Life Is Short. Start with Dessert.

A colleague recently asked why his climate talks don’t engage people.

In a way, he already knew the answer. He said he tells the story in the most familiar sequence, which begins with scientific evidence that human activities are changing the global climate. The story then moves through impacts and risk projections, many of which are fairly terrifying. Finally, he said, he talks about “solutions”—meaning ways to respond to the climate threat.

But in the end, he said, his words fall flat. “By the time you get to solutions, people are so traumatized that they just can’t take anything else in.”

Rather than inspiring hope and action, he found that using the most common storytelling sequence demoralizes audiences. And my colleague is a gifted public speaker.

Does the story sequence matter? The answer is yes—and the climate storyline isn’t working.

Climate communicators developed the familiar sequence in collaboration with the science community. I know—I’ve worked on it. Since scientists study change and causality, that’s where the story begins. Scientists also study the impacts of change, so risk projections follow.

The sequence is reflected in public exhibitions and major assessment reports from the IPCC, National Academy of Sciences, U.S. Global Change Research Program, state and local governments and elsewhere. It’s a great sequence for reference documents and science education, but it doesn’t work so well for public engagement.

As my colleague discovered, devoting so much attention to evidence and risks can leave audiences feeling hopeless and disengaged.

Basic communication practice suggests that communicators should turn this sequence around. The fundamental lesson in how to engage audiences effectively is to begin with your listener’s interests and concerns, not your own. This puts the listener at the center of the story and allows you to engage in dialogue that means something to both parties.

As I thought further about my colleague’s question, I realized that I used a very different sequence when I wrote The Green Edge for business managers. I learned the hard way that opening a business conversation with climate science drives people out of the room. They see climate science as disconnected from their day-to-day concerns, and many view the climate issue as inappropriately political.

In reality, business managers, not scientists, are the heroes of an engaging story about the climate crisis. At the end of a good story, it’s the audience that takes action.

Who are these heroes? Business managers are overwhelmed by practical concerns about budgets, schedules, logistics and personnel. So we should start by considering the practical value in the climate change story in the workplace.

With the business crowd, the brand integrity and financial angles on carbon cutting are very compelling, so this is a good place to begin. This means starting at the end of the traditional storyline, where audience members are already seeing the co-benefits of effective action.

This, in turn, leads to questions about priorities—what should managers focus their limited time and resources on? The discussion about priorities inevitably leads to questions about the scale of the sustainability challenge.

Here, business audiences want just enough science to establish a framework for making practical choices. They are not interested in climate literacy per se, they are asking for information that they can apply to everyday decision-making.

This is a crucial point: going beyond the audience’s capacity and interest can turn people off. On the other hand, I’ve learned that you can present terrifying risk projections as long as the material is relevant and the presentation is brief.

Attention spans can be brutally short, and this is where the story must quickly pivot back to solutions. Think of climate science not as the meat of the storyline, but as an important excursion away from and back to the listener’s interests.

Everything hinges on this pivot back to practical information that can inform concrete decision-making. The information need not be prescriptive, but it does need to be useful.

My experience suggests that you can lead people through a scary story and leave them feeling hopeful and motivated by beginning and ending with their chief concerns. Just look at the endorsements and reader reviews that The Green Edge is receiving. It doesn’t matter that endorsments say positive things—that’s what they are for.

What matters is the language. Many of the comments express hope and enthusiasm. Isn’t that the response storytellers are looking for?

Every audience—from evangelicals to farmers to coastal residents to doctors—has concerns, strong values and choices to make that rivet their attention. What I’ve learned from my experience with business managers is that this is the place to start.

This is why I am now consolidating five years worth of sustainability research for this industry into a carbon-cutting guidebook. My goal is to focus the best available science on the choices that working professionals make day in and day out in order to enable action and, potentially, build momentum within this energy-intensive industry.

These efforts and those of many other people are part of a bigger effort: demonstrating that we can respond to the climate challenge effectively. As more and more community and organizational scale initiatives take hold we’ll build momentum for societal change.

But we’ll need to knit many initiatives into a coherent and compelling story too.

We have resisted this question for too long, in effect leaving the solutions phase of the climate story to policy advocates. The sharp line between education and advocacy has been drawn poorly: people need to trust that solutions are viable and affordable.

Perhaps 2014 will be the year in which we begin to tell this important story.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of freakgirl via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.