Messages That Move: How Climate Communicators Can Better Communicate

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"Messages That Move: How Climate Communicators Can Better Communicate"

by Nicole Lampe, via Climate Access

The advocacy community has gone mad for story. But stories are only as strong as the latest retelling. While compelling characters and evocative details give our stories life, it is email subject lines, tweets, Facebook posts, and headlines that give them legs.

The best stories have a clear message—or moral—that can be repeated over coffee or conveyed in 140 characters. And the messages that move tend to inspire and empower.

In today’s web 2.0 world, our supporters are the most powerful communications asset we have. Broadcast mediums are shrinking, and people are turning to social networks for information about everything from politics to human rights. But the social web is awash in content, and the only way to break through the noise is to build a chorus of voices carrying your tune.

Stories represent a vast improvement over the facts and figures we used to rely on to convince people to pay attention to our issues. Cognitive research has shown that stories circumvent our nitpicky critical brains and connect to feelings, which are the key engaging supporters as evangelists, and, ultimately, to changing hearts and minds.

However, while you might keep an audience rapt for five minutes with a riveting video about the tar sands, or a compelling first-person account of sea-level rise impacts on a coastal community, supporters are unlikely to recount feature-length stories to their friends around the water cooler.

To really engage audiences as activists and ambassadors, you have to equip them with a shareworthy message.

At Resource Media, we have a recipe for creating messages that move people: values+problem+solution. It’s simple enough to work for any medium, and does three key things:

  1. Builds an emotional connection
  2. Describes a clear threat to something we care about
  3. Ends on a hopeful note

The climate community is great at describing the problem. Witness recent headlines about Arctic ice melt, rising food prices, catastrophic wildfires. We have spent the past decade describing the monumental challenge facing mankind in exhaustive detail.

And we have gotten better at connecting climate to values. Rising food prices hit our pocketbooks and dinner plates. Wildfires threaten our safety, homes and families.

This tweet from @Oxfam is a good example: #Biofuels targets increase costs of running your car, increase world #hunger, & don’t help tackle #climate change ht.ly/dNm6c

It makes a strong case against biofuels—often touted as a greener alternative to fossil fuels. But it takes one solution off the table without offering another. The reader is left feeling frustrated rather than empowered.

Now consider this Facebook post from Moms Clean Air Force: America’s resolve has gotten us through the most difficult times, and it will help us build a clean future! We already have the solution…RENEWABLE ENERGY! LIKE and SHARE if you believe renewable energy is our children’s future!

It appeals to values like patriotism and family, and puts forth renewable energy as a solution to the challenge Moms Clean Air Force was created to address, air pollution. It gives the reader hope.

Resource Media has seen the power of hope in campaigns ranging from marine conservation to food policy. Supporters are hit with bad news on a daily basis, and solutions are welcomed like rain on parched earth.

Consider 350.org, which has built a super active community of 210,000 Facebook fans in support of its mission to advance “the solutions that science & justice demand.” Amidst news about record-breaking drought and disappearing glaciers, it is the hopeful messages that fans tend to share.

In September, for instance, the four top posts on 350.org’s Facebook page were about the economic and environmental benefits of solar and wind power, touting them as win-win solutions. They generated more than 2,400 shares each, and nearly 3,000 likes, versus an average of 770 shares and 1,500 likes for all posts that month.

These wildly popular posts did more than just advance clean energy as a solution to the climate crisis—they outlined concrete steps to realize that potential while appealing to supporters’ can-do attitude. One solar post urged fans to join the rooftop revolution, and said “Just 20 minutes. Let’s build this.” The other talked about the importance of subsidies to help America lead the world in solar, and said “change is possible.”

As Climate Access members know firsthand, climate communications are challenging. The problems are big, and the solutions complicated. But supporters are eager to help, and eager to believe they can make a difference.

A problem message might get shared—we’ve all gotten the “check your cupboard for canned tomatoes with BPA in them” chain email from an aunt—but solution messages are the ones that really move people and get moved around, because they soothe our fears and fuel our aspirations.

Nicole Lampe is digital strategy director for Resource Media. This piece was originally published at Climate Access and was reprinted with permission.

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19 Responses to Messages That Move: How Climate Communicators Can Better Communicate

  1. MarkfromLexington says:

    When will we stop burning our food?

