How can we improve sustainability communication?
Hardly a week (day?) goes by in my life as a communications consultant without a client talking about sustainability.
This is perhaps not surprising.
I’m based in Stockholm, the capital of a country that has long been recognized as a leader when it comes to sustainability. And I work with a number of Sweden-based multinational companies that also recognize the importance of pivoting their business toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
In fact, if I had to pick the ONE communication theme connecting businesses of all shapes and sizes that I’ve worked with in the past couple of years, it would be sustainability.
Given that so many businesses have a clear sustainability imperative, and that media coverage of sustainability is on the rise in Sweden and elsewhere (thanks Greta!), you’d think by now that most people would have a fairly decent grasp of some basic sustainability facts.
Alas, this is far from the case.
A failure of sustainability communication?
A recent report by Gapminder, the organization founded by the legendary Swedish lover-of-facts Hans Rosling, reveals that monkeys do better than people across the Nordics when it comes to knowledge of sustainability facts.
People in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark could barely answer three of 18 multiple choice questions about the UN Sustainable Development Goals posed by Gapminder.
Statistically, a monkey or toddler picking blindly would generate six correct answers – roughly twice the number managed by a wide majority of seemingly educated people in the Nordics.
Among some of the most glaring misconceptions revealed by Gapminder:
- Most wrongly believe fossil fuels are no longer the world’s primary energy resources (it turns out 81% of energy used in the world still comes from gas, oil, or coal)
- Most people think there are 10 times more refugees than there actually are (only 0.4% of the world’s population are refugees, while most put the figure at 4.4%)
- Many believe more than a third of all plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans (in reality, less than 6% of plastic waste winds up in the ocean).
As someone who spends a significant amount of time working with companies to help them identify and spread messages about sustainability, I found the results somewhat surprising, if not a bit disappointing.
To what extent should I as a communications consultant or the companies who have invested significant resources in sustainability communication, feel some level of responsibility for the message not getting through?
The legacy of Hans Rosling
But rather than fret over whether they’ve contributed to people’s apparent ignorance about sustainability, companies should instead rejoice at the fantastic opportunity they have to help fill the knowledge gaps revealed by the Gapminder survey.
Here too, we can take inspiration from Rosling, who recognized long ago that people in wealthy countries like the Nordics suffer from a “toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance”.
In other words, people have been failing to learn basic facts about the world well before the UN SDGs became the basis of sustainability communication.
And Rosling dedicated the last years of his life to doing something about it, trying to help people better understand basic facts about the world around them. His weapon of choice: great stories. Rosling was – among many things – a brilliant storyteller.
He understood that data alone couldn’t help people understand the world around them. Knowing the numbers may be a prerequisite to building that understanding, but it was only when those numbers were placed within a graspable context that their meaning began to sink in.
In one of his most famous TedTalks, Rosling helped explain economic growth, energy use, and the risk of climate change by telling the story of the washing machine and how it transforms societies.
What made Hans Rosling such an effective messenger was not that he had all the numbers. It was that he was able to weave those numbers into a story. He was able to take facts and figures and put them into a context that made the information more digestible and understandable for more people.
Story-based sustainability communication
So, what can companies do to make their sustainability communication more effective and help people in the Nordics and elsewhere know more about sustainability than the average monkey?
Do what Hans would do: tell great stories.
Stories that start not with a desire to boast about how you’re reducing carbon emissions in your supply chain, but with a desire to help your audience fill a knowledge gap.
And keep your stories simple. Try to focus on one thing; the tree rather than the forest; a single achievement or change rather than a grand vision. Three steps can be enough for a good story: Problem. Solution. Impact. Keeping your stories bite-sized and graspable helps increase the chances that they will actually be understood, remembered, and ultimately help fill those knowledge gaps.
Also, find stories that inspire optimism and hope rather than stoke fears and angst. There is plenty of doom and gloom when it comes to sustainability. The Gapminder survey shows that most people think the world is actually much worse off than it is. Even if some may remain cynical about companies’ commitment to sustainability, there’s no escaping the critical role companies have in advancing sustainability goals, whether through changing behavior or new innovations. Finding and telling simple, positive stories from your own operations that can fill those knowledge gaps can help position your business as a leader worth following.
It’s also important to keep in mind what I like to call the three “Rs” of storytelling:
- Make it Relevant: it doesn’t matter how good your story may seem. If the story isn’t relevant for your audience, your message won’t get through. Making a story relevant means listening to and understanding your audience. Understanding what they are interested in – really identifying a knowledge gap – and then finding a story that helps fill it.
- Make it Relatable: just because something is relevant, that doesn’t mean is relatable. And relatability can indeed be a challenge when finding stories about negative emissions technology or carbon border adjustment taxes. The key is finding a story that connects to the audience’s daily life, to a context they understand. Understanding life from their perspective and weaving that into your storytelling can help create a stronger connection with the audience, increasing the chances that your story will be remembered.
- Make it Real: for a story to stick, it has to be authentic, believable, and rooted in a business’s core activities. The story needs to be a truthful, accurate portrayal of what’s going on within your company and also have a clear and obvious connection to a sustainability topic. Failure to “keep it real” can lead to accusations of greenwashing and simply trying to “talk the talk” without “walking the walk”.
Finally, once you have a good story, don’t be afraid to repeat it. Over and over and over. Rosling too belived that repetition was a key to understanding and was a proud practioner of repetition. He told many of the same stories over the years, but people never got tired of them – largely because they were relevant, relatable, and real.
So don’t shy away from investing a little extra effort in finding and developing a good story. Because once you’ve found it, it can be used and reused for years to come, helping to fill many more knowledge gaps along the way.
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