions about concept, content and design.

Communication Concept

Choosing a concept means selecting the appropriate medium for communicating with your audience, fashioning a message that is well suited to that medium, and structuring the message to ensure that it can be communicated effectively. It means asking yourself (and possibly your senior advisory panel) questions like these:

  • Is this the most suitable way of communicating this particular message to this particular audience?
  • Does the structure of our message and the medium we use support our audience in understanding and responding to the message?
  • What are the characteristics of this medium that we can take advantage of to make sure our message comes across effectively?

Thinking about concept also means thinking about the accessibility of your message. Does the concept you've chosen accommodate large print? Will it also work well in alternative formats, such as braille, or as audio or video versions on CD/DVD? Will the design accommodate a print-reading machine? Tables, boxes and the dots between text and page number in a table of contents can be barriers to information for people using such machines.

Effective Does Not Necessarily Mean Fancy

  • a bookmark with library hours printed in large type
  • a fridge magnet with emergency numbers
  • a pre-printed grocery list designed to emphasize nutrition guidelines
  • peel-off stickers to be placed on a calendar as memory joggers
  • simple clock and calendar outlines as reminders for appointments and medication schedules

Also bear in mind that if communicating in "plain language" is one of your goals (and in most cases it should be), you also need a plain concept supported by a plain structure.Footnote 40 Plain language is hard to impose retroactively. If you start with a complex message, it may be difficult if not impossible to convert or translate it into plain language after the fact.

Finally, remember that your concept can convey just as much as your actual words. As the checklists throughout this publication show, inattention to the details of how your message is presented can send the wrong messages about your knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about older Canadians.

Message Content

Deciding on the content of your message is sometimes the most difficult part of communicating. Assuming that you know the members of your audience well, the next step may be to put yourself in their shoes:

  • What does the audience want to know?
  • What does the audience already know, and how much more does it need to know?
  • Should we try to meet all these information needs with this particular vehicle, or should we be selective about the information and messages we choose to convey?

The journalistic technique is to ask the questions that your audience is most likely to want answered and then to gather the information needed to formulate answers to those questions—the message practically writes itself!

In choosing message content, the most common advice is to keep it simple. Don't try to force too much information into a single communication vehicle or opportunity. You end up confusing readers or producing something that does only half a job. Too much information is sometimes worse than too little. Seniors with low literacy skills can be intimidated by a "wall of words." Always provide a phone number or address so that the audience can get more information or ask questions.

Remember that "writing" applies to all forms of communication, not just print. Whether communication takes the form of a pamphlet, a Web site, a radio spot, a public address announcement, a bookmark, or an automated voice answering system, content always has to be written—and the first step in writing is thinking about your audience and what the message should convey.

Communicating Effectively in Print

Other aspects of content also have an impact on advertising and marketing campaigns, among them the image you project of your business and of the senior clients who are the intended consumers of your product or service. The following checklist provides basic questions that a promotion or marketing campaign should address.

Promotion and Marketing Checklist

  • Have you researched and produced guidelines about tailoring messages for older consumers?
  • Do you focus-test your materials with senior customers or clients?
  • Does your marketing plan recognize that you are not trying to communicate with a single homogeneous group of clients or customers?
  • Have you tested a marketing plan and materials with several groups of older consumers that include a range of ages and literacy levels?
  • Do you use older persons or models in your promotional materials?
  • Do you present positive images of people who are healthy, happy and representative of seniors' diversity of culture, language, health status, geographic location, income level, etc.?

Other content issues include:

  • Style—Formal or informal? Conversational or more reserved? Is humour appropriate? Humour can be a stress reducer, helping people relax and register important information. But don't be patronizing or assume familiarity. The style you adopt should suit the message, the audience, your organization and the medium.
  • Vocabulary—Again, vocabulary should match the message and the audience. For almost all situations, short, simple, familiar words are best—see checklists for tips. Avoid professional, technical, academic and other jargon, as well as unfamiliar acronyms and abbreviations.
  • Language level—Remember that 48% of Canadians experience significant difficulties with reading and that the percentage is much higher among seniors and those whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. Readability tests have been developed to determine the grade level of a text, but testing the message with your audience is always the best indicator of reader friendliness. Contact literacy groups in your area (check the Yellow Pages under Literacy or Learners) to obtain feedback about the readability of your material.
  • Presentation—The way you organize and present information says you've given some thought to the best way to convey a message to your audience. Page after page of densely packed type—even if it is written plainly and clearly—may not be as effective as a pamphlet with big bold headings and checklists highlighting or recapping key information (more on this in the next section).
  • Structure—A simple structure supports a simple message. This makes for good writing in print, but also good communication in other media. If you've ever tried to navigate a multi-layered Web site or an automated answering system where the menu choices go on and on, you'll know that simple structure usually makes for more effective communication.
  • Testing—This is the best way to see whether you've hit the mark in terms of language, style, presentation and overall effectiveness. Real users—ideally members of your intended audience—are the best judges, and materials should be tested in real-life situations that replicate when, where, and the conditions under which your message will be communicated or used (at home? in a noisy and crowded bus station? in a doctor's office? in a commercial establishment where other customers are waiting for service?).