    Ethanol: Food or Fuel?

  2. Gillian King says:

    It’s true that we’re hungry for good news stories. Examples of progress on clean energy are compelling. My Transformations page is a winner for my blog … it helps us see our destination.

    http://bit.ly/JYZ2y6

    When we can see the destination, we’re not so much in the dark and we can move forward with more confidence.

  3. Leif says:

    Yesterday’s letter to the President and VP:

    “A Nation that places NO VALUE on Earth’s life support systems, places NO VALUE on LIFE! Price Carbon. Stop profits from polluting the commons. Bring distributed green energy production to the communities. Bring profits to the communities. Not profits to the polluters. Money is not the operative word her. Survival for Earth’s Life Support Systems and a livable earth for the Kidders IS!

    There is no such thing as clean coal. Ship it over to China “WE the People” still get the pollution and the climatic disruption, the ecocide fossil barons still get the profits.

    Hell, I have a $120/T charge for home garbage, $50 for compost makings! Waste water fees, even “rain run off” is not free to this person. (Guide lines here?) Corpro/People deserve a bulk rate of free? They piss all over themselves at the thought of $25/ton for toxins! In fact they get my tax subsidy support in the process! Get real… Try throwing 19 pounds of paper cups out the car window for each gallon of gas you consume and report! We are talking justice here. Even Morals! Corporations are people now yet don’t respect the fiduciary common law of not polluting your neighbors land. For profit or otherwise!

    The GOP do not fund abortion. Fine. A precedent. Why must I fund, with my TAX DOLLARS, the ecocide of the PLANET!

    What is a fair price to dump tons of toxins in the pristine waters and air of the commons? I seldom see that question asked, much less answered. Ain’t we talking real money here? Cutting school lunches instead?
    Corporations are “People” now. Does not “WE the PEOPLE” mean ALL of us?
    Stop profits from the pollution of the commons.
    Humanity deserves nothing less! I demand NOTHING LESS!

    Todays addition:

    Both power and money have been conscripted by the ecocide fossil Barons… Distributed Green Energy gives both power and money back to “We the People!”

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Trendy social networks and Twitter feeds give young people the illusion that we are moving toward meaningful change. Actually, these are sandboxes that function as pressure release valves, enabling the corporate media to continue to control the public dialogue and lobotomize the American public.

    A few hundred thousand “Facebook friends” sounds like a big deal. Guess what: That is one suburb of Dallas or Atlanta, whose people want cheap gas, celebrity gossip, and the NFL. They get their information from television, whose networks and hundreds of cable channels are owned by right wing corporations that control the message. We have to not only reach the people in Red states, but mobilize Americans in areas like the Midwest.

    This means an assault on the mainstream media, including rigorous fact checking, exploration of financial relationships, and detailing lying denier propaganda. Nothing else will succeed, and the hour is getting late.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Could not agree more. Social media is a cleverly designed apparatus for mass diversion and the manipulation of the susceptible young by cynical, controlling, forces, who work for the owners of society. If it became a real means for popular mobilisation, from below, to radically change society, as is absolutely essential to our survival, it would be shut down in an instant.

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    Without passing judgment on any of the examples mentioned by Nicole Lampe, let me ask an increasingly pertinent question: How counter-productive is it for climate campaigners (like me) to reach for a “solution” that doesn’t do nearly enough, and consumes the activist energy that could be channeled to something far better?

    My prime example of this is natural gas for motor vehicles. It will take probably two decades to get a majority of the US rolling fleet switched over to NG, which is far too high a cost and far too slow a conversion for the roughly 20% savings in CO2/mile over an equivalent vehicle with a gasoline engine.

    Similarly, there’s a non-trivial contingent of people who are “concerned about the environment” who actually think they’re doing “enough” or “their part” if they recycle their trash, change their light bulbs, and drive a hybrid. Any mention of (gasp!) activism or “getting political” sends them running for the hills.

    Any steps we take, as individuals or collectively, have to be informed by the most current and brutally honest view we can get from experts, no matter how much we might not like what they have to say. Listening to the deniers obviously leads to disaster, but clinging to the feel-good and hopelessly naive messages that surround us is just as bad, and for the same reason: It keeps us from doing what is needed.

