Posts

How to talk about a world on fire

How to talk about a world on fire without scaring your audience — Key tips on environmental communication.

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.

Why?

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.

Why?

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.

 

That’s it.

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.

And remember, you can always reach out if you want to learn more about environmental communication. Or add me on  LinkedIn.

 

 

There is no unreachable audience! Making recycling sexy – and fun

This post looks at how the so-called hard-to-reach audiences can be addressed in a creative, and somewhat surprising way. Environmental communication at its best.

Warning: This post contains crude language.

 

When working in the environmental sector, you’ll come across a target audience that’s considered hard to reach.

I’ve talked about the importance of knowing your audience before, but in the field of sustainability one segment stands out as the infamous impossible-audience.

These are the ‘I don’t care’ people.

I don’t want to get slapped with the prejudice hammer, but this audience also often consists of males working in construction, carpentry, and similar jobs.

Environmental Communication Recycling

 

The following is a great example of why you should never give up when you encounter a hard audience or experience a push back.

 

Boys will be..?

My brother works as the department manager in a company that produces industrial size printers.

 

It is a very male-dominated workplace, and the tone is often crude and with sexual tones. We all know workplaces like that.

 

That last time I saw my brother, he told me about his latest team meeting.

 

He runs a team of 14 men. Once a week they have a team meeting to address work-related matters.

At the last meeting, my brother had made and brought with him a little game (this is where it gets crude).

 

The Game

He pulled to pieces of paper out and said:

I brought a game with me. I want you to solve this puzzle. What do the signs say?’

 

He held up the first sign: ‘Puh

Then, he dramatically said the word and got his team to join in, in a collective ‘Puuh!

 

He held up the second sign: ‘Say

Again, with a dramatical flair, he got his whole team on board: ‘Say!’

What do the signs spell out?

Puhhh-saaaay’, ‘Puh-say’, ‘Pu**y!’.

(Yes, I’m bleeping the above. Hopefully, you get it. If not, ask a friend. Not a coworker, not a family member, but a friend)

 

My brother got a big laugh from around the table, and a couple of groin-related jokes.

 

I have one more’ he said, and pulled out two additional pieces of paper. The second round was about to start.

 

Onl’. He looked in anticipation and got the table to join in. ‘Ooonl’.

Paapr’. The crowd joined in. ‘Paapr!

 

My bother continued ‘Onl –paapr’ ‘Only-paapr’ ‘ONLY-PAPER!

 

He pointed to the recycling bin in the corner of the room.

That bin is only for paper’, he said to the perplexed crowd.

 

Yesterday I saw someone had put a banana peel in it. If we throw biodegradable in the paper bin, and that goes to the treatment facility, we might end up contaminating a ton of paper because it rots and spreads bacteria. Then the paper can’t be recycled and has to be burned. Waste of money, waste of resources. So can we now agree that Onl Paapr goes in the bin?

 

He had everyone’s attention. They nodded and verbally confirmed. The bin was for paper only.

 

 

Just to recap, that’s 14 men, who just laughed at a pu**y joke, now agreeing that it’s important to recycle. When was the last time you heard about something like that?

Recycle paper

 

Why it worked — Environmental Communication at its best

 

My brother’s a smart cookie and there’s a reason why he’s head of his department at such a young age. He’s also been forced to listen to my ramblings about recycling and psychology for, well, a long time.

He knows that telling his men off, and mentally hitting them in the head with something as uninteresting to them as recycling, isn’t going to work.

Furthermore, he knows he needs their attention, and that laughter is a much better tool than fear, and being told off.

 

He broke their mental barrier to recycling by inserting it right after a locker-room joke.

 

The first joke was a setup, introducing them to a game where the reward would be a dirty word. By doing that, he had them all on the edge of their seats, trying to spot the dirty word in the second round. What would it be this time? Even dirtier?

 

They were open to taking in new information. They were engaged, trying to be the first to figure out the next word.

And bam! Information about recycling.

 

You might be wondering why it’s even a big deal getting this segment onboard the recycling train. Because daily environmental actions, like recycling, open up a door for a deeper conversation about sustainability. It’s your entry point to substantial change.

 

The takeaway — you can make it sexy!

 

No target group is impossible to reach. I repeat:

No target group is impossible to reach!

 

You just have to know who you’re dealing with, and be willing to work on their terms, be it technical reports and pu**y jokes.

 

Set up a situation where your audience is open to taking in new information.

 

In conclusion:

Recycling, high-five bro

Want more dirty, I mean fun advice on pro-environmental behavior? Add me on LinkedIn or go to Somethinggreen.org to get your smile on.