Something has to change. You can’t just keep sounding alarms. The public isn’t responding. They are saturated. “But it’s the truth,” might work for you, but it’s not enough for them. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. There are basic storytelling dynamics behind much of the problem. So what do you do when you need new approaches?
THE BIG “SO WHAT.” The environmental movement put a lot of chips on the Tennessee Snail Darter in the 1970’s and lost. Then they put their chips on “An Inconvenient Truth,” and lost. Now they can’t figure out why their predictions of future doom, such as the demise of coral reefs, are going unheeded.
DEALING WITH UNCERTAINTY — BE VERY CAREFUL
This essay is prompted by this article about the fate of coral reefs, posted on The Huffington Post a couple days ago. The headline says coral reefs, “MAY BE Gone by 2050.” The first sentence says, “COULD BE gone by 2050.” The second sentence says, “IF lost … WOULD BE threatened.” The second paragraph begins by saying, “The WRI report SUGGESTS that …”
On and on. Speculation. Warnings. All cloaked in uncertainty.
If there’s one thing that the ENTIRE American public now knows, very clearly, probably thanks in significant part to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Michael Moore — it’s that alarmism/fear sells. Which means you should be leery of anyone coming at you with tales of fear and loathing. And when it isn’t paid off, a level of cynicism emerges — just as it has for the color-coded terrorism warning scale which is now a joke.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that uncertainty needs to be handled carefully.
PEOPLE DON’T LIKE AN UNCERTAIN STORYTELLER
This has become one of the central points of my talks lately. EVERYONE wants to know, “How can we best communicate elements of uncertainty?” My answer is, “Very carefully, if at all.”
I say this because of simple logic with regard to storytelling. We know that the most effective means of mass communication is through storytelling. What we also know is that the teller of a story is expected to be all-knowing — i.e. omniscient. So what kind of omniscient voice is uncertain about what is being told?
This is a problem. It isn’t even about whether the warnings come true or not. This is long before that. This is about if you even MENTION something for which you are not certain, you’ve already entered into a realm of decreased credibility.
It’s very simple. If I start to tell you about the vacation I took last summer to Florida — no, wait, it was to Alaska … or, was it … hold on, I think it was maybe to Zimbabwe.” I’ve lost you. NOBODY wants to listen to a storyteller who doesn’t know the story. You’ve seen it a million times at parties when someone starts to tell a story and can’t remember the exact details. Even if the details are trivial — as soon as uncertainty is conveyed, the credibility begins to fade. In fact, it sounds like a classic Johnnie Cochran-ism:
“IF UNCERTAINTY IS CONVEYED, CREDIBILITY WILL FADE”
And now you say, “Yes, but this is uncertainty that’s based in solid science — we have the numbers that back up the probabilities.”
Doesn’t matter. Good storytelling is based on 100% certainty. Again, it’s about the omniscient narrator. We learned all about it in film school. Read the Greek myths. You won’t read anything like, “Aphrodite lived on Mount Olympus … or maybe she lived in downtown Athens …” It’s all with complete certainty. Certainty and specificity are powerful and hold the listeners’ interest. Anything short of that is weaker and works against the basic communication dynamic.
DANCING THROUGH THE MINEFIELD OF UNCERTAINTY
I’m not saying you can’t do it, or that it won’t work. I’m saying that you simply need to know that EVERY time you enter into communicating uncertainty, you are entering dangerous ground. Basically a minefield. And the truth is, you can go dancing through a minefield and never hit a single mine. But before you do that, it’s a nice idea to be aware of the risk.
And what has been the cost of this risk? You can see it today in the polls showing how little the public cares about these major environmental issues. Last year a Gallop poll showed environmental concern at a 20 year low.
There’s of course a stack of factors to account for this, such as the economy and the perception that the environment is getting cleaner. But in the end, communication and persuasiveness is still at the core of it all. And what is also at the core is the fundamental question of, “Who will bear the burden of mass communication — the public or the communicators?”
When you get the results of a study that says coral reefs could be gone by 2050 you have two options. The first is to just blurt it out to the public, making the assumption they care as much about coral reefs as you do, and will take this literal message to heart. The second option is to stop, think, discuss, brainstorm, reconsider — try to find some way, any way, to convey something relevant to the subject that isn’t going to just add to this junk pile of alarms that we know isn’t working.
What is the better way to communicate it? The first option is to focus more on certainty (namely the past) than uncertainty (the future). This is what I recommended in my recent editorial, “Hope is for Environmentalists, Trust is for Scientists,” published in The Solutions Journal, and reprinted on Huffington Post. But if you feel you must delve into uncertain predictions of the future, then my answer is pretty much I don’t know. But I know how you find the answer — through innovation. And I know that is precisely what is not happening with the mass communication of science and environmentalism, as evidenced by the countless blunt statements saying over and over again, “There MAY BE a crisis.” When people make those statements they are showing no clue of how the perception of environmentalism has changed in the past decade.
Effective communication generally isn’t as simple as blurting out the facts. Why would you think it would be? Maybe because you’re a scientist or environmentalist?