Thursday, December 7, 2017

Emotion is the Key to Communicating Sustainability and Climate Messaging

Emotion is a critical part of effective communications. This is particularly true when marketing sustainability efforts and crafting effective climate message strategies. Research in the social sciences and particularly cognitive psychology help us to understand how our communications are perceived. Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has said that the "greatest advances" in our understanding of climate change over the past decade have come not from the physical sciences, but from the social sciences.

Here is an informal summary of some of the lessons we have gleaned from the social sciences. Research in pyschology reveals that facts alone are not enough to get through to people.

Many companies fail to appreciate the need for an engaging and accessible narrative.  As reported in Eco-Business, PR Guru, Lou Hoffman says corporate communications around sustainability can be "clinical and academic". This is not conducive to reaching your audience.

It is far more effective to tell a story than to overwhelm people with statistical information. According to Hoffman the element that often gets left out of sustainability stories is the human dimension. While numbers are important it shouldn’t stop there. To explore the science of storytelling in the context of marketing sustainability click here.

To reach people we need to be personal and speak from authentic experience. Sincere, heartfelt stories are a powerful form of communication that resonates with audiences. What we are really seeking is far more than just a story. Ideally, we are using stories to weave a narrative that fosters a culture of sustainability.

Effective communications should relate to specific impacts on someone's health and well being. The idea is to speak to the immediate and the local to touch people on a visceral level. However, focusing on local impacts and efforts, should not obscure the reality that the scale of the problem demands coordinated global solutions.

We need to remember that communications are a two-way street. Communication often breaks down when a message is not received and this can be a function of the language being used. Some feel the word "sustainability" is hard for people to embrace just like the words "global warming" and "climate change". As reported in Yale Climate Connections, TV meteorologist Amber Sullins avoids such words altogether. Her strategy to avoid turning-off some of her audience is to "remove those two words and just talk about how they’re going to be affected as things change," she says, "and they’re much more open to listening."

Some have created their own words that are more descriptive and easier for people to embrace. One example would be replacing sustainability with "our new reality". Our word choice is important. The language of sustainability and climate science is often boring. "Dullness comes from a combination of the lexicon of your company and corporate speak," Hoffman was quoted as saying. Once again we need engaging narratives that captivate both attention and interest.

Climate scientist Sarah Myhre of the University of Washington stresses the importance of emotion for effective communications.  "You have to use emotion in the way you talk about things." Myhre says. "People respond to emotion, they don’t respond to facts. You want to introduce people to the field of climate science?" Myhre asks rhetorically. "You got to say something like, yeah, this hurt, this is scary. You have to say,  Hey, I want to ski with my kid in the future. I want to eat salmon in the future … I have a stake in this, I am invested, I am not separate from this. And I do have emotions around this, and I share this with you."

Ultimately emotion serves the all-important goal of inducing behavioral change. To find out more about strategies for inducing behavior change see Sherry Nouraini, Heath brothers, Matthew Archer, and Sander Van Der Linden.

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