How to talk so people listen: self help for politicians

When it comes to talking about the shift to low carbon living, politicians could be much more persuasive if they understood people better. Here, under titles adapted from some of the ”self-help” genre’s best-selling editions, is an introduction to Green Alliance’s new guide for politicians who want to inspire support for climate change policies.

Understanding what motivates people is the key to good climate change communications.

Without an appreciation of human psychology, politicians will find neither workable solutions, nor public support. To paraphrase psychologist Adam Corner, they’ll end up with a zero carbon bus fleet with zero passengers.

When it comes to talking to the public about the shift to low carbon living, politicians could be much more persuasive if they understood people better. Luckily, a whole range of disciplines have long had this as their aim, from communications to psychology to marketing. And one product has done extremely well out of distilling this knowledge: the self-help book.

Here, under titles adapted from some of the genre’s best-selling editions, is an introduction to Green Alliance’s new guide for politicians who want to inspire support for climate change policies.

How to talk so people listen: The key to job success

Telling a good story is a prerequisite for getting people’s attention, never mind their support. Keep talking about impending climate doom and people will switch off pretty quickly.

Now that Copenhagen is over it’s time to stop talking about multilateral agreements and melting icecaps and start telling positive stories about what we can do in the UK. Government needs a desirable vision of a low carbon future and an action plan to get us there. Politicians should inspire people using concepts such as freedom and fairness, not just statistics. And it’s crucial to be clear that this problem is not just environmental, but relates to fundamental national concerns such as security.

Some people are from mars, some are from venus

Politicians need to understand the values that motivate people. Relating the low carbon shift to their current desires, whether that’s feeling safe, being popular, or becoming a better person, is much better than relating it to abstract global problems.

But politicians also need to know what they want to get out of their relationship with the public. If you want people to drive electric cars and buy different light bulbs then this approach might be enough. But if politicians expect the public to use less stuff and co-operate more, then they might have to go beyond appealing to dominant values and try to promote more latent ones, such as responsibility and care for others.

The magic of thinking big

Climate change is a big problem, but some of the suggested solutions have been decidedly small. Variations on “Apocalypse is coming! Green your life in five simple steps” has been the story line to the public for some time. This clearly doesn’t stack up, and misses out a crucial part of the story.

With a problem on the scale of climate change, we need big solutions and only government can make these happen. Politicians should move from “are you doing your bit?” campaigns to “we’re doing our bit”, publicising government action and communicating under the core message “we’re doing everything we can to make these changes possible, but we can’t do it without your help.” With a big overarching story on going low carbon, politicians can ask more of the public, and public action makes more sense.

Show, don’t tell!: secrets of good writing

As any budding writer knows, telling people something is much less compelling than showing it to them. Writers can do this through description, politicians through action. Politicians can talk until they are blue in the face, but until people see changes happening, most won’t pay any attention.

Events like a climate change version of Red Nose Day, visible changes such a clearly branded loft insulation programme, and price signals such as cheaper train tickets would all show people that this is for real. Visible actions take low carbon living out of the realm of speeches and into people’s lives.

Feel the fear and do it anyway: how to turn your fear and indecision into confidence and action

Communicating better could certainly help politicians to get stronger public support for decarbonising the UK. But uncertain public support is no excuse for inaction. To lead us through this crisis, politicians will sometimes need to venture out of their comfort zone. They need to feel the fear and do it anyway. In fact, taking bold action is a vital communication tool in itself, as it shows commitment and reduces the confusing gap between the catastrophe government talks about and its modest actions so far.

(For more details see our report from hot air to happy endings: how to inspire public support for a low carbon economy)

Posted by Sylvia Rowley at 6/14/2010 5:27 PM

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