It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the environment isn’t doing so well. From animal extinctions and dying rainforests to extreme, unpredictable weather, few bother to deny that something is amiss with Mother Nature. However, despite the fact that we know people should do things like drive less and consume less plastic, not many are motivated to pitch in and make a difference.
But actions do matter. So how do we inspire people to act? Change the way we talk about it. “Let’s Talk Climate: Messages to Motivate Americans” is a 2015 report by ecoAmerica, a think tank committed to improving communication around climate change in order to increase activism. They partnered with several other organizations, including the NRDC, to put together this PDF guide to market-tested language that will inspire action that’s better for the planet. Here are five key recommendations from what they found:
1. Don’t be gloomy. Jump quickly to solutions.
Knowing what’s wrong is fine, but it gets depressing — in order to avoid feeling helpless and overwhelmed, we need to know what we can do about it. Having a solution in sight, especially one that is clearly actionable, is motivating for citizens. Americans are also motivated by use of the word “we” (as opposed to “you” or “I”) because it generates a communal, can-do attitude. Think of statements such as “we can” or “we need,” and shift your message’s focus to possibilities for action and what can be achieved through that action. Similarly, avoid discussion of blame or villainous opponents. Instead, talk about the benefits that come from taking action on environmental issues, such as the freedom of choice that’s involved: “The choice is ours…for a clean energy future.”
2. Sell personal benefits, such as health, local issues and cost savings.
It’s easier for people to become actively invested in issues that will affect them personally than it is for them to become invested in large-scale or global issues. Even if citizens do care, such issues are more complicated and less tangible. So instead of talking about jobs lost, talk about savings gained, or costs that have been cut. Instead of talking about global repercussions of climate damage, talk about local repercussions. And remember to sell how it will affect citizens’ health — nothing is more personal than a person’s own body. Facts from non-partisan, third party sources, such as the American Lung Association, are most effective in this arena.
3. Family and children matter.
Make a connection between climate action and the moral responsibility we carry for future generations. Americans care about their families and providing a future for their children, and even those who are childless care about children and community.
4. Describe the “damage to the climate.”
Americans care about facts and actions they can take to prevent them from becoming reality. Also, the phrase “damage to the climate” receives better response rates than the phrases “climate change,” “climate crisis” and “global warming,” because it is less political and sounds like something you could prevent.
5. Use language to depict experiences your citizens can easily identify with.
For many, visual, descriptive language is easier to understand than abstract language or statistical data — people are good at seeing themselves in common scenarios and relating to them. For example, the highest rated message in ecoAmerica’s study begins: “Imagine driving a car that never requires paying at the pump. Imagine tastier fruits and vegetables from a local farmer you know. Imagine biking or walking on paths to shortcut through traffic and easy access to plentiful public transit. This is the clean energy future. And it’s within our grasp.”
For more language tips, view the full PDF report here.
It turns out that the way you say something does make a difference. So when you want people to take action, don’t just communicate more — follow these tips to communicate more effectively.