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  • Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy Year Two in Review – “Best Advice I’ve Received”

Updated: Feb 26

We’ve just wrapped up the second year of our series of monthly Q&As with influential energy and environmental leaders. It’s hard to believe we’ve now had two dozen participants in our Common Sense Colloquy series. As I noted last year at this time, I didn't know what to expect when I started this series in February 2018. What I hoped was that I’d get smart people to share common sense advice about communications. The results have far exceeded my hopes: each Q&A has been insightful in different ways and I’ve learned so much, not just about energy and environmental communications, but about the fascinating people I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing.


Now I get to highlight all of that great insight again with a series of three posts this week featuring some of the wisdom of our Year Two Common Sense Colloquy participants. And what an amazing group of people. As per usual, I’ve alternated between men and women each month and I’ve tried to include a mix of perspectives from different fields of interest, different geographical locations (including my alma mater, Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas!) and different kinds of expertise (including science, business, finance and more).


Today, I’m sharing excerpts from answers to the question “What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve received?”


Tomorrow, I’ll share answers related to best advice our participants give to others. On Thursday, I’ll wrap the series with my favorite comments from each participant.


Now, on with the show. And our thanks again to Katharine, Roger, Jennifer, Jigar, Abby, Greg, Roxanne, Collin, Miranda, Ernest, Marilyn and Ethan for sharing their insight!


Question: What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve received?


  • Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University: Make sure you can distill the most important thoughts you want to get across into a few super-short sound bites. People’s attention is limited, especially in the media: sometimes 10 seconds is all you’ll get. Make it count!


  • Roger Ballentine, Green Strategies: Know your audience and what motivates them.


  • Jennifer Holmgren, Lanzatech: “Simplifying messages” is always what I get a lot of. I come from a technical background and that means I think I’ve simplified it and I haven’t. I get that feedback a lot. Often the audience is happy with a “black box” and I spend a lot of time on the technology and that’s not relevant for every audience.


  • Jigar Shah, Generate Capital: The press and others actually need content. So they need you more than you need them. It is important to have a clear goal about why you are engaging in communications and what goals you want to reach with each outreach. If you are not clear about what you are trying to accomplish then your message will just be lost in the sheer volume of media today.


  • Abby Hopper, Solar Energy Industries Association: To be honest and clear—don’t overcomplicate the message. A message is always strongest when it is direct and concise, and that applies in any form of communicating. As an advocate, I always go into any meeting, interview or discussion with a clear ask or goal. Framing everything around that goal always yields stronger results. Another great piece of advice I have received is to be accessible. That’s why I give my cell phone out to my staff, partners and colleagues, really anyone. Having that openness and availability breaks down unnecessary barriers of communication and helps with the transparency piece I mentioned earlier.


  • Greg Wetstone, American Council on Renewable Energy: Be concise, keep your audience in mind, and never believe your own hype.


  • Roxanne Brown, United Steelworkers: Keep it simple. Oftentimes in the policy space, we think the more words we use, the more convincing our arguments and the more we pull an audience in. We can’t help but be “wonks”! That may work when communicating with policymakers, but workers are also a key element of moving policy. Workers are astute and tuned into what’s happening, but they are also really busy working 10-12 hours shifts and juggling their kids, ailing parents, or other commitments. They don’t have time to read white papers, so the more simple and straightforward the message the better!


  • Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation: Never underestimate your audience. Whether listening to a speech or reading something you’ve written, people are giving you the greatest gifts they have — their time and attention. Don’t disrespect it. Don’t waste it. It’s easy to go through the motions and resort to generic soundbites. But what people crave more than anything else in this increasingly virtual world is authentic communications that engage them at a human level, present them with a clear vision, and provide actionable steps for how they can make a difference. People have phenomenal capacity when inspired to act.


  • Miranda Ballentine, Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance: Use periods, not commas. Drop the jargon.


  • Ernest Moniz, Energy Futures Initiative: You need to clearly explain issues to members of the public in order to move people toward science-based solutions that they believe can work and improve lives.


  • Marilyn Brown, Georgia Tech: Smile when presenting. Be uplifting. We have enough bad news about the state of the climate. Focus on solutions. Also, I’ve learned from 20 years as a university professor that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Sometimes we need to do less talking and more listening.


  • Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF: If you don’t understand what you’re writing/saying, then your audience doesn’t either. I remember as a reporter jotting down various technical things sources would tell me then chucking them into my story. My excellent editor, Susan Moeller, would then say, “Maybe I’m being stupid, but I don’t understand what you’re saying here.” It’s an incredibly polite way of saying that either you don’t know what you’re talking about or you haven’t explained it well enough. In my current job, I’ve edited at least 1,000 pieces of research we produce for our clients. I like to tell the analysts I edit that I use my ignorance to my advantage. If I can’t understand what they’re saying, then neither can our clients!




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