This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in July 2013.
This is a web forum created so people can engage in discussions on all things climate and to learn from each other. So while we’ve been promoted and supported by pretty much every one of the eight regional Climate Science Centers in the US, let’s put up a topic that we all should be concerned about: Communication. And Food.
A couple months ago I came across a TED talk in which a middle-aged American man presented his idea of a physically healthy community. He lived in South L.A. and was complaining about obesity and the omnipresence of fast food, and promoted growing healthy food, like fruits and vegetables. Now, before you’re bored and click on the link in hope to find something more exciting (you will!), bear with me for a moment.
I find it difficult to engage people in a discussion if the issue in question is one that everyone had heard a million times, in particular if it’s one we all have our shortcomings with, like health, education … or climate change. Maybe one way to engage people in an issue like this is (1) to talk about the solution rather than the problem, and (2) speak their language.
The Solution is the solution
Pointing fingers at the people in front of you might reduce your own level of frustration, but it’s not what your message should be about (and if they’re not in front of you but rather absent, you should avoid doing this even more). Instead, you might respectfully tell a story about someone else with the same issues and how they solved this problem (and you may make up a story). Finding the cause to a problem is important, but finding the solution to the problem is a more immediate goal. By the way, the story-telling part here is, I think, one reason why it can be valuable for scientists to get out of the ivory tower and see what is happening in the real world.
Speak their language
This can be tricky for scientists, but it’s worth it. A good start to do that is asking what people already know. This way you might have something to build upon. Then, avoid jargon or at least explain your scientific lingo (which will make you avoid it, I’m sure). Use simple words and metaphors, use gestures to form relationships and to describe things, avoid run-on sentences, and don’t be too serious about yourself and your work (jokes are welcome). Try this text editor (http://splasho.com/upgoer5/?i), inspired by XKCDs “Up Goer Five” comic (http://xkcd.com/1133/), to describe a random problem using only the thousand most common English words. It might be a little over the top, but it might give you a first impression, and it’s great fun.
Getting a message across is not an easy thing, and these are only a few short thoughts on how it might be easier. But the next time you’re struggling to get your message across, this might help you.
Making an impact requires two parts. You need to understand the issue yourself (preferably better than your audience), and you need to give them at least a general idea of the issue. You might run across people who are somewhat fed up with climate change or healthy diets. It’s rare, but it can happen. So spice up your consumer advice to balance out the boredom of the actual topic. I know from my own experience, for scientists seeing their work from a less serious and more general standpoint can be tricky. But it is all so often essential. Now you may click on the video link above for a really cool example.
Another point is to know what language to use, as this interview of Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who is being interviewed by Bill Maher, shows. On one side you have the well-articulated diplomat (Leiserowitz), on the other side the big-mouth sledge hammer (Maher). Both are on the same side in terms of reducing carbon emissions to reduce global warming, and I’m not saying Leiserowitz is doing something wrong, but I bet the people watching the show like Maher more than Leiserowitz. So while Bill Maher would almost certainly get kicked out of any serious stake-holder meeting, he’d probably be loads more entertaining on your Saturday afternoon barbeque.
The bottom line is this: it’s not just important that we as (future) scientists know what’s right or wrong. To be relevant, to actually make a change in the way we and all people do things, we have to know who we’re talking to. Because only then do we get the message across in a way people understand the facts and feel the need to act.