By Antonio White
Copyright (C) 2007
It’s February 17, 2007 in San Francisco, the sky is blue, the Sun is out and the weather could not be lovelier.
Thanks global warming.
The Academy Award nominated An Inconvenient Truth reminds me of the old joke about an Englishman who, while on vacation in the US, drowned in a lake even though there were people nearby who could hear his voice. The man, fearing for his life, exclaimed, “Assistance! Assistance!” rather than “Help!” or “I’m drowning!” As a result, people, not hearing a word commonly used with such a threat, simply walked by and the man drowned.
The joke illustrates the idea that choosing the right word can mean the difference between your life and your death. Now back to the weather…
In 2005, Al Gore gave his now famous slide show presentation at the annual Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference. At this event, he asked for support from communicators, advertisers and marketers to help him “brand” the idea behind his mission to reduce global warming.
He stated at the beginning of his film that he feels that he’s failed in finding a way of getting his point across. Even with all the great visuals and supportive science behind it, even with the millions of dollars the film generated and with an Academy Award nomination, there is still no sense of collective urgency to take action. Mr. Gore illustrates towards the end of the film that we as a society have a “collective nervous system”. He states, “It takes a sudden jolt sometimes before we become aware of a danger.” He hit the communications challenge on head. It’s the reason people are not acting more urgently to address this issue.
As a tactical communications advisor, the source of the problem seems pretty clear to me.
The Terms, “Global Warming” and “Climate Crisis” are the equivalent of yelling “Assistance!” rather than “Help, I’m Drowning!” Much like the drowning Englishman, Mr. Gore’s propriety and tone is more of a “friendly uncle” than that of a serious fireman who would tell you to install a smoke detector so you can escape the threat of fire. We should have signs indicating the Carbon Dioxide Threat just as we have those that indicate Daily Fire Danger. Our Homeland Security Alert allows us no opportunity to act in a meaningful way, while a Carbon Dioxide Alert would be a reminder that there are things we can do to eliminate the threat.
Here’s the rationale in brief:
First, let’s assess the term “Global Warming”:
1. The word “Warming” has no negative connotations. When you think of “warm”, what comes to mind? Comfort? A cozy home? Vacation? Summer? Beach? You get it. Besides, for people suffering from freak rainfall, snow and the like, the idea that the globe is warming doesn’t connect to the problem they face.
2. We as a Judeo-Christian based society believe that we have dominion over the earth. We are taught that we are at the top of the food chain and that we are owners of that which we survey. As a result, we are unlikely to connect with a concept that we are “part of” or “from” the Earth. As a result, we are disconnected from the planet (the “global” part of global warming).
Now let’s consider “Climate Crisis”:
1. This naming approach is all style and no substance. Its poetic alliteration is wasted as it does not provide a call to action (same as global warming).
2. Climate does not test well, as most people do not use the word climate. The word has few negative connotations, and to the degree that there are negative connotations, they are associated with weather. The word “crisis” is an attention word, however, it is not the most evocative word we could choose. Why? Today we have more immediate “crises” and “Climate Crisis” seems unapproachable. As a result, we apply ourselves to immediate crises and those long-term ones that we believe we can influence and overcome.
Now on to some solutions:
First, we need to think more deeply about why the current approach lacks teeth. The main reason, as in the majority of communication gaps, is the lack of appeal to the self-interest of the audience.
Question 1: How does “global warming” affect our audience?
Question 2: What action do we want our audience to take?
Question 3: What is the incentive to take this action?
Let’s just assume that we believe the over 2000 scientists who assert that the globe is warming AND that we have a direct, measurable role in accelerating this result.
How would I go about this? A quick understanding about how the brain works is helpful. In brief it’s important to understand the role of the amygdala in driving the actions of our body. The amygdala is at the bottom of the brain and top of the spine; it is responsible for controlling our fight or flight response. Its role is to keep us out of immediate physical or perceived threats. It’s the part of our brain that jolts our body into action. It’s the part of our brain that determines the sense of timing in an urgent situation (by the way, did you find the first clue?).
