Tailoring information to start where people are at

Communication and Health Literacy
  1. Check what the consumer understands about the issue so you can tailor the information to their needs and build on their knowledge.
  2. Always check you have communicated effectively.
  3. Ask open ended questions so you can start where the person is at.

For effective consumer education, it’s important to tailor information to the person’s needs and wants. A person’s starting point will depend on:

  • their existing knowledge, past experience and level of health literacy (the knowledge, motivation and skills needed to access, understand and use health information and services)
  • their physical and emotional state, including whether they are in pain, sleep deprived, stressed or affected by alcohol or other drugs
  • the amount and type of information they want.

'The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred' – George Bernard Shaw

Ask–Tell–Ask

Ask–Tell–Ask1 (see below for explanation) provides a structure to help you find out what the person already knows and tailor the information you provide. It also lets you:

  • find out what's on their mind, build rapport and show you are willing to listen
  • become familiar with the words they use to describe their health problem
  • identify incorrect information they may have.

Using Ask–Tell–Ask

Step 1

Use an open-ended question (not one that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to ask the consumer about their health problem. For example:

“What’s been happening?”

“What would you like to know?"

“How have things been since I saw you last?”

“Why is that important for you today?”

“Describe how you’ve been feeling this past week.”

Think about timing and tone. Listen with care. Give people time to think. Remember that pauses and silence are ok

Step 2

Share the right information, the right way, at the right time.

Give the person the information they need, according to their existing knowledge and understanding. Provide information in ‘chunks’, with no more than three messages or pieces of information at a time. Use plain language. Use pictures or diagrams, demonstrate if appropriate.

Step 3

Check the person understands each chunk of information before going on to the next chunk. This will help you provide information at their pace and keep them involved in the conversation. Tell the person you want to check you’ve explained it well, and ask them to explain what you said in their own words. Check what they need for example, ‘What questions do you have?’

Step 4

Repeat the process. Encourage your client with statements like “Tell me more”.


(1) Vitaltalk, Disclose Serious News,  viewed 30/8/2018, http://vitaltalk.org/topics/disclose-serious-news/

Updated December 2018