You can win or lose an argument on the words you choose to use.
Take the recent furore over changes to UK housing benefits. The Government introduced what they called a "under-occupation charge" for those living in social housing with more than the minimum number of bedrooms they needed. The Opposition branded this "the bedroom tax" and the press adopted the term. The Prime Minister tried to fight back, talking about the status quo as a "spare room subsidy", but it was too late, "the bedroom tax" had stuck.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, the case demonstrates how important language is. The original name was a dreadful piece of technocrat-speak, wide open to attack. The attack was effective as it used the much more emotive term "bedroom tax" which painted the policy as a 'bad' - tax - applied to a 'good' - a nice cosy bedroom. The response of a "spare room subsidy" was an attempt to apply the 'bad' (subsidy) to something much less cosy - a 'spare room', but it was too weak, too late.
This kind of verbal reframing is all part of the daily cut and thrust of politics, and, more often than not, whoever coins a resonant phrase first wins.
I was thinking of this at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting on sustainable supply chains. We were discussing Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - when one group member said that when talking to colleagues he preferred to call it "Waste to Value".
Why? Do some green jujitsu and put yourself in your colleagues' shoes.
You are busy doing your job when someone comes up to you to talk Industrial Symbiosis. Your reaction is likely to be "Huh? Can't this wait?"
Or they could ask you about Waste to Value - "What, we can make money from our waste? Tell me more!"
To win sustainability arguments, we have to think more like politicians, kick out the technocrat-speak, and put a positive spin on our sustainability ideas and projects. As Frank Luntz, George W Bush's infamous spin doctor put it, it's not what you say, it's what people hear. We need to use words that work.
How many times have you sat through a sustainability presentation that consists of graph after graph, table of data after table of data. And then at the end the presenter says "OK, what are we going to do?" and you rouse yourself from your day dream and think "about what?"
I've long promoted storytelling as a way of making sustainability more enthralling than an avalanche of evidence. Most people who use storytelling use a simple little personal story, but the best use the classic narrative ark of the quest. Somebody like us is suddenly thrown into a challenge and they must change to meet it - just like Frodo in Lord of The Rings, the everyman who is suddenly tasked with saving the world. The best example is the late Ray Anderson of Interface who talked of the 'spear in his chest' which made him set off on 'Mission Zero'. I once saw him tell this story in person, calmly and politely with no histrionics, and it was riveting.
Of course I have been a bit naughty and set up a false choice in the title of this post, but it's a mistake many people make. Stories and narratives wrap us up into sustainability, but the hard facts must be there to underpin the story - substance to match the style.
And Work Zone Awareness Week, National Beanpole Week, Bowel Cancer Awareness Week, Parkinson's Awareness Week, Depression Awareness Week, World Voice Day, World Haemophilia Day etc, etc, etc.
Please, please, spare us from more me-too 'awareness raising'. It is just lazy copycat activity for activity's sake, preaching to the converted. It might make us feel good about ourselves (a rude person might say 'smug') but it clearly flies over the heads of the intended audience.
Because, let's face it, if these weeks, days and hours worked, I'd know what Work Zone Awareness was. But I don't. Do you?
One of the advantages of working with clients' employees is you get a glimpse of the view of companies' sustainability efforts through their eyes. A common complaint, which I heard again this week is:
We won [big award] - there was a big fuss with the Chief Executive and all the great and the good - and then it all went quiet and we thought the attitude was 'job done, feet up'.
But, as is usually the case, there was lots of hard work continuing on with no real let up. The problem is that once you've raised the public profile so high, it is very hard to maintain it at that level. Some of this is inevitable, however there are a couple of things you can do to prevent a post-success slump:
Make it clear in all your communications that the success is merely one milestone along the road to sustainability and that you have more ambitious targets.
Give this narrative to the great and the good so they're saying it as well.
Secure commitment from the great and the good to show up at times other than the great successes - for example giving out annual green awards or pep talks to staff.
Ensure that leaders are talking about your whole programme when they speak to internal or external audiences.
Keep inserting fresh stories into the narrative so it doesn't get stale.
