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It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

by Mel Starrs on October 2, 2006

in Psychology & Marketing

Turns out the message isn’t half as important as how the message is conveyed. Sounds rational, doesn’t it? I started writing this post with a view to reviewing carbon rationing but it quickly evolved into a lesson on communicating and persuasion. I’ll begin with a video of Mayer Hillman on YouTube from BBC Breakfast on Carbon Rationing:

Debate on BBC Breakfast between Professor Mayer Hillman and Professor James Woudhuysen about the Carbon Ration Card proposal announced by Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs David Miliband.

I have read Mayer’s book “How We Can Save the Planet” and there is some useful and interesting information within it. A review of the book and some lively comments are available over at World Changing. Mayer argues the case for contraction and convergance and most of the time he has me convinced. What I do have issue with Mayer over is the tone of his message, both in the book and on the clip above. Despite the fact that I agree with most of what Mayer preaches, after watching the clip above, I was more convinced by James Woudhuysen. James does have some valid points but they are less to do what he is proponent for (technological innovation*) and more to do with his attack on Mayer’s ‘finger-wagging’ tactics.

I explained in an earlier post how you can’t scare people into being green. Unfortunately the overriding message throughout Mayer’s book (and the interview above) is that of guilt and regret. We know this tactic will not wash it with most humans. It a real shame as I do believe he has an important message that deserves to be heard – but he’s not saying it in a way which people will listen to.

Conversely Kathy Sierra has pointed me towards this great article in Fast Company which also points out that telling people that something is good for them is also inadequate motivation for them to change behaviours. Instead the author, Alan Deutschman, suggests that by invoking feelings of hope and optimism, behaviours will change. Reframing the positives to fit the perspective of those you wish to persuade, coupled with a short, sharp shock approach and a support mechanism or community is also advocated.

So as an industry our challenge is how to persuade people to change their behaviours using hope and optimism. Quite a challenge.

An easy win normally cited is installing automated (‘idiot proof’) energy conservation measures such as daylight saving sensors on lighting, intelligent BMS and automated window systems. But even this can be fraught with difficulty. Humans, by their very nature, just aren’t happy unless they perceive that they have some control over their environment. The trick is getting the balance right between an ‘nannying’ of occupants who can be happy that carbon is reduced but miserable that they can’t change the temperature, or giving free rein to occupants, who will be deliriously happy that they can turn the cooling down to 19ºC but wracked with guilt over the consequences on the environment. Forcing a behaviour change will not work, it has to be on the terms of those whose behaviour you are trying to change.
The UK government has a useful leaflet available with advice for communicating climate change.

current attitudes

They give the following advice:

Research has shown that there are some important issues you should consider when you communicate climate change:

– People are rarely motivated to act by threats to their long-term survival – think about how many people still smoke despite the known risks. In fact, when it comes to climate change, people are not even normally motivated by concern for their children’s future.

– Don’t create fear about climate change without showing what people can do about it. If people can simply avoid frightening issues, or put them to the back of their minds, they will.

– It’s often unhelpful to criticise behaviour that people consider normal in their home or family. Instead, make behaviour that reduces the threat of climate change seem positive and desirable.

– Don’t rely solely on logic, facts or even money-saving incentives – people need to be inspired and provoked.

– Encourage discussion between individuals in your audiences – debate raises awareness.

– Associate climate change with people** your audience admire or respect, or with things they care about, like home improvement or local green spaces.

– Be consistent in your use of language and your explanation of climate change – this will help it stick in people’s minds.


This goes some way to explaining the success of certification schemes such as BREEAM and LEED. They provide frameworks to demonstrate what can be done. The goal of achieving a better rating than contemporary buildings makes it desirable and provides something to aspire to. This isn’t the complete answer to our problems though. Any further thoughts anyone?
I’ll guess I’ll have to try writing the carbon rationing post another time.

*I’m a firm proponent of the ‘Lean, Green, Clean’ hierarchy of energy consumption. James’ technological innovations do have a place in the debate and would come under the clean and green categories, but his assertions that individuals should not have any personal responsibility for their own consumption is idiocy. Of course you have a responsibility for your own actions. By failing to reduce consumption in the first place, we have set ourself an even bigger technological challenge to face. Whilst I’m always up for a challenge, making it bigger than it needs to be seems daft to me – maybe I’m just being lazy?

**On this point, feel free to point any avid readers of Heat magazine towards Ecorazzi. You never know, reading about Brangelina’s latest escapades may have a bigger effect on the majority of the country than any targetted TV campaign…