Do you want an ecologically sustainable and socially responsible world? Communication is key.
You don’t think your work includes a communication campaign? It will still prove useful to look for those elements of your work. All projects I have seen involve explaining something, convincing or exciting someone (even if the target audience is just one person).
But most projects I have seen don’t do this very well. They fail at basic elements of communicating and campaign strategy. This doesn’t have to happen. We can get better at it quite easily.
I’ll use climate change as an example subject. But you can apply all of this to your field.
These are not the most advanced suggestions or tactics, but that’s not what is usually needed, either. Most campaigns improve a lot just by getting the basics right (or having a strategy at all). You can imagine having me ask you these things about your work. As you’re going through it, maybe try taking notes about what you have been doing, or might do differently.
What I mean by “campaigns”
Consciously planned, coordinated efforts to direct the attention of a (larger) public and achieve a goal.
What would be the best use of my time? Where do I expect the best ratio of necessary effort to expected outcome?
In lifestyle decisions: no flights, good career, no meat, no car, buying habits, housing, children.
Low‐hanging fruit. (One can address high‐hanging fruit like top politicians or CEOs to reach lower‐hanging fruit.) Pick your battles. Don’t waste energy on ineffective work.
That’s why on my upcoming website on post‐growth, I recommend starting small and finding teammates.
Scalability: If you want really high impact, at some point you will need to be running your project in a way that makes it easy for many to do parts of the work. Nick McGirl from Ashoka spoke about this.
This isn’t about doing the least I can. My long‐term goal is to make the most improvements to the world that I can. It’s actually about doing the most I can with the time, energy, network and skills I have.
Is my target the right one? We may like to scream at the VW bosses to stop producing SUVs, but as a publicly traded company, it may not be possible for the company to decide that freely. Their DNA – profit maximisation – says they can’t. (And even if technically, they could, it would be a career killer for the board, the C‐level executives and all department heads. So both economically and psychologically, all kinds of ethically great behaviour that go against the company’s core business metrics are strongly disincentivized for the individuals running it. This is true for as long as the rules of the game don’t reward what’s best for humanity.)
We may have to try changing the rules by which they have to play, i.e. regulation, because they can’t freely decide to change their behavior. Here’s an analogy: at a football match, it wouldn’t make sense to get mad at an individual player for, say, playing for time if his team is two goals ahead. Risky behaviour just wouldn’t make sense for them now, and a lot of money is at stake (including each individual’s career), so if you want to prevent this behaviour, you should edit the rulebook instead of being mad at the individual for following the rules. Even if they did, that would just make it easier for their competitors to win against them and keep doing the same thing.
The rules shape the game more than the players. Inspiring and changing the players is necessary, but can only do so much if the same rules remain to shape their behaviour.
This section is about the popular images that define climate change and how they shape the way it is understood and acted upon. If your work isn’t about climate change directly, you can still apply this to your field.
In our decade as leaders in climate change communication we’ve seen it all: the photographs of sad polar bears, the complicated graphs, the science speak, the doom and gloom omens of the apocalypse, and the wailed laments of “won’t somebody please think of the future of the planet?!”.
Our rigorous research has shown us that these messages simply aren’t effective for the majority of people. Worse than that, they can be disempowering. These stories make many people turn away, because climate change is seen as a niche concern, a complex scientific problem, an issue for the future only, and something that makes us fearful.
Let me repeat this, because it’s so important. When the average citizen hears “climate change”, they’ll probably think of polar bears or penguins. And that’s a problem.
Most people won’t be able to think of a single way how climate change (or most larger, abstract‐feeling problems) may damage their health and which groups of people are most at risk.
Many of us see climate change as a distant problem – distant in space (not here), distant in time (not now) and distant in who it affects (not us). We see climate change as an “environmental problem” and/or a “scientific problem”, but much less as a “human problem”. It’s not about environmental protection, it’s about protection of human lives!
The organization I quoted above, ClimateOutreach, has a project I’d like to recommend to you. Based on international social research in Europe and the US, they offer seven core principles for effective visual communication (which images to use, what they’re perceived as, and why), plus an evidence‐based image library, all at climatevisuals.org.
What is needed to establish scientific insights in the public mind?
“Simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”
- Prof. Ed Maibach, George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication
Currently, we have many complicated or futile‐sounding messages, though they may be repeated often, mostly by the same bubble of activists and researchers, to itself.