As an aside, those who give out green business awards do so with all the best of intentions, but they don't encourage continuous improvement. I think league tables are more successful - think Greenpeace's electronics company ranking or the now sadly defunct Sustainable City rankings from Forum for the Future. People who win an award aren't incentivised to win it again the way that people who come top of the league want to maintain that position.
I'm still working my way through The Essential Drucker and I'll be writing up a piece on the substantial chapter on Social Responsibility of Business in the next week or two. But in the meantime I couldn't help see the strong parallels between Drucker's chapter on communications and my own Green Jujitsu approach to engaging people in sustainability.
At its most powerful, communication brings about "conversion", that is, a change of personality, of values, of beliefs, aspirations. But this is a rare, existential event, and one against which the basic psychological forces of every human being are strongly organised.
In other words, are you as great an orator as Martin Luther King Jr? Me neither, so let's not try and convert people to the green movement as we will almost certainly fail.
The only person I know of who has 'converted' people to green in numbers was Al Gore with his presentations and film An Inconvenient Truth, but again few of us can muster the same level of gravitas as a man we know was once the next President of the United States and have the resources to put together such a powerful show. And despite all that effort, he has probably been equalled in impact by the Fox News/Tea Party brigade railing against him.
So, what can we do instead? Drucker reaches back to the Classics:
Socrates points out that one has to talk to people in terms of their own experience, that is, that one has to use carpenters' metaphors when talking to carpenters, and so on.
This is the essence of Green Jujitsu. Instead of trying to convert people to the cause, you translate the cause into a form which the target audience can relate to. Some people try to do this by relating sustainability to familiar domestic situations like putting out the recycling or grumbling at the kids for leaving lights on, but I find that patronising and tangential.
I prefer to appeal to people's professional identity as it is professional behaviour your are trying to change. This means framing sustainability as an engineering problem for engineers, as an economic issue for economists, as a leadership issue for senior executives etc. I must admit that I have never knowingly run an engagement session for carpenters, but it can only be a matter of time!
I spent yesterday contributing to an draft of a client's sustainability strategy. What was most impressive was the Herculean attempts to keep the usual corporate PR drivel out of the text. Typically, somebody would say:
"How about 'we will endeavour to fulfil our moral obliga...' oh that's a steaming pile of meaningless management crap! How about 'we will [do X]'?"
This plain speaking was so refreshing compared to my experience in one of my Green Executive interviews. The interviewee (I won't say which one) gave a brilliantly candid interview, full of all sorts of perspectives which percolated through to the rest of the text.
Understandably, he did ask that I run the resulting text past the company's corporate communications team to check he hadn't dropped any clangers. Unfortunately they took it upon themselves to rewrite the piece into an incredibly bland, glossy press release, taking out all the good, meaty bits - in fact you could have changed the company name to any other and you wouldn't have noticed any dissonance.
After some polite to-ing and fro-ing, I told them bluntly that, unless they pointed out anything in the original that was either factually incorrect or commercially sensitive, I would publish it as it was. They refused to co-operate, so I went ahead.
Here's why we need to talk straight when it comes to sustainability:
It starts us off in an honest frame of mind;
It forces us to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to do;
It makes our commitments and efforts more credible - stripping away any whiff of greenwash;
It encourages transparency and openness;
It helps colleagues, suppliers and customers buy into the sustainability and understand what the organisation is really trying to do;
It allows all stakeholders to understand the commitments - and hold us to them.
So, I suppose this post is a bit of a plea. Let's drop the all-too-prevalent tone of the professional copywriter and tell it how it is!
"is that they're not stories about the sufferings or triumphs of individual, knowable humans.They're failures of complex systems: millions of individuals are affected, but in incremental, widely dispersed ways; in the case of global warming, most of those millions aren't even born yet."
He goes on to say:
"The economist Tyler Cowen rightly warns that our addiction to stories is dangerous. Stories strip facts away, dragging attention to what's most narratively satisfying, not what's most important. One of the least appetising tasks of the journalist, I can say from experience, is the struggle to combat this by injecting "the human element" into news that doesn't naturally possess it. The results are often painful."
