Numbers Numb, Stories Sell: The Secrets Of Climate Communications


Pope Francis has helped jumpstart a broader conversation on climate change. It is long past time for everyone who understands the dire nature of the climate threat — and the supercheap cost of action — to join the conversation.

If you want to learn some of the “secrets” of effective messaging, a good place to start is the climate communications panel at the June 23 White House Public Health and Climate Change Summit. The panel discussion, “Actionable Information: From Science to Social Media,” is one of the best I’ve ever participated in.

The moderator was Jason Goldman, White House Chief Digital Officer. Panelists included Ed Maibach (MPH, PhD), director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication; Lance Pierce, president of CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) North America; and Ruth Etzel (MD, PhD), director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection.

The entire panel is worth watching:

My favorite quote from the panel — the one I will be repeating most often — belongs to Maibach:

Numbers numb, stories sell. We don’t deal well with numbers, it tends to suspend our sense of emotion, but we respond very, very well to stories. Individual stories will almost always trump a litany of statistics.

“Numbers numb, stories sell,” is a classic piece of rhetoric, just four simple words, but delivering a memorable message with the aid of several figures of speech. It is a mantra that science communicators in every field should live by.

The figures of speech are some of the essential “secrets” to persuasive, memorable, and effective communications.

The most powerful figure of speech is a metaphor, a point made by both Churchill and Lincoln. I quoted one extended metaphor that Pope Francis used in his recent climate Encyclical: “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”


The Encyclical is stuffed with powerful, yet simple quotes — a must read in its entirety for climate communicators. As I said in the video, “one of the keys to effective public speaking is quoting people more interesting than you are.”

So here’s one more quote from the Pope, an age-old sentiment that seems strangely radical in the world we now live: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

For more advice on climate messaging, read “How To Engage And Win The Conversation About Climate And Energy.”