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Communicating on Global Health – Little Could Be More Important

by  Richard Skolnik     Jun 1, 2022
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Introduction

Technical knowledge and expertise are necessary to be an outstanding global health professional, but they are not sufficient. One also has to be able to communicate ideas about global health effectively in written and spoken form. This is true in the academic arena and in the arena of global health practice. I comment below on some of the ways that I have tried to ensure that my students master both writing and speaking about global health.

 

Writing about Global Health

Writing about global health was a central part of my introductory global health courses at The George Washington University and Yale. In these courses, I assigned three, double-spaced policy briefs of four pages each. The first was on the health of women or children; the second was on communicable or non-communicable diseases; the third was on a health system of their choice.

The students had to write the policy briefs as if they were the Minister of Health. I was the Minister of Finance to whom they needed to make a case for investing in a particular area of health. I asked the students to write with simplicity, clarity, and precision for an intelligent layperson. I also asked the students to ensure that their writing style was as brief as possible and “contained no extra words.”

Consistent with the way policy briefs would be written in the “real world” (I spent 25 years as a global health “technocrat” and wrote an innumerable number of policy briefs), I had them begin the brief with a six- or seven-line summary.

Each brief focused on the five questions that are at the core of much of our global health work:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who gets the problem?
  • Why do they get the problem?
  • Why should we care about the problem?
  • What can we learn can be done to address the doable, sustainable, cost-effective, and fairway problem?

I graded the briefs myself when I taught at The George Washington University, and I admit that doing this was an enormous amount of work. At Yale, I graded them with the help of teaching assistants. This was much less work but required a good system for consistent grading that included the type of comments I would make.

Over the years, my students have given me the most positive feedback on my “mercilessly,” making them learn to write in the above style. This was not always easy for them, since writing policy briefs is not done in many university courses. However, many students have expressed gratitude to me for helping them to learn to write in this manner, which has been very helpful to their professional lives.

One change I might make to these assignments would be to constrain the briefs to only three pages, as one of my former senior managers suggested when he guest taught me.

The website for Global Health 101contains a model syllabus that includes information about preparing policy briefs. In addition, the website includes model policy briefs written over the years by my students.

I should also note that some of my faculty friends ask their students to write very brief advocacy pieces or op-ed pieces on selected course topics. They severely constrain the number of words the students can use and provide questions to guide them as they make their case to the newspaper audience.

In the last few years, I have been writing regular articles for my local newspaper on COVID and a range of health topics. They can be found here

Some of these, such as the ones on “Looking at COVID through a Polio Lens,” “Childhood Vaccines, a Best Buy in Global Health,” and “the World Has Changed and We Must Urgently Change, Too,” might provide useful guidance to students who are writing an op-ed or advocacy pieces.

 

Presenting on Global Health

While many of my students were outstanding writers, few of them had much experience in presenting information in clear, concise, and linear ways for a seasoned audience. In addition, most universities have a writing center, but few have any support for speaking and presenting, despite the importance of both.

My seminar covered, “the great campaigns against communicable diseases,” “health systems,” and “making health systems work for the poor.” Thus, I had each student make three presentations over the term, one on each topic.

The students had 12 minutes per presentation and I brutally enforced the time limit. The students had to present as if they were a senior official of a country, speaking to a global meeting on the steps their country would take to deal with the matters noted above. They could have no more than ten slides. The slides had to be simple, easy to see and follow, and add value that could not easily be added in other ways.

The students had to speak with simplicity, clarity, and precision. They also had to speak as if “everyone in the audience spoke English as a second language.”  This is a very useful construct that I have used throughout my professional life to ensure that I always spoke slowly, clearly, concisely, and with precision to intelligent lay audiences and professional audiences all over the world.

After the students presented, we had questions from the other students and me, as if we really were at an international gathering. This gave the students additional opportunities to hone their skills at asking “short, simple questions, without self-serving and unnecessary preludes,” as well as to answer questions effectively in a public setting.

I graded each of the presentations myself, according to a scoring matrix I had gone over with the students. The matrix included points for both content and style of presentation.

 

Writing and Speaking in Your Courses

Focusing on writing and speaking is much easier in a course with credit for “writing in the discipline.” Nonetheless, I hope that many of us can take advantage of even introductory global health courses to help our students become better at writing and presenting in ways that will help them immensely in their professional lives.

 

About the Author

Richard Skolnik, MPA, has spent more than 40 years working on international development and global health and was formerly a lecturer in the Yale School of Public Health, the Yale School of Management, and the George Washington University School of Public Health.

Richard Skolnik is also the author of  Global Health 101, Fourth Edition and Global Population Health: A Primer. 