While I agree with the analysis, I disagree completely with the prognosis. If human beings are so obsessed with stories - and I spend a huge amount of time reading them to my kids (see pic) - then lets embrace that to communicate climate change and sustainability, as resistance is futile.
You see time and time again organisations trying to communicate sustainability by bombarding the reader with facts, occasionally leavened with classroom comparisons - "that's the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road" etc. Trying to convert everybody into fully educated climate scientists, energy economists and environmental toxicologists is an impossible and pointless task. You don't need to understand the albedo effect to choose the most energy efficient equipment for your company.
My green jujitsu approach says "if they like stories, give 'em stories!" Turn sustainability challenges and solutions into stories of individuals' challenges, endeavours and resolutions. Add humour for extra zing. Leave the detailed stats and analysis for Burkeman and the rest of us geeks - unless of course you are dealing with geeks, then fact away!
This weekend, the air resonated with the sound of a million electric razors signalling the end of another Movember and a million temporary moustaches. These were grown to raise awareness and cash for men's health issues such as prostrate and testicular cancer.
So why has the Movember meme been so successful? Here's five reasons I can think of:
1. It's fun - with moustaches having been out of fashion for some time, the campaign gives men an opportunity to indulge their inner Village People policeman/Burt Reynolds/Dutch porn star fantasy for a whole month;
2. Peer pressure - if half the men in a workplace suddenly sprout facial fungus in a good cause, there's a strong pull for the others to join in. "What's wrong, are you not man enough to grow one?";
3. Relevance - moustaches have long been associated with masculinity and the health issues concerned are men's issues;
4. Brilliant branding - check out the Movember website for a bit of tongue in cheek retro style;
5. Novelty - no-one has done anything like this before.
In comparison, most sustainability engagement programmes are, at best, like one of those multitudinous nude charity calendars - hackneyed, clichéd and unoriginal. They're produced with the best of intentions, but the world yawns.
If you want to get a sustainability meme running in your organisation, you could do worse than use Movember as a yardstick.
It is one of the most repeated clichés in business:
The man who never made a mistake never made anything.
Sustainability requires innovation, innovation implies risk, risk inevitably means a degree of failure, right?
The problem with sustainability, unlike, say, social networking or wireless payments, is the huge number of people waiting gleefully for those failures. Otherwise how would the plethora of idiot-reactionary newspaper columnists, bloggers and on-line comment trolls sustain their life's "work"?
I get particularly worried when sustainability projects with a large degree of public funding start getting hyped up. This conflates the two obsessions of those one-eyed smart-alecs and knuckle-draggers - the environmental movement and public expenditure. If the project goes down, it's like Christmas and their birthday rolled into one. And unfortunately the resulting sneer-fest permeates out into the general public.
I know of at least three publicly backed projects which have been heavily sold by charismatic figures, appearing weekly in the local press, whose progress has suddenly gone uncharacteristically quiet. And it worries me that if they fail the fallout will make those with hands on the levers of power fear more bad publicity and stick to the same old same old.
So, while we must try new things, must allow ourselves room to fail and learn from our mistakes, some prudent modesty is in order until the approach/technology/whatever is proven in practice. Then we'll show 'em...
I'm reading John Elkington's new book The Zeronaughts, which I'll review in whole in due course, but there's one thing about it which is really annoying me from the start. Elkington has adopted the Long Now Foundation's date format of adding a zero to the front of the traditional format, so 2012 becomes 02012. The argument is that this forces us to think long term.
I hate this and here's why:
It's plain annoying - After 41 years of indoctrination, I can't see a five figure number as a year, so I have to double take every time one turns up;
It is creating an artificial barrier between the reader and the important content - we should be making sustainability more accessible, not less;
It is self indulgent - we need to focus on practical solutions, not esoteric, clever-clever concepts;
We don't actually have the luxury of thinking 10,000+ years in the future - we need to concentrate on acting swiftly and decisively NOW and in the next decade to making society sustainable for the next century or so. If we do that, it will be sustainable for longer.
Rant over - but the principles of accessibility, simplicity and urgency should permeate all our sustainability communications.