  6. Nicole Lampe says:

    Lou and Mike, I completely hear your concerns about online activism (or small lifestyle changes) satisfying the desire to do something without really moving the needle. There’s a new report that highlights the need for more emphasis by the advocacy community on meaningful (one-to-one, timely, in-district) legislative outreach: http://fissionstrategy.com/advocacygap, and suggests organizations should spend their time facilitating that kind of engagement rather than petitions, etc. But I think there is room for all kinds of activism. Consider Mom’s Rising, which has asks ranging from letter drives to lobby days and marches. My point here was that, as a community, we need to foment hope rather than fear (celebrating incremental wins, identifying incremental solutions)(, because our supporters are willing to help if they believe they can make a difference, and are more likely to amplify good news than bad.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      I’m just not convinced that fomenting false hope is not worse, in the long run, than promoting the very real fear and dread that I am convinced is the only rational response to the truth of our situation. I mean, when the Luftwaffe bombs were falling on London, the Poms felt fearful, and that was an appropriate reaction, more in tune with reality than a hope of eventual deliverance. How much worse was the fear in Stalingrad or the Warsaw Ghetto, yet people still fought, bravely, because they had no alternative, We have no alternative, and fear, and a somewhat smaller measure of hope, will, I think, serve us best.

      • J4zonian says:

        In therapy there’s such a thing as “optimal frustration”, that is, leaving just the right amount of time between the posing of a difficult question or dilemma and the relief of the difficult emotions it raises. There has to be time for processing; a leap too soon into not feeling becomes collaboration with the psychological condition and is no service to the therapy client.

        Climate change is a scary proposition; fully understanding it is terrifying but possibly even more terrifying is not knowing much at all except the trouble it causes, how afraid some people are about it and how fanatically others deny it. That last alone is a strong clue to people who don’t know much or who deny or are surrounded by deniers but doubt, that there’s something very scary about it.

        To get the message across to people less willing to hear it, we need to give them a safe place to process the information, have questions answered, and feel the emotions that come up. They need to know that they will be OK–not that we will be OK, that there is an unreasonable, unreal hope or chance for us a global society, but that they can get through the emotions allright. Several things make this hard; our general ignorance of how to deal with emotions, our unwillingness to allow this (especially since most of us haven’t done it), and the fact theat very few of those people know that that’s what their problem or needs are.

  7. Nicole Lampe says:

    MarkfromLexington: Love the food or fuel messaging. We created an infographic to drive that choice home. Check it out at http://www.resource-media.org/burning-up-our-food-supply/.

    Gillian King: Saw your section in the Climate Access Lessons from the Field blog post, and really enjoyed the Transformations page on Thisnessofathat!

  8. Yes, I’m with Mike (#4) and Lou (#5) on this one. While the one-two-three punch of value-threat-action is a good formula for communication, it’s of no use if the content is not applicable to the real problems. You don’t want to amass your forces on the Eastern Front if the threat is coming from the West.

    David Grist recently wrote about “freaked-out climate scientists” for a good reason. This summer’s arctic ice melt, and general Arctic melt down, might have brought us past a climate tipping point wherein it is too late for “green energy” to save us.

    Assuming we started on an all-out, planet wide green energy campaign tomorrow, combined with a massive carbon sequestration program, it would take at least 10, and probably more than 20 years to make a meaningful dent in our historic and ongoing greenhouse gas emissions. That might be too late to prevent surpassing at least a 3ºC threshold, if not total runaway global warming if the permafrost and clathrate methane releases get going.

    So if we tell people 1-2-3 — safe planet (value)-greenhouse effect (threat)-green energy (solution) — we are, in a sense misleading them. It’s a bit of a quandary, much like the aerosol reduction quandary. (If we continue to produce aerosols, we hasten ice melting — if we reduce the aerosol content of the atmosphere, we hasten global warming.) If we push what should be the right energy solutions, we could be wasting valuable time that could be spent doing…what?

    Things have changed — dramatically — over this past summer. We have to rethink what, if any solutions are available to us.