Yes, it’s important to name the threats we’re fighting against. But doing so matter‐of‐factly and focusing on what to do is what a person does whose advice you would take. // Stop for a second. Imagine: What would a person be like whose advice you would happily take? Those that we are most likely to join, are ones who seem like they know what they are talking about, they take you seriously, and you think they’ll succeed. This leads us to:
A mindset to encourage better communication
Here are 3 components to the mindset I recommend for speaking about big problems: (Explain these more…)
- High social status (“I’d love to be one of those!”)
Futerra: One thing we do know is that many low carbon and green behaviours have a ‘status’ problem. Most climate friendly behaviours, especially the big hard ones (travel, diet etc.) are not aspirational or desirable. One factor that tars them is their association with a problem. You’re asked to make a sacrifice for the greater good, which has rarely inhuman history been a high status pastime. By associating the actions with a positive and desirable goal, these actions could gain a few popularity points. Let’s test that.
- Informational advantage (“We’ve noticed something.”)
- “We’ll just go ahead!”
Climate Hell vs. Climate Heaven
Imagine seeing the following picture above an article – what do you feel about reading the text below it?
As you’re reading this on my site, you are more above‐average likely to be from the activist/NGO/social business bubble. So your reaction isn’t quite representative. Still, I imagine you felt something vaguely similar to, “ugh, ugly reality saying Hello again”.
Threatening people with “climate hell” leads to a defensive reaction. This narrative is common: we are all sinners against the mighty climate, and we must repent or go to hell.
I agree that climate (coupled with a few other issues that are caused by the same need for ever‐increasing economic activity) is the biggest problem humanity has now. But here, I mean to say that this way of speaking about it, by itself, is ineffective.
This applies to any other problem in the world, too, but especially to climate, because there is so much guilt attached to it already, and everybody is tired of that.
Eco‐doom narratives backfire, especially when they don’t stick to the facts or only make people feel bad without any way of coping. Few people have had the privilege to take time building an identity strong enough to allow them to just accept terrible news without subsequent stages of grief. It is depressing to get to know some parts of reality better; still that process is necessary, but we should not let it cause entrenched denial. Everyone seeks ways of coping with such bad news, and it is our responsibility to offer ways of coping that allow the person to see more of reality, not get depressed, even feel better than before (through steadily working towards something good) and get active.
Obviously, sweeping the very real problems under the curtain and instead only painting a pleasant ‘green future’ picture while hoping that this vision will cause a frictionless “enlightenment” and transition, is also naive. The Merchants of Doubt will co‐opt and annex your efforts.
(This is where I disagree with Futerra, because they are not yet aware that Green Growth is not a thing, and so they believe there is a business‐as‐usual‐but‐with‐more‐Teslas path toward global sustainability that requires no deeper change to our economic systems.)
I’ve heard calls for soft line approaches many times over, and I understand why it is called for. I completely agree that strong arguments are not sufficient for ‘winning’ in the public debate, persuasion contest, or attention marketplace. But I strongly believe well‐reasoned arguments are a necessary condition (as long as they’re considerately communicated, ie. clear language and not too long). If you want smart people to join you and take ownership of the issue and the solutions, you need to let them notice that you take them seriously.
Sometimes, it can work to only communicate how nice it would be to enact a proposal, and leaving out information about the negative status quo. [example of personal benefits alone being most effective in convincing people to go by bike more] But in the big picture, in public perception of larger issues, we may need to incorporate both the pain to be avoided and the pleasure to be gained.
Problem, solution, social proof, easy involvement
What gets people to act? There is psychological research on this, but I’ll speak from experience here. A few conditions must usually be met.
It must be clear that there is a threat, a problem looming if no action is taken. (In some
Think of a marketing funnel
This funnel is the most common model used in digital marketing. It has some weaknesses, but it is a big step forward for many activists, and other models I know add more confusion than clarity.
I actually always imagine it horizontally, with an imaginary time axis going from left to right.
First, let’s look where you want to go. On the very right hand side, you have your goal – a specific action you would like as many people as possible to take. That’s what your campaign wants to achieve: To move people from “no idea about this” (left of the funnel) to “done!” (right of the funnel).
Beginning on the left, you gain the attention of a number of people. That’s where the funnel is widest, and should be as wide as necessary: to get the most people interested.
