There’s a shift in climate change communication that is transforming the way that we talk about climate change science.

We no longer have to communicate to ‘prove’ the science. The science is sorted. Nor do we have to continue to go over basic terms and concepts. People know about greenhouse gases, and understand that their increasing concentrations are warming the planet.

The challenge now for climate communicators (and scientists) is making climate science accessible, useful and relevant to people, so they can use it to prepare for the impacts that a changing climate will deliver.

But how do we do this?

Here are my five tips for climate-ready communication:

  1. Remember that the science doesn’t have to be front and centre to be valued and of value.
  2. Make it relatable – local references provide a context people understand.
  3. Accentuate the positive.
  4. Cater for the different ways that people interpret information.
  5. Layer your information from general to detailed.

Climate-ready Victoria: a case study

climate-readyIn collaboration with Paul Holper (Scientell), we recently worked with the Victorian Government to prepare a series of regional brochures explaining the likely impacts of climate change and describing how best to adapt to them. This project provided the perfect opportunity to apply our five tips for climate-ready communication.

  1. We put the science in the back seat. While the latest climate science (the 2015 climate projections from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology) was at the core of these products, it was not the focus of them. There’s no denying that this science is world-leading, and to those working in the field it’s all quite engrossing stuff. However, for the rest of us who don’t know our HadGEM2.0 from our MIROC5, the science can be incomprehensible and distancing.
  1. We made the material locally relevant. Climate change can feel like a global, almost abstract, issue that is ‘out there’ and too big to deal with now in our daily lives. We provided information about key towns in each region, showing the likely impacts of climate change in the readers’ backyards.
  1. We gave examples of what is already being achieved. The purpose of these publications is to inform and empower people to take action to adapt to a changing climate. We provided many examples of groups that were already taking steps in this direction to illustrate that you don’t have to be a G-20 government to make a difference. We wanted to show that communities all over Victoria are already getting climate-ready, so there’s no reason the reader couldn’t take positive action either.
  1. We catered for a range of ways for people to take in information. Some people are visual and interpret an image or a graph much more easily than a paragraph of text, while others lose the plot when they look at a plot, finding it much easier to understand a few lines of well crafted prose. So, we used different graph styles, photos and text. The text was clearly signposted with clear headings and subheadings, as well as pictograms that were repeated in infographics.
  1. We provided layers of information, so people could delve as little or as much as they wanted. Some people are happy with an overview, while others want to drill deeply into the detail. We used summary boxes and key message/statement headings, so the important points could be taken in at a glance. We expanded on these points in text and figures, and provided data sheets for people who really wanted the nuts and bolts. We also provided links to sources of further information.

The Climate-ready Victoria brochures and data sheets are available at www.climatechange.vic.gov.au/understand.

Last week I had the good fortune to attend the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) conference in Brisbane. The theme of the conference was ‘Research to Community’, so as far as science conferences go, there was a significant focus on matters of communication – from how operational forecasters convey tropical cyclone information, to using communication as a tool to secure research funding.

For a science communicator – and particularly one who works a great deal in climate and Earth sciences – it was a fantastic conference to attend. (Congratulations to the organisers on a great program!)

With so many sessions, conversations and presentations, what do I think was the key message as far as ‘Research to Community’ goes?

It comes down to one word, which came up more than any other in all of the communication-themed plenaries and presentations: audience.

David Schultz (author of Eloquent Science) perhaps put it best in his plenary Communicating Science: Lessons for Scientists, Forecasters, Educators, and Students when he said ‘Pity the audience’. This isn’t to say ‘feel sorry for’ the audience, so much as ‘feel for’ the audience; think about who you are communicating to, what they want to know and how you can tell them so they understand.

Rod Lamberts echoed this idea in his (7 am the morning after the conference dinner…) science communication workshop, when he said ‘Humans first’. All too often we forget that we’re trying to get through to other people, with their own lives, contexts, problems and predispositions.

Unfortunately, the science communication cart often goes before the horse: we start with the how (‘we need a brochure’, ‘let’s get on Twitter’, ‘we should set up a blog’, etc.) before we consider the who – the audience.

Cartoon featuring a horse pushing a cart as another horse looks on

Give your communication the best chance of success  by putting your horse and cart in the right order:

  1. Work out why you want to communicate your science. What is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve?
  2. Determine who you need to reach to achieve your purpose. Is it the public, industry, the government, or a sub-set of one of these groups? The more specific you can be in working this out, the easier the remaining steps are.
  3. Work out what you are going to say. Make your message accessible for the group you identified in Step 2. It should be relevant, interesting and understandable to be engaging.
  4. Determine how you’ll get the message across. What format/channels/media are the people identified in Step 2 going to use.

Always put your audience first. It’s not always easy, but it will help you structure your communication activities, and it will give your audience the chance to be as excited by your work as you are.

I’m so glad that four-year-old Lucas Whitely (and his dad) contacted NASA for some help with Lucas’s homework. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t get to watch, enjoy and learn from this:

Why is NASA engineer Ted Garbeff’s video response to Lucas so great? Because it’s all about Lucas.

It’s not about how great NASA is (although they certainly picked up some PR credit as a result of this video, which did the internet rounds when it was originally posted). It’s not even about how clever Ted is (although as a research engineer in experimental fluid physics at NASA’s Ames Research Center, he obviously is). It’s about answering a child’s questions in an interesting and engaging way.

The key strength of Ted’s response is that it explains some fundamental ideas about science and technology in simple, relatable terms without dumbing it down. It doesn’t use complicated words when simpler ones are more than adequate. It uses examples that a four-year-old English child would understand – to the point of using pounds and pence instead of dollars and cents.

(In fact,  I think Ted’s explanation of counting by starting with 10 (fingers), then 100 (pence), then 1000 (grains of sand in a spoonful) before talking about really big numbers is elegant.)

The other strength of the video is its authenticity. High production values have their place, but not in a video message to a four-year-old. This really is just Ted answering some questions about space, and telling Lucas about his fun job where he gets to play with cool toys and learn about the world.

So, lessons from Ted:

  • Remember who your audience is, and speak to them in terms they understand.
  • Explain abstract concepts using concrete, real world examples that your audience can relate to.
  • Explaining a complex idea using simple words and concepts is not dumbing it down (or certainly shouldn’t be).
  • There are many opportunities when more can be achieved for an organisation or brand by authentic, honest communication than staged, corporate messaging.