For over 24 hour this week, the hashtag #EndFossilFuelSubsidies has been trending on Twitter.
Standing back from the politics, this is a very clever piece of green communications. Broadly speaking the extremes of the green debate are:
The archetypal green activist with their anti-corporate, anti-commercial instincts, especially "Big Oil". Thinks Government should interfere as much as required to deliver sustainability as it distrusts the market (and market based solutions);
The libertarian who believes individual human freedom comes ahead of all else. Sees the debate on environmental issues like climate change as a left wing plot to curtail those freedoms. Thinks Government should be as small as possible, let the markets manage everything else.
Normally these two are polar opposites and there is little they can agree on. However fossil fuel subsidies should be one of those things. The greens hate the subsidies because they're promoting carbon emissions. The libertarians should hate them as they are against the use of taxpayers' money to distort markets.
I say "should", because some from the libertarian movement like the head of the libertarian Taxpayers' Alliance have stuck their head above the parapet to knock the campaign, maybe showing that tribalism trumps principle.
But all and all, a very clever piece of green campaigning, neatly triangulating the two extreme positions - and a good example of what I call green jujitsu - using your 'opponent's' strength against them.
Last Thursday was the most important day of the political year for me - polling day in the local elections. I wasn't up for re-election this year, but we managed to secure a decent majority for my ward colleague after a hard fought campaign in very difficult electoral times for our party.
Politics is essentially a battle of ideas, but ideas are useless unless you communicate them. There is a myth that political communications is just about catchy slogans - the slogans only gain traction when there is some evidence to back them up. In our case, the slogan was our candidate "works hard all year round, not just at election time" - which we repeated ad nauseum - but we had plenty of evidence, much of it photographic, that this was indeed true, not just empty words.
One of the most interesting cases in green politics was when now Prime Minister David Cameron was 'decontaminating the brand' of his Conservative Party by embracing the green agenda. Not only was the catchy slogan "Vote Blue, Go Green" coined along with a new 'tree' logo for the party, but Cameron famously flew out to the arctic to see the effects of climate change for himself and pose for photos hugging huskies. This effort was extremely successful at first, but his green credibility then eroded over time as he failed to return to the subject with such vigour.
There are three clear lessons here for green communications:
A catchy slogan is very helpful - such as Marks & Spencer's "Plan A: because there is no Plan B". This should be repeated until you are fed up hearing it, and beyond, as that's generally when it is starting to get through.
The slogan needs backing up with substance - 'show, don't tell' is the key success factor here - actions, pictures and video speak much louder than words. The stories must also resonate with the audience (the huskies in Cameron's case got more coverage than melting ice).
You can't expect the message to be self-sustaining. The programme and its communications must be maintained, refreshed and if anything expanded over time.
What you end up with is a slogan that runs like a thread through a whole series of stories demonstrating that slogan in practice. And, as I rest my sore feet from weeks of pounding the pavements, I can assure you it works.
Something that really bothers me is how many organisations have bland, lookalike environmental policies. Take Boots' policy above (click to enlarge) - put your hand over the Boots logo and play "guess what business this belongs to" - you'd struggle to identify the company as a retailer never mind in the heathcare/beauty business or Boots itself.
The other game you can play is "nonsensical negatives" - if you invert each sentence, does it make any sense? If not then the original was simply stating the bleedin' obvious - and can hardly be described as a "policy". For example, inverting Boots' resources commitment gives you "we'll make worst use of resources", which simply shows how nondescript the original is.
I'm being a bit unfair singling out Boots - similar identikit policies of the <insert company name here> variety clutter the walls of businesses up and down the land. These are so bland as to be meaningless, so what's the point? What do you learn from reading them? Why not include some long term, concrete commitments from your strategy that your stakeholders can hold you to?
Late last year I was doing a couple of day's worth of workshops at a client's site. As I waited in the foyer waiting to be shown to the seminar room on the first morning, I did what I normally did and read the various policies and statements of commitment on the walls. The sustainability policy said all the right things, but when I say all, I mean all - this A3 poster must have had a couple of thousand words on it.