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Communicating on Global Health – Little Could Be More Important

by  Richard Skolnik     Jun 1, 2022
male_college_prof_blog_1200x630

Introduction

Technical knowledge and expertise are necessary to be an outstanding global health professional, but they are not sufficient. One also has to be able to communicate ideas about global health effectively in written and spoken form. This is true in the academic arena and in the arena of global health practice. I comment below on some of the ways that I have tried to ensure that my students master both writing and speaking about global health.

 

Writing about Global Health

Writing about global health was a central part of my introductory global health courses at The George Washington University and Yale. In these courses, I assigned three, double-spaced policy briefs of four pages each. The first was on the health of women or children; the second was on communicable or non-communicable diseases; the third was on a health system of their choice.

The students had to write the policy briefs as if they were the Minister of Health. I was the Minister of Finance to whom they needed to make a case for investing in a particular area of health. I asked the students to write with simplicity, clarity, and precision for an intelligent layperson. I also asked the students to ensure that their writing style was as brief as possible and “contained no extra words.”

Consistent with the way policy briefs would be written in the “real world” (I spent 25 years as a global health “technocrat” and wrote an innumerable number of policy briefs), I had them begin the brief with a six- or seven-line summary.

Each brief focused on the five questions that are at the core of much of our global health work:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who gets the problem?
  • Why do they get the problem?
  • Why should we care about the problem?
  • What can we learn can be done to address the doable, sustainable, cost-effective, and fairway problem?

I graded the briefs myself when I taught at The George Washington University, and I admit that doing this was an enormous amount of work. At Yale, I graded them with the help of teaching assistants. This was much less work but required a good system for consistent grading that included the type of comments I would make.

Over the years, my students have given me the most positive feedback on my “mercilessly,” making them learn to write in the above style. This was not always easy for them, since writing policy briefs is not done in many university courses. However, many students have expressed gratitude to me for helping them to learn to write in this manner, which has been very helpful to their professional lives.

One change I might make to these assignments would be to constrain the briefs to only three pages, as one of my former senior managers suggested when he guest taught me.

The website for Global Health 101contains a model syllabus that includes information about preparing policy briefs. In addition, the website includes model policy briefs written over the years by my students.

I should also note that some of my faculty friends ask their students to write very brief advocacy pieces or op-ed pieces on selected course topics. They severely constrain the number of words the students can use and provide questions to guide them as they make their case to the newspaper audience.

In the last few years, I have been writing regular articles for my local newspaper on COVID and a range of health topics. They can be found here

Some of these, such as the ones on “Looking at COVID through a Polio Lens,” “Childhood Vaccines, a Best Buy in Global Health,” and “the World Has Changed and We Must Urgently Change, Too,” might provide useful guidance to students who are writing an op-ed or advocacy pieces.

 

Presenting on Global Health

While many of my students were outstanding writers, few of them had much experience in presenting information in clear, concise, and linear ways for a seasoned audience. In addition, most universities have a writing center, but few have any support for speaking and presenting, despite the importance of both.

My seminar covered, “the great campaigns against communicable diseases,” “health systems,” and “making health systems work for the poor.” Thus, I had each student make three presentations over the term, one on each topic.

The students had 12 minutes per presentation and I brutally enforced the time limit. The students had to present as if they were a senior official of a country, speaking to a global meeting on the steps their country would take to deal with the matters noted above. They could have no more than ten slides. The slides had to be simple, easy to see and follow, and add value that could not easily be added in other ways.

The students had to speak with simplicity, clarity, and precision. They also had to speak as if “everyone in the audience spoke English as a second language.”  This is a very useful construct that I have used throughout my professional life to ensure that I always spoke slowly, clearly, concisely, and with precision to intelligent lay audiences and professional audiences all over the world.

After the students presented, we had questions from the other students and me, as if we really were at an international gathering. This gave the students additional opportunities to hone their skills at asking “short, simple questions, without self-serving and unnecessary preludes,” as well as to answer questions effectively in a public setting.

I graded each of the presentations myself, according to a scoring matrix I had gone over with the students. The matrix included points for both content and style of presentation.

 

Writing and Speaking in Your Courses

Focusing on writing and speaking is much easier in a course with credit for “writing in the discipline.” Nonetheless, I hope that many of us can take advantage of even introductory global health courses to help our students become better at writing and presenting in ways that will help them immensely in their professional lives.

 

About the Author

Richard Skolnik, MPA, has spent more than 40 years working on international development and global health and was formerly a lecturer in the Yale School of Public Health, the Yale School of Management, and the George Washington University School of Public Health.

Richard Skolnik is also the author of  Global Health 101, Fourth Edition and Global Population Health: A Primer. 

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