When audience-based messaging backfires: from global warming to climate change

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A recent report from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University demonstrates how the words we use to describe what we do and the issues we try to affect can sometimes get in the way of our work, even when we think we’re being really smart about it.

The center’s case study is about Americans’ reaction to two similar (but different) terms:  global warming and climate change. The study found that the two terms elicit different responses from Democrats and Republicans. From the report (emphasis mine):

“Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States.”

“By contrast, the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

Translation: A few years ago, many environmentalists began using “climate change” instead of “global warming” because they thought it would help pull Republicans into the issue. It didn’t. But the shift appears to have turned off many Democrats, a group most environmentalists would consider their “base.”

I remember this linguistic shift and the debate it sparked within the environmental community. I also remember that the move toward climate change was supported by Frank Luntz, a brilliant scoundrel who helped Republicans change oil drilling and gambling to energy exploration and gaming. He changed the estate tax, which most Americans support, to the death tax, which most Americans hate. (You can read more here.)

He advised the Republican party that, because it was vulnerable on environmental issues and the voting public was woefully uneducated about the growing scientific certainty about global warming, it should: (1) use the term climate change because it’s less scary than global warming and (2) equate the public’s uncertainty about global warming (which was true) with scientific uncertainty about global warming (which was false). I know. Evil.

So, though Luntz and the environmental community were on different sides of this issue, they ended up cooperating to redefine a global issue to suit the needs of one segment of the message market.

Many groups agonize about the words they use and often try to so carefully parse their messaging for different audiences that the way they describe themselves to one audience is sometimes unrecognizable from how they describe themselves to another. Along the way, they can lose sight of their core values and their core constituents.

I strongly believe in audience-focused language. But your language shouldn’t vary so dramatically that your identity gets muddled. In Texas, we often say that you should “dance with who brung you.” That applies to words, as well. If you’re going to abandon the words, imagery and rhetoric that have helped you grow and inspire your base, be cautious. It doesn’t always go as planned.


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Six tools for better writing

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I understand that offices are less formal than they were 15 years ago and that organizations now assign writing tasks to staff that were hired for other talents (I’m looking at you, scientists and MBA grads). But good writing still matters. I believe that sentences should be properly capitalized and that verbs should agree with nouns. From smart authors (especially from smart authors), we should expect smart writing. When our colleagues stumble, our job as communicators is to politely yet firmly direct them toward the light.

There are countless writers that are more prolific than I am and likely more qualified to give advice. But I can’t help myself. So below are some simple tools I keep handy and three books that every writer should read (and keep and read again). They not only help as I write, but they provide great “backup” when I have to defend my edits with my clients.

The New York Times“After Deadline” grammar blog is one of my nerdy guilty pleasures. Perhaps I read it to see if I can spot the errors before the editor points them out. I’ll never tell. For someone in the communication business, reading about writing is a healthy habit and one I’m proud to keep. And it makes me feel good to know that even the Times makes mistakes.

A dictionary. No joke. I use online dictionaries to confirm spelling. But to confirm that I am using a word correctly, nothing beats a paper dictionary. Why? Mostly it’s because I hate buzz words like optimize, convergence and tweet – words that dictionary editors know are manufactured fluff but include in new editions out of fear of appearing stuffy and old. I prefer to use words that have existed for more than 10 years (Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” is a worthy exception). With online dictionaries, I can’t tell if a word was invented yesterday. I’m working on a post focused entirely on annoying work words. But for now, sticking to dictionary words is a good rule.

A thesaurus. I prefer to use an actual book, but an online version, if used often, can be a good substitute. When I was a kid, I’d use a thesaurus to find fancy words so I’d look smarter than I was. At work, we tend to use words that are more complicated than necessary (utilize instead of use, for example). These days, a thesaurus often helps me find the simpler, not the more complex.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Known informally as “Strunk and White,” it’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read. There’s a good chance you’ve already read it. Read it again. Reviewing the authors’ simplicity and focus would be a good annual habit.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Equally heralded by those that have read it but less famous than “Strunk and White,” On Writing Well is, in many cases, even more instructive and helpful for workplace writers. It’s another good annual read.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Part biography (you learn how King came up with the storyline for Carrie…creepy) and part writer’s workshop, On Writing provides a peek into the habits and opinions of one of America’s most prolific fiction writers. No animals come back from the dead, and it’s a much shorter read than almost anything else King has written. But you’ll gain a real appreciation for words.

Any other suggestions? I’m always looking for new tools. So if you have a favorite writing book or blog, let me know.

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Two approaches to selling the car of the future

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The question of the day: If you’re trying to sell a product that will change the world, should you explain or inspire?

Through my work with the energy research pioneer Pecan Street Inc., I’ve become intrigued with how sales pitches for electric vehicles (EVs) vary by company and how they have changed in a few short years.

Exhibit A is the Chevy Volt. Chevy deserves a lot of credit for pushing the EV market forward, even as it endured remarkable political criticism. I’ve driven several Volts and know many Volt owners. They love their cars, but not for the reason you might think. The Volt ad below is indicative of most of Chevy’s EV messaging – explaining how the groundbreaking new car works.

Funny ad. And there are people that will pay $40,000 to avoid the gas station. But inspiring?

The Volt owners I know love their cars because they are cool, fast and quiet. Getting off of gas is important to them, but that’s not what makes them giddy. And if you look at the new crop of EVs coming to market, you can see that the messaging is changing.

Exhibit B is BMW’s new i3, which is marketed as… cool, fast and quiet. Its first ad seems lightyears away from Chevy’s. I’ve driven the i3, and it’s as cool, fast and quiet as advertised.

And speaking of lightyears…check out an unofficial ad for the Tesla Model S created by a couple of recent college grads.

To be fair, first movers often have to educate the market about new technologies. But the Volt ad above is from 2012 — not the Volt’s first year. And Detroit seems to be doubling down on explanation instead of trying inspiration. An ad from this winter (below) still focused on how the car works and seemed to take some shots at other EVs.

I hope all the EV makers succeed. But from a messaging standpoint, inspiration is always better than explanation, and I think the explainers are missing a huge opportunity.

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