As an experiment, I asked delegates in each session if they knew the policy, or had even seen the poster. Nobody had, except for a receptionist, who said she knew it was there because she sat looking at it every day and she thought she'd better before coming to the workshop.
It is well understood that presentations shouldn't cause 'death by bulletpoint', but green communications doesn't seem to have got past 'death by poster'. I'm not a communications or marketing expert, but I believe very strongly that messages can and should be boiled down to a very simple message. The 140 character limit imposed by Twitter is a challenge, but perfectly achievable. And as us Twitter addicts do with shortened URLs, you can always append directions to a source of more information if the reader wants or needs it. But the headline needs to be sparky enough to attract attention.
So, keep it short and sweet - ideally less than 140 characters (like this).
At Tipping Point Newcastle last week there was a lot of talk about how "angry" we should be about the state of the world and how we could "sustain that anger." After an initial, but clearly unsustainable, blast from the angry young men and women in the room, a more sober reflection on the intersection between art and sustainability took over. At one breakout session, someone raised the awareness of poverty that Charles Dickens brought to the middle and ruling classes of Victorian England by writing extremely good stories about it.
I ventured that a modern equivalent might be Ian McEwan's Solar which avoids the preaching and presents a venal, very human protagonist in the battle for sustainability, rather than the virtuous and boring green heroes that some portray. But most importantly, McEwan wrote a cracking good story that made you want to read it. I think Alan Davey of The Arts Council summed it up well when he said "don't preach" and "bad climate art is worse than no climate art."
The last session I took part in was about communicating with executives of big business. Having pledged to myself to talk a little less and listen a little more in this session, I was bullied (it took at least 2 seconds to persuade me) to talk about what I had done in The Green Executive - tell the stories of the people who had succeeded in changing their organisation for the better. When I started the book, I decided to interview some leading green executives to generate case studies, but the results were so compelling that I included them almost verbatim between chapters. Some of them were very personal - such as Jim Hagan of GlaxoSmithKline touching on the death of his father. These stories gave a compelling, human edge to book that I couldn't have created any other way.
So if you want to change your organisation, or the whole world, don't get angry, tell stories about where you are and where you should be.
One of my favourite moments of many in the comedy classic Fawlty Towers is when Basil Fawlty is cornered by the two gushing old ladies who live in the hotel just before he heads off for a weekend away with his wife Sybil.
Miss Gatsby: And don't do anything we wouldn't do!
Basil (through gritted teeth): Oh, just a little breathing, surely.
I'm always reminded of this exchange during events when someone complains about 'superfluous' use of resources for fun or recreational purposes. Take a seasonal example like Christmas lights - yes, they are strictly speaking 'unnecessary', but so are TV, music, theatre, presents, cards and holidays. If you kill off your organisation's traditional Christmas decorations in the name of the planet, you will put normal people off the whole sustainability message. Sustainability has to be sexy and fun, not dull and worthy.
But there's a tricky balancing act here. You can't go to the other extreme and put up Christmas lights that resemble the Las Vegas strip in full swing and then scream "But it's Christmas!!!" at any one who has the temerity to suggest it just might be a little over the top.
The answer, as is often the case, is to replace "or" with "and" - green and fun rather than green or fun. Such as energy efficient lights, preferably powered by a sustainable source of energy, lit only between dusk and 'bed time'. If you can deliver a wonderful display that is also a demonstration of low energy technology, you'll get an extra gift for the sustainability Santa this Christmas!
PS: I'm breaking my iron rule never to mention the C word before 1st Dec!
Interesting story in the news this morning that Royal Bank of Scotland has pulled out of sponsoring Climate Week after pressure from NGOs angry at the bank's $13bn investments in fossil fuel industries.
To me, this is an interesting case that throws up all sorts of questions - the trickiest of which is "can no-one with a financial stake in fossil fuels campaign against climate change?" I've got half a tank of diesel in the car outside, yet I'm heading off (by fossil fuelled public transport) in 90 minutes to give a lecture on climate change to engineering students. Am I a hypocrite?
A hard line on this would surely rule out most corporate sponsors, which then begs the question - who will sponsor 'Climate Week'. Actually, I'm getting a bit cynical about all these special 'weeks' and 'days', anyway, so I'm not so bothered.
