The Common Sense Colloquy Year Two in Review - "The Best Advice I've Given to Others"
Updated: Feb 27
Today, I’m sharing the second post in our three-part series marking the end of the second year of the Common Sense Colloquy. The Colloquy is our monthly Q&A series in which I pose questions about communications to energy and environmental leaders from a variety of influential organizations and institutions. Year Two was just as fascinating and insightful as Year One as you’ll see in the comments below highlighting the best common sense communications advice our participants have given to others.
As with our first year, Year Two of the Common Sense Colloquy included interviews with twelve participants (one each month, evenly divided between men and women). And as with last year, the insight we heard this year definitely qualifies as “common sense.” Thanks again to Katharine, Roger, Jennifer, Jigar, Abby, Greg, Roxanne, Collin, Miranda, Ernest, Marilyn and Ethan for their wisdom!
Question: What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve given to others?
Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University: We often feel that we should spend the most time interacting with the loudest voices who oppose us. But in the case of climate change, those “loudest voices” belong to dismissives: people who will dismiss each and every piece of information we give them that shows that yes, climate is changing; yes, humans really are responsible for it this time; and yes, the impacts are already serious and will rapidly become dangerous if we don’t act now. But dismissives are only 10 percent of the population; so my best advice to those who want to talk about climate change is, spend your time talking to the other 90 percent of the population! That’s where we can make the biggest difference. As I explain in my TED talk, the best place to start when talking about climate change is with something we already agree on. Get to know the person or the people you’re talking to. Figure out what they already care about, or value. And then connect the dots, explaining how that will be impacted by climate change. Most of us already care about climate change, even if we don’t know it yet! If you’re talking with someone who owns property on the Gulf Coast, talk about how unchecked carbon emissions will exacerbate sea level rise that is already causing coastal property prices to drop, and may eventually leave that property underwater. If you’re talking to a farmer in West Texas, talk about how climate change is making our already scarce water resources even scarcer, so it makes even more sense to conserve the resources we have. If you’re talking to someone in the military, we’ve got a lot to cover, from how the Dept. of Defense calls climate change a “threat multiplier,” to how it’s struggling to protect vulnerable installations, from the Norfolk Naval Station to Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. Arguing science isn’t going to win hearts and change minds—to really make an impact, we need to connect what people already care about to a changing climate.
Roger Ballentine, Green Strategies: Again, know your audience, understand them, listen as much as you speak, have humility, and then frame your message not in terms of just what you want to say, but also in terms of what your audience wants to hear. Find that win-win message.
Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech: Listen, listen, listen. I think people always come in with a view of something and until you understand what the other guys is thinking, you can’t communicate with them until you know the context, their background and how they come into a problem. People are such individuals that you have to understand where they are coming from and you can then communicate your story and your message.
Jigar Shah, Generate Capital: In general, I never assume that the audience I am working with is as familiar with the issues I am communicating on as I am. People are busy and you have to be able to start with first principles and build from there. Otherwise you lose the audience and they think that you are basically treating them like they are uneducated.
Abby Hopper, Solar Energy Industries Association: believe that if you articulate a bold vision, others will follow. The Solar+ Decade is a good example of that. As an industry, we’re at a critical point where so many Americans are turning to solar and want solar, yet we only represent a small fraction of U.S. generation. To become a much bigger piece of the pie, I thought we needed a bold goal that the whole industry could rally behind—for solar to account for 20% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030. So now that we have this vision, we’re looking at what we need to do in order to get there. What are the policy mechanisms we need in place? What about the grid and other possible constraints? How will we spread the message of this goal and stake claim to it? My team is now developing a roadmap that will lay all of this out and what we need to do as the solar industry’s national trade association to make it happen. Communication is about leadership and the confidence to own whatever you are talking about, while keeping the transparency needed to grow trust and productivity.
Greg Wetstone, American Council on Renewable Energy: If you want press attention to help the public understand a complex issue, begin with the big picture -- the 30,000 foot level, if you will -- and stay out of the weeds.
Roxanne Brown, United Steelworkers: Tell your story. This is the advice we give our members when they come to D.C. to meet with their members of Congress. Their experiences at their mill, hospital, refinery, smelter or plant are uniquely theirs and will not be familiar to policymakers, so we encourage them to speak from the facts of their own lives vs. any wonky fact sheet we pull together. This way of communicating provides essential data that policymakers don’t have, but need.
Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation: Never miss an opportunity. With the constant barrage of information bombarding people every minute of the day, capturing someone’s attention — even just for a moment — can be the difference between success and failure. As they said in Boy Scouts, always be prepared. When an opportunity presents itself, go for it!
Miranda Ballentine, Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance: Ditto. [From What She’s Received: Use periods, not commas. Drop the jargon.]
Ernest Moniz, Energy Futures Initiative: Data and science craft better solutions than magical thinking about either the problem or possible solutions.
Marilyn Brown, Georgia Tech: Make the text bigger so it's easier to read.
Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF: Don’t worry about patronizing our clients. There can be an annoying trend within the energy world to try to look super-smart by dropping tons of acronyms and other jargon. We at BNEF can definitely fall at times into this trap, in part out of fear that others in the sector will not respect us if we don’t “speak the language.” I find this is especially true with our more junior analysts who find themselves tasked with giving presentations to rooms full of folks with 10, 20, or more years of experience in the field. But patronizing is a risk I’m just about always willing to take. I can’t ever recall a client saying to us, “honestly, I really wish you guys hadn’t wasted the time to re-explain how X worked.” I’ve been editing BNEF research 15 years now and no one has ever made that complaint.
In tomorrow’s third and final post in this series, I’ll share my favorite comments from each of the participants.