You give them good reasons to move on through the next steps, and make the funnel as short as possible. (Nobody should have to take unnecessary, confusing, or even distracting steps – your job is to keep that stuff from diverting your audience elswhere.)
In commercial marketing, usually, the goal would be the sale of a product or service (as well as keeping the client within reach, through an email newsletter or something else, to re‐engage them later). Your goal may be getting donations, or having many people attend your upcoming talk, or join an organization, or send postcards to their representative.
The funnel gets narrower, because at every step, you will lose a number of people – they drop out and won’t take the next step. They may have visited your organisation’s website, and clicked “Support us”, but the donation form was too complicated or they prefer not to use PayPal, and so they “bounced” – they left your funnel. One way to describe your tasks is to open the funnel wide, make it short, and minimise bounce rate. But there is one thing missing:
We’ve reached the narrow end of the funnel. Now that you have all this attention, you better make it go somewhere good! (Just to be really clear, you must design the entire funnel before you begin executing the campaign.) Good campaigns don’t just direct the attention of a larger public anywhere, or to a vague request to the audience to ‘go inform themselves’ – they direct it to helpful places: where that public can engage in effective changemaking steps, can further identify with the cause, will begin to learn about it and stay in the loop.
“In George Monbiot’s latest book, Out of the Wreckage, he takes the example of the public demonstrations as a failed opportunity to get people to act. He talks of most demonstrations starting out well – with a fired‐up crowd, lots of chanting and energy – but then slowly dying off as people reach the destination, the crowd starts to break up, there may be a few incoherent speeches, but no concrete calls to action. His point is that it is a huge waste of energy to get so many like‐minded people together, without using the opportunity to move towards a common goal. In his view, a good demonstration should:
(…) inspire, inform, and then direct the crowd to action, by which I mean a specific task rather than a vague call to ‘rise up’.”
I’ve experienced this myself. I would love for this to never happen again. Let’s choose
To decide what you want, how your entire campaign should look, you need specific goals and identify what needs to happen to fulfill them. You want the city center to be a car‐free zone? Identify what will take you there. Maybe you’ll need a public demonstration for this, a petition with ten thousand signatures, and two thirds of the city council members must be ready to vote for this. Also, there need to be appropriate plans for improving public transport and for local businesses who need frequent deliveries.
Remember how I summed up the ways to make a campaign good?
- Open the funnel wide (gain a lot of attention),
- make it short (eliminate obstacles and unnecessary steps),
- minimise bounce rate (increase the percentage of people who go from one step to the next),
- and have a concrete goal that will make a difference.
Let’s look at some examples for all of these, to really hammer home how much this helps you optimize any campaign:
1. Gain a lot of attention
Your opener, the first contact.
This could be multiple.
I made it so people could join in at various stages.
2. Make it short
Not too long (because larger parts of the audience would get bored, distracted, exhausted, decide it’s not worth the effort) not too short (so that the audience won’t get it)
3. Minimise the bounce rate
A lot of people picked up your flyer and a lot of those visited your website, but none signed up to attend your rally against sexism in the film industry. Up until the website visit, they were interested, right? Something went wrong there. Maybe they hadn’t visited the site with an interest in engaging and the site didn’t manage to convince them. Physically going to an event is a bigger ask than clicking an anonymous 10‐second survey. So they didn’t get to care about your issue enough, or they didn’t think the rally would change anything.
Consider talking to the audience. Identify somebody who had engaged and lost interest, and ask them. Where did they get bored, what was unclear, or seemed irrelevant to them? It’s very important that you don’t come off as aggressive or accusing. Just be curious, friendly, and openly interested in improving your campaign to make it worth people’s attention. That’s not sales‐y, you just want to be more considerate in advancing an important cause.
4. Have a concrete goal that will make a difference
As I described in the very beginning: For each goal you could choose, consider the costs (time, energy, money) and the benefits (amount and leverage of change achieved). Which is most worth it? Does it address the root cause?
So let me speak about goal‐setting a bit more:
We’re in the attention economy
As for setting your campaign goals in a way that has the most, longest‐lasting impact in the world… I have two important points to make.
Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it. You’re competing for people’s attention, along with the biggest businesses in the world, because taking up a person’s attention can be extremely profitable. (Anyone who makes money on advertising, like Facebook/Instagram or countless media outlets, wants to get as much as attention as possible, ie. earn more money.)
You may have very different goals in mind, but it’s important that you know your competitors are always there, and offering concrete, attractive, addictive things for people to put their attention into.
