Become a climate communication hero in 2018 in six easy steps

Did your New Year Resolutions include something new to continue to make a professional difference to the world? Publish more? Fly less? Complete your PhD? Can I suggest one more professional pledge, that you engage the public more? You have something exciting and important to say to the world. You really do. I know this because I’ve been helping researchers communicate for nearly 20 years.

With Climate Outreach, I have published a practical online guide with self-study exercises to help climate change researchers engage the public with their work ‘A guide to the science of climate communication,’ arising from the four years of workshops with early-career researchers around Europe and elsewhere.

To help you in your pledge I ask of you that you take six easy steps to embrace your expertise to engage the public with climate change and that you pledge to give two public talks this year. Or if you are already engaging the public, use these six steps to improve your public engagement with climate change.

Step 1. Get to know your audience before you meet them
First, of course, understand your audience. Does your audience share your perspectives on the world and your level of knowledge? Are they also Guardian readers, is liberal thinking at the core of their values, probably like you? Did they go to University? If yes, then you’ll have a fairly straightforward job of effective communication, as long as you don’t get overly technical. More importantly, if the audience does not share your values, what is their existing knowledge of climate change, what are their other interests? Profiling your audience, otherwise known as stereotyping, does not need to be complicated, just write-down some assumptions based on what you know, or even better ask someone in the know, perhaps the person who invited you to speak to that audience.

Step 2. Find your authentic voice
Having profiled your audience, find your own authentic voice, don’t pretend to be someone different to who you are to ingratiate your audience. That job is for showmen – actors, professional communicators, politicians, and others. Roger Pielke Junior at the University of Colorado has sketched-out four types of science communicator: Pure Scientist; Science Arbiter: Issue Advocate and Honest Broker. Which are you? Be comfortable in your own shoes. You can move between these roles depending on who you are speaking with, they are not fixed.

Step 3. Be certain about uncertainty
Just because a lot of climate modellers dedicate their working days to the essential work of reducing statistical uncertainty, don’t assume that that is also the daily obsession of public audiences. It really isn’t. People want to know what you know, not what you don’t know. Focus on what you do know, tell people about certainties, then the uncertainties.

Step 4. Overcome psychological distancing
Even though your day job is to be obsessed with climate change, as are your colleagues, and possibly many of your friends because we make friends with people who share our values, your audience is not obsessed. Climate change is deposited firmly in the ‘other’ box. While you may have spotted lots of surveys saying that climate change is very important to people, these are prompted surveys. In truth, climate change to most people, perhaps everyone in reality, is a long-time in the future and happening to someone yet to be born in a country far away. It is not an everyday priority.

Step 5. Evidence is the food of our world views
Our values are the guiding principles of our lives. Shalom Schwartz at Hebrew University has assessed all the values available in the literature across cultures and mapped them into a framework of 10 Universal Values into 4 groups that is widely used, called The Basic Theory of Human Values. At the opposites are the self-enhancing goals of social power, wealth, and public image (think President Trump for a stereotype). These are distant from self-transcending values with goals of equality, social justice and protecting the environment. I cannot think of anyone high-profile who stereotypically fits this profile, suggestions welcomed. If you were going to suggest the Dalai Lama you might be close, but Spirituality was not found to exist in all cultures.

Step 6. Tell a story about climate change
In the beginning, men and women for all of history sat around their camp fires telling stories, this is how wise people shared knowledge and wisdom of what was dangerous and what was safe. And this is how the humans who paid attention evolved societies. Then in 1987, Apple unleashed Presenter, later called PowerPoint, onto the world. Scientists’ storytelling became presentations of graphs and bullet lists that were difficult to follow and told only with IT, indoors, and in the dark. All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. End though, is not the same as a final slide that summarises your other slides in bullet points.

So, dear reader and colleague who I have perhaps yet to meet, I ask of you for 2018 that you take these six easy steps to your first steps with climate communication and the public, or to refresh the talks that you are already giving. While you are already perfect I’m sure, you could also climate communication hero to your superpowers.

I wish you a professionally rewarding 2018 for continuing to make a difference. My thanks to Adam Corner, Chris Shaw and the Climate Outreach team.

Asher Minns @asherminns

An guide to the science of science communication is part of the communication and stakeholder engagement work of the EU funded HELIX project where for four years with Climate Outreach I have delivered workshops around Europe on how best to communicate climate change research. HELIX is now completed we thought you might like to join the workshop also, hence the online resource.

A further article about the workshop are at the EU funded CRESCENDO project, with thanks to artist Barbara Govin for the visual minutes.

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