Sustainability Communication: How to Use the Power of Language to Spread Your Sustainability Story

On June 6th, 2016, Sustainable Brands hosted Betsy Henning, Founder and CEO of AHA, Inc. Her three hour workshop, “Language is a Virus: Why a Sustainability Story Spread, or Doesn’t”, was presented to a packed audience of sustainability communication experts and corporate social responsibility leaders from around the globe. The premise of the workshop centered around language as either a barrier or a bridge builder, comparing it to a “virus” in its ability to spread and grow slowly or explode, like wildfire.

The presentation and workshops examined language from multiple perspectives – language and audience, the science of language, types of language, among other topics – to show how language can be leveraged to catalyze our sustainability messaging.

Is Your Business Sustainability Policy Up To Date?

Betsy Henning uses the musical “Hamilton” to underscore a method to re-tool a well known message and make it relevant and accessible to a modern audience. The musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton in the language of 2016, using hip-hop and rap as its musical underscore.

The huge success of “Hamilton” can be attributed to spinning the story in a new way and exemplifies the economic power that can be unleashed when a story is given fresh relevance. This example highlights how a simple change of an old paradigm can shake the public consciousness to its very core. Think of the economic power that can be unleashed for your organization if you can shift your communication style. Relevant information with impact are two of the most significant changes you can make to your messaging. Is your business sustainability message or policy current with today’s changing world?

Building Sustainability Communication Bridges

In a world filled with so much information, how do you make your particular sustainability story catch fire? One way is by meeting people on their level, sharing information on both sides of the communication bridge.

AHA, Inc. commonly uses the bridge metaphor to explain how societies attempt communication. It is easier to build a bridge from both ends and the same goes with communication. If relevant ideas are shared with those on the opposite shore, bridging the communication chasm is easier to complete. However, are we sharing a story that can actually be heard and understood?

One of the first steps in bridge building should be an understanding of how the brain processes language. According to researchers, within one hour, readers will forget 50% of what they have read. Within a week, this rises to ninety percent. That’s a LOT of lost information. Generally speaking, the language we are using to tell our story is dividing us when we are seeking unification. How can your story catch fire if only 50% of most information is retained? By seeking out methods to make that information memorable. Focus on creating engaging, relevant, and sharable content and your audience will grow by leaps and bounds.

Creating An Authentic Sustainability Message

Sustainability communication authenticity is sadly lacking in today’s media, despite the fact that we are sharing our internal thoughts more than any time in history. In a perfect world, your sustainability messaging should be as close to “normal” daily conversation as possible. Conduct authentic assessments of your messaging and create credible messages for your audience. Approach sustainability issues with humanity, vulnerability, creativity and honesty by telling a story your audience can relate to. One way to do this is by making a comparison to something important in their lives. Authenticity is one of the most powerful bridge building techniques in your arsenal.

Effective Sustainability Communications Graph

As you are bridge building, don’t forget the many forms of communication at your disposal. Visual, verbal, braille, written, and sign language all fall into the categories of verbal and nonverbal communication. If all forms of communication are embraced, your message can soar to greater heights as you reach even more audiences.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Sustainability Communication

Avoid these sustainability communication faux pas like the plague if you want to keep your audience engaged –

  1. Your Story Is Too Dry – Conversations about sustainability are typically data drive and using tons of statistics and data will make your audience’s eye glaze over and they will move on. Audiences, especially online, are driven by emotion to remain engaged and connected. Spice your story up utilizing multiple media – pictures, font changes, and short paragraphs.
  2. All Emotion With No Substance – Overtly emotional content gives your content a feeling that it is lacking in credibility (there’s authenticity again!). Your audience craves emotion, however; they want to know what they are engaging with is credible. Your audience knows that the world is not all unicorns, butterflies, and puppies.
  3. The Story Is Too Technical – Know thy audience is the mantra here. If your audience is from a non-scientific community, lose the technical language or lose the audience. There is a place for technical language and that is generally among persons in the same field. Some technical language injected into your work is fine as it helps validate your message, just keep it low-key and understandable.
  4. The Use Of Jargon – Jargon differs from technical writing/language as jargon tends to make the writer/speaker appear to be pretentious and self-important. In a specialized field, jargon has it’s place but, for the layman, jargon should simply be avoided.
  5. Your Story Is Ambiguous – Do not dance around the subject. If you do not know what you are writing about then your story is in danger of sounding ambiguous. Keep your subject matter short and sweet and quickly get to the point.
  6. Your Story Is Not Unique – Your story sounds like everyone else’s story of sustainability. Don’t fear uniqueness. It will help you stand out in a sea of sameness and your branding will thank you for it. Address unique stories and situations. Use LOTS of visuals. And don’t be afraid of adding some humor to your story.
  7. Is Your Story Holistic? – Particularly difficult for large companies. Make certain each story/article fits into the larger message.

The Relevance Of Your Audience

Ask yourself “what’s at stake for your organization”? For environmental groups, the survival of the planet is the priority. For a large Fortune 500 company, it might be next quarter’s earnings while other companies are concerned about sustainability for future use of a natural product, such as trees. The point is to understand what your audience holds dear to drive home your sustainability message.

For example, are you addressing a group of homemakers with children? Your sustainability message might stress their future. A large corporation will view sustainability differently from homemaker mom. How will a healthy planet affect their bottom line? In other words, your message must fit your audience. Your audience is who you are communicating to and they are your stakeholders. An exploration of your audience is the first thing you should do before putting one word online or when speaking. Try these tips today when communicating sustainability:

  • Pause to boost comprehension – Help people absorb what you’re saying. Take a couple of minutes between points so they can catch up to your words or ask a question. Give them space for their brains to work and for interaction to work.
  • Watch your words carefully – Choose words that connect individually with your audience and build a stronger vocabulary so you can speak to them in terms they understand. Focus on that immediate benefit and bring it as close as you can to your audience.
  • Actively listen to create dialogue – Not only will this help build your vocabulary, but you will learn from your audience what is important to them and how to build that communication bridge from their side of the river. 
  • Go beyond words – Use body language when possible as a tool to connect more deeply with your audience. Infographics, emojis, icons and pictures are all also great digital tools to capture human attention with visually imagery.

In closing, simply remember audience, message, communication techniques, and authenticity. Engage your audience, hold them close and if you take care of them, they will take care of you!

Edited by Debbe Ferris

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