Make Written Information Easier for Older Readers to Use and RetainFootnote *

  • Be direct and specific.
  • Limit the number of key points.
  • Offer a manageable number of action steps.
  • Use active voice.
  • Support information with real examples and relatable stories.
  • Use pictures to help illustrate information.
  • Put your key points up front.
  • Break lengthy documents into short sections or paragraphs.
  • Repeat main points multiple times.
  • Reinforce main points with questions.
  • Avoid complex diagrams.
  • Avoid jargon.


Effective Design

Once you've decided on content, you'll want to present the information in a way that helps promote the message and does not detract from readability and comprehension.Footnote 41 The "look" of your communication is a design issue that includes organizing the content effectively.

To some extent, content and design are interrelated and should proceed in parallel. There is no point writing 2,000 words, for instance, if you've decided that the best medium for your message is a four-panel brochure. Some preliminary design work will help you determine how many words you can fit on each panel, whether that is enough to convey everything you want to say, whether another vehicle might be better suited to your message, or whether your message is the right one for a given situation.

These rules and guidelines for effective print design are the result of research and experience. The suggested ideal size, style of fonts, spacing, simplicity, colour contrast, length of line and use of white spaces improve the readability and interest of a text. Many of these guidelines also apply to the design of Web sites and online documentation, where they are especially appropriate for communication aimed at seniors. Fine print is no easier to read on a computer screen than it is in the telephone directory or at the bottom of an insurance claim form.

Guidelines have also evolved for communicating messages by television and radio—for example, the ideal speed and pitch of the announcer's voice, the length of time an information telephone number is left on the TV screen, and the number of times a crucial fact or bit of information is repeated. As discussed in the previous section, similar considerations apply to messages broadcast on public address systems and video displays.

Print Design Checklist

  • Understand how type, headline placement and use of colour can enhance or inhibit communication.
  • 12-point type is the minimum size for eyes that are middle-aged and older, although 13- or 14-point is even better.
  • Choose a plain, clear typeface with a reputation for readability.
  • Dark print on a light background is the easiest to read; avoid "dropped out" or "reverse" lettering—where text is white on a dark background.
  • Avoid using all italics, all capital letters and underlined type.
  • Set text flush left and ragged right.
  • Leave wide margins and space between paragraphs to avoid crowding text or cramming too much information on a page.
  • Choose a comfortable line length for the size of type—on 8½" x 11" paper, two columns are preferable.
  • Matte, non-glossy paper and ink improve legibility by reducing glare.
  • Use high-definition photographs or illustrations.
  • Avoid using wavy lines or dots, which can be hard on the eyes because they "swim" on the page.

Messages Are Everywhere

Finally, we must constantly remind ourselves that "communication" takes place at all levels, and that the question of senior-friendly "design" extends not only to traditional communication media but also to other elements in our environment. Consider, for example, what a municipality communicates to its older residents when the length of the light at a crosswalk requires pedestrians to sprint to the other side. Or what a shopping mall says to its senior customers when benches are few and far between and restrooms are almost not accessible.

Businesses, services and other organizations that want to be known as senior-friendly should take a comprehensive look at everything they do from the perspective of their older clients and customers.

Are administrative style, staffing policies and programming goals compatible with senior-friendly service? Do training plans and incentive systems demonstrate the value attached to communicating effectively and serving a senior clientele well?

Are facilities conveniently located (close to public transportation) and designed for the safety and comfort of older users? Do entrances, floors, lighting, surfaces, acoustics, seating, signage and restroom location take into account the sensory and physical changes of aging and the needs of seniors? Readily available documentation on barrier-free design provides useful tips on building or retrofitting spaces and amenities.Footnote 42

The answers to these questions reflect the general attitude of our society toward seniors and reveal whether or not it is adapting to the new demographics of the Canadian population.

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