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Make Sustainability Sustainable

August 10, 2011

On The Psychology of Climate Change Communication

How many of us have come away emotionally charged after hearing a dynamic speaker convince us of the urgency to take action like, oh, say … changing our behavior, our society, or our business environment to foster a more sustainable Earth?   Why do you suppose that enthusiasm dissipates shortly thereafter, and audiences often don’t make sustained progress toward that much-needed change that so fleetingly fired their imaginations?

Understanding how audiences – as individuals and as groups – use frames of reference as filters can go a long way toward achieving lasting results.  Where can we learn to recognize and mitigate those and other audience behavior effects?   Here I will speak briefly about personal success, then  recommend some resources.

I’ave had a modicum of success in public speaking to audiences of all sizes as a long-time member of Toastmasters International with a list of awards and credits,  and I have come to witness firsthand that the key ingredient to changing human behavior, including adoption of crucial sustainability initiatives, is, quite frankly, effective communication.  The operative word “effective” is the subject of this post.

Sustainability Profession Concurs

If you agree, we are in good company.  The International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), in a 2010 survey covering thousands of Sustainability professionals who were asked to identify career success ingredients, ranks “Communication Skills” as the top skill requirement, reportedly 4 times more important than any particular domain expertise or technical education.

Other responses in the survey point to the importance of communication skills in attaining some top priorities, cited here in top-down order:

  • gain top management buy-in
  • build a business case
  • educate customers and clients
  • overcome internal resistance to change
  • get support from employees (or any audience, for that matter)

Interestingly, these 5 other important factors hinge on…you guessed it…communication skills.

The Best Resources I Know

Short of recommending that everyone in the Sustainability profession join a local Toastmasters club – although it’s not a bad idea – I began lately casting about for some good instructional materials that could serve as a rubric for communicating effectively for driving lasting behavioral change at all levels and in all situations – boardroom, boiler room, borough, backyard.  I try to speak as often as possible about sustainability matters, and this topic is a particularly thorny one; its complications extend beyond mere communication skills, to include addressing audience sensitivities and more.

Get Some “CRED”

It took some time and searching, but I think I’ve hit on something, and it’s working for me.    Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (C.R.E.D.), in concert with the National Science Foundation, the Harmony Institue, and the Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami, have conducted an extensive series of research activities, culminating in publication of an impressive array of books, reports and other materials all aimed at helping scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and the interested public learn to communicate more effectively about Climate Change.

If I had to pick any one particular publication as mandatory reading for anyone with a Sustainability agenda but tired of the hand-wringing experience of lackluster audience results, I’d suggest their publication titled “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication“.

Highlights of the Report –  a sneak peek

This report is professionally written, edited and illustrated.  Deceptively effective in its easy-to-read format and two-tone, simplistic graphics, the report seems to touch all the bases I’d cover if I were delivering a crash course on persuasive speaking.   Here is a look at the table of contents.:

  • Know your Audience – confirming and changing audience mental models, overcoming confirmation bias
  • Get the Audience’s Attention – framing the message, choosing and combining frameworks to effectively relate your message
  • Translate scientific data into concrete experience – how the brain processes information, speaking to both lobes, getting more “street” with your language and vocabulary, understanding sensationalism
  • Avoid overuse of emotional appeals – avoiding numbing an audience (different from boredom), counteracting single action bias
  • Address scientific and climate uncertainties – acknowledging and defusing uncertainties, precautionary principles, group learning process experiments
  • Tap into Social Identities and Affiliations – the Tragedy of the Commons, experiments on group affiliation and cooperation
  • Encourage Group Participation – understand the many ways people participate in groups – overtly and tacitly,  learn how to set the stage for effective group discussions
  • Make Behavior Change Easier – understand default effect on decision making, optimize the default option, provide near-term incentives, etc.

This is a FREE report, available online.  Get it today, and get started on improving your climate change and sustainability communications chops today.   Take it from a veteran Toastmaster: your audience response will improve.  Anyone who has made a presentation appreciates that it is a sin to waste 10 minutes of one person’s time, and if you multiply that by your audience size, you could be wasting hours or days if you’re not effective.  This 50-page plainspoken book will help you become more effective, fast.

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