Are key audiences changing the channel on climate change? Communications that emphasize doomsday (and accurate) outcomes can leave audiences feeling fearful, guilty, and paralyzed. Feelings of helplessness can lead to a desire to disconnect entirely from the conversation. This psychological phenomenon has been dubbed “apocalypse fatigue,” but it doesn’t spell the end for impactful climate communications. It highlights the desperate need in the sector for new ways to tell the story.
Is it just about being positive? One study by the content analytics firm Quickframe found that videos that took a more positive approach were 50 times more effective than their more negative counterparts. But there’s a lot we can do to improve our reach and impact with key audiences.
Here are 5 ideas for how to change the conversation:
1. Use beauty to be optimistic about your impact
Although Conservation International’s year-end video opens with a few news clips on the impacts of global warming, it quickly shifts to the progress that we’ve made–new protected areas, youth mobilization, commitments to decarbonization and zero emissions. It focuses on the positive headlines that are frequently overlooked. Instead of paralyzing images of destruction, it highlights the beauty of wildlife, different landscapes, and the ability of people to come together to take action. The tone is inspirational. The piece leaves audiences potentially more hopeful that with human resilience and cooperation, we can change the world for the better. And that keeps us watching.
2. Frame your solutions beyond problem-solving
H&M’s “Conscious Collection” is made up of products that contain at least 50% sustainable materials. But in this ad, they completely exclude the “problem” from the narrative and instead focus on the quality of their products–their versatility, durability, and style–presenting their innovative approach as something inherently desirable without outlining the cause. The result? We are leaning into the story without dwelling on the problem or even the product’s inherent goodness being strictly and only about sustainability.
3. Tell better stories
A positive climate narrative should include key narrative elements where possible: characters, change over time, settings, antagonists. This ad by the Joe Biden campaign highlights the work of a Navajo activist who’s bringing sustainable energy solutions to his community through large solar arrays. By telling Brett Isaac’s story, it humanizes the climate narrative and gives the viewer something to connect to. It also shows how success can be done and is being done on the community level. Its focus on the people and the solutions makes it engaging, inspiring, and attainable.
4. Make taking action a social norm
Studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to change human behavior is to engage with social norms and social networks. We can bring that into our climate conversations. Presenting sustainable options, reduced energy consumption, and other green choices as the new norm, the thing everyone is doing, brings a social motivation into play. This could look like changing the narrator to someone more relatable to the audience or highlighting the number of everyday Americans who have made the change. When people feel that their friends and neighbors are making a switch, they’re more likely to embrace it themselves.
5. Use humor
Signify, a large scale lighting provider, is utilizing humor in their sustainability campaign. This ad focuses on the distance from farm to fork for the average tomato in the U.S. with the idea that growing closer to home allows for a decrease in the carbon footprint. Goofy costumes, a wandering tomato and comedy music are an unexpected vehicle for an important story. Often causes are too nervous to use humor, thinking it undermines the urgency of their message. But humor is a powerful emotional connector for audiences, and is widely underutilized as a key approach to impact storytelling. Signify’s departure from the standard narrative grabs the viewer’s attention and alerts them to a sustainability issue and a solution in a way that’s fresh and that points to where our stories could, and maybe should, be going.
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