Here is Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, describing their attention‐centered business model:
“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them… was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’
And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you… more likes and comments. It’s a social‐validation feedback loop…”
Consider concentrating more on political engagement, less on personal lifestyle changes
Everyday lifestyle choices are a fiercely contested space, and instead asking people to engage politically may be easier in this regard. At a sustainability conference in Berlin, I got to speak to Prof. Ellen Matthies, a member of the German Government’s Advisory Council on Global Change. She’s a psychologist,
Also, as noted above: The rules shape the game more than the players. They even shape how much the biggest players can change about the rules.
Motivation not education
This point I copy verbatim from Chris Rose’s page, because he just put it so well. Check him out, it’s very good stuff from an experienced campaigner.
Campaigning lowers the barriers against action and increases the incentives to take action until …
… the rabbit pops down the hole …
… the dog jumps through the hoop …
… the President signs the decree …
… the commuter takes the train …
… etc …
Education, in contrast, is a broadening exercise. It uses examples to reveal layers of complexity, leading to lower certainty but higher understanding.
Campaigning maximises the motivation of the audience, not their knowledge. Try using education to campaign, and you will end up circling and exploring your issue but not changing it.
Of course all campaigns have some ‘educational’ effect but it is education by doing, through experience, not through being given information. Moreover, information is not power until it leads to mobilisation.
…Back to myself (Vegard).
This is one of the most common problems: somebody cares about an issue, produces a flyer (or Facebook post, or multi‐part funnel across media) that describes how important it all is, and ends with “Educate yourselves about this!”, hoping that people will do so and start caring. No way. It just isn’t interesting. It’s exhausting to imagine for any newcomer, oh, now I would have to go on a two‐year safari to learn all about water usage? This request can’t compete in today’s world, there are many concrete pains and desires everybody deals with in their lives.
Even if you’re about educating, and not about reaching any other goal through that (when is that ever the case? Happy to hear examples!), it may still make sense to campaign for a specific action people could take.
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
—Confucius, Chinese Proverb, or Benjamin Franklin, according to your personal preference.
Involve people, and they’ll identify with the cause more. Then, they will do the educating themselves (especially if you make it easy for them).
Analyse the forces
Abhängigkeiten. warum ist es bisher noch nicht passiert?
Verbündete und Gegner identifizieren.
Zielgruppen für die unterschiedlichen Schritte der Kampagne identifizieren. Aus ihrer
Sicht auf das Problem schauen.
Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Anweisungen im Falle eines Feuers sind ihrer Situation angemessen. Einfach verdaulich.
Natürlich muss man bei Kampagnen teilweise etablieren, dass das Feuer existiert.
aber Kampagnen sollten im Kern keine Erklärungen des Problems sein, sondern ein Vorstoß auf bestimmte Taten hin.
Meet the audience where they are
Know your audience before you tell them your message. Roter Faden
Something that can be photographed should happen
Want me to help with this, and more?
If you’d like to have my help applying this to your project, and getting really specific in planning and execution, consider working with me. Depending on the extent of our collaboration, this includes the nitty‐gritty details and more advanced steps, like choosing a specific angle to introduce people to the issues/solutions you are working on. Say Hi and tell me what you care about — your passion, the issue, your project.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is strategic communication, in a way, manipulation?
Yes, influencing what’s on somebody’s mind and increasing the likelihood that they’ll do what you’d prefer is “manipulation”. At least I think that’s an appropriate use of the word. But the real question that some people feel they should ask is usually:
- Is professionalised communication evil?
“Evil” has to do with harmful intention. I hope you don’t have harmful intentions, and as long as you don’t, this is a tool, a skill, to be used according to your good intentions. As I’m a consequentialist (I think that whether or not an event was bad depends on whether in its sum it caused sentient beings suffering, not on whether it violated somebody’s made‐up rule), I think it can only be bad if it has bad consequences. It’s a tool you’ve used before, only that it was improved now. And so I would change it to, is professionalised communication bad? Well, you should make sure that reaching your goals would be good (reduce suffering) and that the likelihood of you failing (your campaign backfires?) is low, and the consequences of
- If I get very good at reaching my goals, am I not bad?
Not if your goals are good. Making sure that they are good goals, of course, becomes more and more important the more influence you have. I believe we have a moral duty to inform ourselves and learn how to inform ourselves well, since not doing that would likely lead to more suffering.