    • Oops! Did I say “David Grist?!!) I meant David Roberts of Grist (the blog). Sorry Dave — you’ve got as much grit as grist.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Speaking of ‘freaked-out scientists’ reminded me of a news report I saw about scientists spending time researching in Antarctica. One said that apocalyptic, end-of-the-world, movies were their favourites, because they saw them as premonitions, a sort of prospective documentary, given what they have learned over recent years.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    A good journalist makes comfortable comments and asks questions in a way that creates a moment when the interviewee find the words to tell THEIR story.

    For those of us wondering how to mobilize what is by now a majority sentiment, I suspect we’ll get a lot farther along if we were to give many persons a moment of fame to publicly reflect on how climate change affects his or her life.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Precisely how high is the relationship between a click and taking real action? I suspect very low. What is required now is a strong binding global agreement for urgent, drastic action which overrides all commercial concerns, ME

  11. Gillian King says:

    I see hundreds of new voices added to the chorus calling for action on climate change. So many of these voices have started their own advocacy via a website, blog, Youtube channel, FB page, etc, much of which supports on-the-ground activism. I suspect that we don’t quite see the the full extent of this activity because it is widely distributed. Maybe all this activity is building a grassroot constituency for stronger action.

    For myself, I see that I am on an evolving journey where surprising new insights tell me that I need to do even more. And yet more again. I thought I had arrived, but I see that although I am already set apart from my neighbours, I need to eliminate even more fossil fuel, eat less meat, etc.

    If we see that about ourselves, we can be more encouraging of others who are at different places on the journey. And even have some fellow-feeling for those who aren’t yet on the journey. I have to confess that my fellow-feeling doesn’t extend to those who stand on the sidelines and throw tomatoes at people who are making even small efforts.

  12. Chris Winter says:

    This January 2011 Dot-Earth column is worth a second look, I think.

    When a (CO2) Solution is Ahead of the Problem
    By ANDREW C. REVKIN
    January 28, 2011, 10:25 am 43 Comments

    Redmond Clark:

    When we sell a solution to a particular environmental problem, we make it our business to develop a carefully crafted message that is designed to speak to the actual needs of customer. If we operated differently – telling people what their problems are instead of listening first comes to mind – we would be on an express train to bankruptcy. You cannot bring an idea to a customer or a market before customers are ready to consume what you propose to sell.

    There is an old (and demonstrably false) expression that says: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” If you spend a moment looking at the percentage of patented technologies that actually make the leap to a substantial market, the number is astonishingly small: usually measured in tenths of a percent. There is a science to bringing an idea, technology or service to a market and gaining widespread acceptance. Most of that science has been ignored or contradicted in the effort to “sell” the public on the risks of climate change.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Cynical humbug! It, in fact, describes the actions of the denialist industry rather than the climate destabilisation truth-tellers.

  13. Gillian King says:

    Redmond Clark’s comments apply to commercial products, but I wonder how well they apply to social marketing for behaviour changes that are less attractive, inconvenient or downright hard — don’t feed the bears, stop smoking, ‘slip, slop, slap’, no littering, etc, etc.

    There are lots of situations where you need to tell people that their behaviour is causing problems. The classic approach in these situations is to follow the three Es.

    ENGINEERING – you change the environment to make it harder to transgress or easier to comply (e.g. fence the campground to keep the critters out, or supply rubbish bins to encourage responsible displosal).

    ENFORCEMENT – usually through fines or other punishment.

    EDUCATION – information campaigns to explain why the behaviour is bad, what are the consequences of transgression and spell out required behaviours.

    The route to reducing carbon emissions in local communities, nations and world wide will involve the three Es. It’s not a matter of a better mousetrap. Reducing carbon emissions will ask each individual to pay more in two ways – it will cost more money than now (for energy, for insulation, for switching to more efficient cars/appliances, etc), and it will result in more effort and/or less convenience (e.g. walk/cycle/public transport instead of car).

    So, we know that people need a better mousetrap – one that costs more and is not as convenient to use as the current ones. When we listen to what they want, we hear they want something cheap and convenient. Trouble is, they can’t have that. That’s why EDUCATION/MARKETING alone is not effective. If you want to change behaviour, you need the other two legs of the stool – ENGINEERING AND ENFORCEMENT.

    The “Three Es” framework comes from the field of managing interactions between humans and animals in national parks like Yellowstone. I think it has real relevance to the task of reducing carbon emissions.