Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A mental note on communicating with humans

Sometimes, in more extreme moments, I think of Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog as a Bible of science and environmental issues, and how to communicate about them. This is certainly gospel:

We’re Talking About Humans Here

Everyone associated with environmental communication needs to read The Cluetrain Mainfesto of 1999 and take it to heart. The environmental struggle is one big exercise in persuasion. What the Cluetrain folks pointed out is that humans respond to human voices. You can “frame” all you want, but if the communication is coming from robots, the only ones who will respond will be the robots. People have enormous perceptual power and instincts, the science of which is only beginning to be explored. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” provides a starting point. The bottom line is it only takes a few seconds for people to listen to a voice and decide whether they trust it or not. If that voice is devoid of human qualities, and worse if there is a clear sense that the voice is speaking with “messages” that have been “framed” and “focus grouped,” it just ain’t gonna work for the masses. And double that for the younger masses.

Obama is making enormous strides now on science and environmental issues because he’s been placed in the position of power to do so. He got there not through cold, calculated messaging, but by being an EXTREMELY likable (a crucial trait for today’s increasingly style-driven world), deeply humanized person who is able to convey the central human qualities of humor and emotion. When he addressed the Reverend Wright issue in one of the pivotal moments of his campaign, he did so with an impassioned and vibrantly human voice which succeeded in putting out a potentially lethal fire.

These are elements of style in communication which are central to our information-glutted world. Yes, language does matter, but that is primarily an element of substance (i.e. the text of what is communicated). You can come up with all the clever terms you want, but if they are spoken by environmental leaders who are perceived as cold, calculating, and manipulative, the broader audience will simply disconnect. Not because of the language, but because of their basic instincts leading them to not trust the voice they are hearing.