Defenders of science, this is the messaging strategy you’ve been waiting for

But will climate scientists follow this essential advice?

Protestors at March for Science rally April 22, 2017, in Tucson, Arizona. CREDIT: Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images
Protestors at March for Science rally April 22, 2017, in Tucson, Arizona. CREDIT: Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images

With science under attack like never before by President Donald Trump and his enablers, those who defend science and climate action need the best messaging skills now more than ever.

Fortunately, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a new communications handbook for its scientists — and it’s easily one of the best things written on the subject.

In particular, the handbook recommends scientists “tell a human story” and “connect with what matters to your audience” when talking about climate change, which may be the most essential elements of effective communications.

But the key question is: can the IPCC actually get its own scientists to follow this advice?

After all, the climate assessment reports the IPCC is best-known for — reviews of the scientific literature put together by thousands of scientists around the world every few years — are all but unreadable, even the “summary for policymakers” the IPCC always includes. The reports are turgid, filled with long sentences stuffed with jargon like “anthropogenic forcings.”

CREDIT: Nature
CREDIT: Nature

The journal Nature reported in 2015 that the IPCC summary reports “are becoming increasingly unreadable, a linguistics analysis suggests” (see chart above).

So the new handbook, providing tips and strategies for best engaging the public on climate change, is long overdue. But it’s not just for scientists.

We live in a time where science in general and climate science in particular is under assault like never before — by President Trump, a master of rhetoric and storytelling, and by a very sophisticated disinformation campaign funded by fossil fuel companies that makes use of the latest marketing and social media strategies.

Therefore everyone who communicates or engages with the public on this subject — policymakers, politicians, environmentalists, and activists — needs to understand the latest and best messaging strategies, which the handbook summarizes in six key principles (see video):

  1. Be a confident communicator
  2. Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas
  3. Connect with what matters to your audience
  4. Tell a human story
  5. Lead with what you know
  6. Use the most effective visual communication

The handbook explains exactly what each of these principles means and provides ideas for how to achieve them.

Telling a human story might be the single most important principle. As the handbook explains, “most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and graphs, so aiming for a narrative structure and showing the human face behind the science when presenting information will help you tell a compelling story.”

It cites some of the growing scientific literature on the power of storytelling, including scientist-turned-filmaker Randy Olson’s invaluable work on And-But-Therefore, which is the most basic and most important strategy for creating an engaging narrative.

Here is a good chart from the handbook on the ABT template (though this template really should be credited to Randy Olson, since he has been the pioneer in articulating and championing it for years in books like “Houston, We Have a Narrative” and his website, Science Needs Story):

The public’s need to better understand science has never been greater. But our brander-in-chief and his enablers are working hard to spread misinformation. Therefore, everyone should read this handbook and practice its strategies.