The lesson here for businesses in general is more clean cut. You won't get much credit for 'doing good' if you are still 'doing bad'. Stopping doing 'bad' things is the litmus test between a true green business and the rest. And that takes real leadership.
Everyone who has tried to spread the green message has come up against the wall of indifference. What's wrong with people? Don't they understand the world is in peril? Why won't they do anything?
What happens if you shout louder? People seem to take even less notice. So you start railing against the world - why can no-one grasp the issues instead of you?
The problem of course is people have plenty of priorities and will resist having another one. Yes, they care about the polar bear, but what's that got to do with their paper-pushing or lever-pulling job at Megacorp plc?
It's this gap between global issues like climate change and/or high level concepts like sustainability and the day to day pressures of completing that paperwork or finishing that widget that you need to bridge. And you bridge it not by trying to beat your values into their brain, but by putting that issue into the context of the world they inhabit.
Here are some tactics for doing this:
The human interest story: we respond to 'people like us' telling us their story - which is why TV reporters always interview the Western aid worker in famine stories rather than the poor victims (I hate this, but they do it for a reason);
Getting people involved in generating solutions: if people work out what this means to their job function, they make the bridge themselves and get a much deeper understanding than you telling them;
Tailor training and awareness material for particular job functions. So marketers get trained in green marketing, accountants in the business case for sustainability, product developers in eco-design etc;
Tap into any organisational cultural traits. If another issue is a key plank of the culture - eg innovation, health & safety, hygiene, third world development, charitable donations etc - then try to piggy back on that issue rather than trying to create a new plank.
But overall, we have to remember it is about them, not you. This can be tricky - I must admit I occasionally get dragged into a debate with a climate change "sceptic" online and I often forget that others are watching and may give the other guy the benefit of the doubt - particularly if I start batting down the same old tired arguments with a bit too much zeal.
Putting the old ego in the back pocket for a while and getting yourself into their world is the way to win people in the long term.
It just seems to be unrelenting bad going-on-horrific news at the minute: the famine in Somalia, the massacre in Norway and Amy Winehouse's tragic, if inevitable, demise. Anyone looking at the three stories objectively would rank them in that order of importance, yet this morning's UK newspapers had it in reverse, with La Winehouse making most of the headlines and Somalia barely getting a mention.
You'll see a lot of people getting very angry about this inversion of priorities on the Twittersphere. While I have sympathy with them, I'm afraid it has always been this way.
Human nature is driven not by logic, but by gut instinct. We are more interested in news stories that affect people we feel familiar with, at a level we can comprehend, those that are sudden, and those that are geographically close. The Somalis who are suffering are pastoralists, a lifestyle most Westerners have never experienced, so we can't imagine this happening to us, and the tragedy has been unfolding for many weeks. The Norwegians live closer to us and have much the same lifestyle, so we can emphasise with the loss of relatives in such a shocking single event. And Amy Winehouse had touched millions with that extraordinary voice - so much so, that many of us felt we somehow knew her.
You will see the same factors in environmental issues. Last year's Gulf oil spill got a lot of coverage, because it was a single dramatic event, it was easy to see the scale of the problem on TV and the people who were most affected had Western lifestyles. Climate change if a much, much bigger problem yet it rarely if ever gets the same coverage as it is incremental, its impacts are geographically dispersed and there are no pictures of people like us being affected.
So how do we account for this when formulating green communications? If you look at TV coverage of African famines, the presenter will usually do two things - first interview a Western (read: white) aid worker about the scale of the problem (someone like us) and then tell the story of the suffering of one family (get down to the human interest level). I used to get angry about this as I felt it continued a myth of "Western benevolence in terrible Africa" and then intruded in one family's grief when I felt they had suffered enough. But now, while I still don't particularly like it, I understand they are trying to make the story comprehensible to the audience back home.
Likewise, I always advise clients when they are trying to communicate green issues to copy the media and make the story relevant to the audience and, preferably, recount it through the eyes of someone just like them (the audience). For most people, talking about polar bears just won't cut the ice.