“Threat” is a key word that gains the brain’s attention. It scans far better than “Crisis” It’s probably why the Department of Homeland Security uses a “Threat Level Alert” rather than a “Crisis Alert”. Stephan Colbert on his popular television show, The Colbert Report has a regular segment called the “Threat Down” “Threat” is an alert word while “crisis”, by itself, is a descriptive word. For the word “crisis” to be as effective as “threat” it requires supporting words such as “looming” or “imminent”. When it comes to motivating others, it’s easier to convey the idea that we can eliminate a threat. A crisis sounds far more complex and unapproachable. While “crisis” may be the more accurate description of the situation, “threats” are easier to grasp and attack. Within a crisis there are generally many smaller situations that need to be addressed, as a result, it can be hard for us to wrap our head around the concept and take action. Getting out of a crisis seems overwhelming, while eliminating a threat sounds achievable.
A friend of mine, Myron Eichen, once gave me the best business advice I’ve ever received. When I asked him what the secret to his successful career was he answered, “Focus.” It took me ten years to figure this out and I now apply his advice to my clients’ communication challenges. In the case of Global Warming, the issue lacks focus.
Let’s look at what actions Al Gore would like his audience to take. As I understand it, the most pressing issue is to reduce carbon emissions. That being said, the first thing that comes to mind is the idea of “Carbon Dioxide Threat.” Essentially, it makes sense to make “carbon” the new “cigarette”. While “Endangered Earth” might test better than “Climate Crisis”, it still lacks specificity from which to act upon, so let’s keep working with the idea of “Eliminating the Carbon Dioxide Threat”. If we want to make this a step more personal we could state, “How you can eliminate the carbon dioxide threat in your home.”
Note: Keep in mind, I’m showing you a process for thinking that you can use to come up with your own solution to the challenge. Let’s continue…
Carbon Threat is a good start. In two words, we have a specific, tangible object, “carbon” and an action/alert attention word, “threat.” Mahan Kalsa, in his book, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play he explains how to overcome a sales situation that seems far too large to achieve. His recommendation, “Chunk it down.” This applies to “global warming” in the following way. Global Warming seems too big. If we can, “chunk it down” to “Eliminating” the “Carbon Dioxide Threat” we have a far greater opportunity to gain the attention of our audience and to get them to act.
It’s easier for us to think about breaking something down or eliminating it vs. building something new.
Let’s focus on something we can get our hands around and solutions that help us achieve the desired result. Let’s not focus on ambiguities that cause more questions than answers. People don’t want to waste time. In order to achieve his objective, Mr. Gore needs to present his information in a way that does not require us to think too hard.
I imagine Mr. Gore beginning his presentation with something such as:
Carbon Dioxide emissions are a threat to our national and global security. War, famine and disease are all byproducts of our addiction to oil. Our mother earth is dying. She is choking on the cigarette-like smoke we spew from our factories, cars and homes. For decades, we have been unaware that our collective “smoking” was affecting her health. We smoked because it was cool. Because our friends did it. Because we were pressured to do so. Now science has unequivocally proven that not only is our behavior killing mother earth, we are also killing our friends, our families and ourselves.
This is not a complex issue. There are many easy things you can do to help right now. The easiest thing you can do to eliminate The Carbon Dioxide Threat is to (Mr. Gore, insert a single call to action here). If we could all (single call to action), within 1 year we could cut carbon dioxide emissions by (x)%. The world’s leading scientists believe that accomplishing this would be the fastest way relieve the stranglehold of carbon dioxide emissions on our lives and putting us on track to eliminate the Carbon Dioxide Threat by (projected date). This (single call to action) is easy, cheap and won’t even impact the quality of your life. As a matter of fact, by doing (single call to action) we come one giant step closer to eliminating our global addiction to oil, providing a legacy of fresh air and water for our children, and building a sustainable global economy.
By taking action right now and (single call to action), you can take a stand against the Carbon Threat and its death-grip on Mother Nature. I urge all of you to join me in this fight to protect our collective family and leave a meaningful and loving legacy for those who follow us.
Your mother needs you; now is the time to act. Together we can eliminate the threat of carbon dioxide and its stranglehold on our lives. Together, we can make the “Carbon Dioxide Threat” to our home, history.
Mr. Vice President, you asked for our ideas, please accept mine with good wishes for your health, leadership and continued success.