Designing health communication: Testing the explanations for the impact of communication medium on effectiveness


Department of General Practice, Clinical Science Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland (e-mail:


Objective. The written format has been found consistently to be the most effective medium for communicating relatively complex information (e.g. Furnham, Gunter, & Green, 1990). Looking at the communication of health information, Corston and Colman (1997) accounted for media differences by referring to the facts that reading a written presentation is self-paced (the self-pacing theory) and that a written presentation contains fewer distracting characteristics than either audio-visual or auditory-only presentations (the distraction theory). The present study sought to test these theories. Method. Female students (N = 175) between the ages of 16 and 18 from two secondary schools were exposed to a fictitious health warning and completed a questionnaire immediately afterwards, measuring communication effectiveness via recall. Participants were divided into seven treatment condition groups which varied in the medium of presentation (two written, three audio-visual and three auditory-only) and distraction level inherent to the design of the communication. Results. In line with previous literature, the written format was the most effective way to communicate a piece of health-related information (p < .01). No evidence was provided for the ‘self-pacing theory’. Substantial support, however, was found for the ‘distraction theory’. Conclusions. In general, minimally distracting communication proved maximally effective. A simple distraction effect, however, was not found within the audio-visual medium. Here the presentation where the viewers see a reader conveying the message (the ‘talking head’ condition) proved most effective, even though it was not the least distracting. Being able to see someone reading the message appears to convey a special communication advantage on the presentation.