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What Gets People to Act:
Doom and Gloom or Rainbows and Sunshine?

The negative framing that accompanies “traditional” climate communications risks turning people off, but exclusively positive framing has its own issues. Long story short, we need both. Here are a few tips for choosing the right one.

If you’ve been working in sustainability, you might be tired of seeing this story arc repeatedly applied like a blunt instrument. It usually begins with apocalyptic statements such as “the world is dying. Our systems are broken. We have until 2030 to save the planet,” etc. After terrifying audiences into crippling eco-anxiety, it ends with bland, dissatisfying taglines such as: “But there’s hope. Together, we can make the planet better for future generations.” Besides the abundance of vague clichés (see our first article about bad sustainability writing), there is a fundamental question to answer about the frames sitting under this narrative. How do we inspire action: Is it by framing sustainability through a positive or negative lens?

Framing is how content is positioned — the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what.’ Simply put, a glass half empty or half full are the same thing, but the framing of each implies something different. A plethora of frames are employed in sustainability communications, but we believe the positive vs. negative framing debate is the most critical.

As with many sustainability issues, the answer isn’t simple. In the research conducted for our Words that Work report, we discovered that understanding the nuance is crucial to getting the answer right for your audience.

The horrific consequences of climate change naturally led to negatively framed communications highlighting the risks humanity faces if we don’t act. For a long time, sustainability communications were dominated by these negatively framed messages. There are some real issues with this: If the framing is too grim, people just don’t engage with communications and try not to think about the issues. There’s even been a worrying trend in the acceptance of our species’ impending doom, which is not exactly helpful in moving the sustainability agenda forward.

All the negatively framed communications led to a focus on positively framed communications in the past few years. And many studies show that positive framing is simply more effective: A study of 1000 respondents showed that when encouraging individual action on climate change, motivational messages about societal benefits trumped messages about sacrifices we’d have to make. Another study found that communicating about high levels of uncertainty should be matched with positive frames. Essentially, the fuzzier the topic is, the better it is to use motivational and optimistic messages.

But don’t throw negative frames out the window; in some circumstances, negatively framed messages work better. One comprehensive study showed that negative frames inspire action for those with low concern for the environment, but only when accompanied with a ‘way out’ — a tangible solution. Another recent study compared optimistic, pessimistic and fatalistic statements about bees and climate change. It found that “pessimistic messages about climate change may actually boost people’s beliefs that it is a problem and that they can do something to combat it.” This study found that when promoting ‘green’ products, demonstrating the harmful effects of not choosing the product proved more effective than showing the environmental benefits of choosing the product. In other words, negative frames can work if they promote a specific issue and drive people towards a defined action, or if you are dealing with an audience with low sustainability concern.

To reiterate our point: It’s complicated. There is no right or wrong answer.

The overwhelmingly negative framing that accompanies “traditional” climate communications risks turning people off, but exclusively positive framing has its own issues. While any single piece of communication may just need one frame overall, we need both. Here are a few tips to go about choosing the right one:

  1. Work out what you want to change: Are you trying to raise awareness, or drive a specific behaviour? If you are presenting people with a problem, do you have a solution you can offer them?

  2. (Really) understand your audience: Do they have a low concern for the environment, or are they already bought in? Understand where your audience(s) sit on this spectrum to motivate with the right levers. If you have distinct audiences, try to target your communications based on their knowledge of the subject — demographic is important to consider, as well.

  3. Explain the why: What all studies had in common is they showed it is important to tell people why they should care, be it through harmful consequences or hopeful benefits.

This was undoubtedly a humbling exercise for us. It challenged our team’s assumptions and revealed the importance of constantly clarifying the grey areas. Sustainability communications evolves as quickly as sustainability does. Given this pace of change, we have a duty to examine and re-examine our communications strategies for the sake of inspiring the hearts and minds of every human on this planet.

This article is the last of a three-part series, based on the findings in our new thought leadership report, Words that Work: effective language in sustainability communications. It explores what is wrong with how sustainability is written, ten principles for how to fix it, and creative examples of what great looks like. Download the full report here.

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