In charge of environmental communication? Be careful you don’t paralyze your audience with constant bad news. I know, it’s hard when the world is burning. Here’s how you do it.
Question: What do the following areas have in common?
Answer: They are all on fire.
Waking up to the news that yet another country or region is on fire, can do strange things to your sense of normality.
I honestly had a moment a few days ago, where I thought, “Wait, Indonesia is burning? But that was last year’s news”.
With so many disasters happening, it’s hard to keep track of what is what, especially if you haven’t even had your morning coffee yet.
But it also means that we have a tendency of zoning out, and becoming indifferent. Basically, your brain is going, “Dude, what do you mean more fires?! I’m still trying to figure out what to do about the Amazon one. You know what? I’m just not going to care.”
That’s when we find ourselves shrugging over the news of yet another wildfire.
It’s totally normal.
So how can we as climate communicators get the news out there, without sparking apathy?
We start by understanding the inner workings of the brain.
Knowing that too much negative news can cause us to shut down is vital for any communicator.
The first way around this is context.
Communicating the bigger picture with context
In the case of, say the Indonesian fires, you need to communicate that this is a different fire than the one that has been on the news lately. You need to give a little information about why there’s a fire. Are they triggered by the same political situation as the fires in Brazil, or are there different reasons?
How does it relate to climate change? Many forest fires are both caused by, and causes of, climate change. And that fact can be a bit counterintuitive if you don’t have a background in the environmental field.
Because we are used to cause and effect. A leads to B. X + Y = Z.
But climate change is a case of many factors interplaying. While the term positive feedback loop is becoming more and more known, it’s still not a household concept.
This means you need to tell your audience how this story relates to the other news about global wildfires.
You also need to make your news tangible.
Making it tangible — have useful reference points.
And though I personally hate comparing everything to Olympic sized swimming pools, it’s a useful benchmark. Finding a measure of comparison where the reader has a “feeling” of the size, rather than an intellectual idea (how big is 10,000 sq miles?), allows the reader to understand your message with ease.
Because, they don’t have to dig out their mental abacus to get an idea about how big something is.
You have now made it easy for your audience to integrate this new information into their existing knowledge pool. Great.
Now it’s time to not turn them into nihilists. (And if you work in environmental communication, chances are you’ll need to focus on this.)
As I said earlier, the brain can go into a gridlock if it’s given too much negative information. You need to mix in a spoonful of sugar, to make the medicine go down.
The easiest way to understand what this feels like is by remembering an awful day you had recently.
Your alarm didn’t go off, one of your kids spilled their breakfast all over the floor, your stock fell, it was unbearably warm, and on top of that, a politician did something you worry will sling the global economy into another recession.
Feel your heart racing a little bit faster? Maybe your finger’s tense up as you scroll down this post, now reminded of all the other things you have to take care of. Buy a new phone, clean up the house, make sure you have enough money in your bank to withstand a potential economic blow. Oh, maybe there’s even a bill coming up.
By now, I’ve lost you.
You’re no longer thinking about communication, but about all the things you need to take care of, and all the potential threats out there.
One thought leads to another, and another, because it’s never just one thing that makes us worry or makes us tense. It’s all the things, combined.
Here’s the good news: It’s going to be all right.
All the things are real and scary, but they also have real solutions. Doable solutions.
It’s a question of taking one thing at the time, and if you are overwhelmed, filter out the news that seems too big, until you have the mental capacity and tools to start working on them.
Now, the point of this little masochistic exercise was not to get you to hyperventilate for my amusement.
It was to remind you of what your audience is facing. Every. Day.
We all have stuff that’s stressing us. Some of it we are in control us, and some seem beyond us.
But our most significant stressors that the things where we feel we have no agency. And if you don’t believe me, go back to your stressor list and rate the elements on it. I’ll bet you a slice of lemon cheesecake, that you are more stressed about the things that feel out of your control.
SO! What does this mean for communicating the forest fires in Indonesia?
We’re getting back to the spoonful of sugar, to make the medicine go down. And no, you should not be sugar-coating climate change.
You have to give your audience agency.
Audience agency in environmental communication
Help them act. Give them the option of feeling empowered. Tell them what steps they can take, right now, to act on this.
It might not make them act, but simply having the option will stop the brain from getting paralyzed.
Having agency helps your audience take in the news, even when the news is:
THE WORLD IS ON FIRE!
Always, always, ALWAYS, offer concrete solutions to what the individual can do.
So the next time you have environmental news to share, include doable next steps, that your audience can take.
If you found this information useful, give it a share.