Lenses, Language and Engaging People

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stack of seven pairs of eyeglasses with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple lenses

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you thought you were not in agreement, and then after some discussion you realise you’re both actually on the same page, it’s just that you were just approaching the same thing from a different starting point? It can be amusing when you both get to that ‘a-ha!’ moment!

In the last week I’ve had some interesting discussions with Transition folks about how to get more people engaged in Transition and other change movements, and what role perception and language plays.

An observation made by one of my colleagues was:

We tend to confine ourselves by the words we use – transition, transformation, sustainable. From my experience there are many young people doing stuff without putting any of those labels on it.

Coincidentally, one thing I’m doing right now is research with Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool to make sure the right terms are in my meta data for this site, so that Google can find and return Cruxcatalyst.com in the results when people are searching for content I offer.

When I use the Keyword Tool to search on a phrase eg. ‘sustainability communication’ I find all the associated phrases people are searching on as an average global monthly search. This not only helps you with keywords to include in the metadata of a website (which helps you be ‘seen’ among a crowd), but gives you vital intelligence as to what people are looking for. 

One of the top searches associated with how I perceive people might find my site is (believe it or not) ‘sustainable sustainability’. People are actually plugging that into Google? Who knew?!

The same applies to change initiatives. People might not know that they are looking for ‘transition’. They might not yet know to look for ‘sustainable communities’. They might not grasp ‘sharing economy’. They may have a number of things they are concerned about, or want to see change in their communities or their own lives, but aren’t yet able to articulate it.

They use the words and concepts THEY know, not the ones sustainability change agents use, whether its online or offline.

So although you are singing a beautiful song of change, others may not be quite tuned in to your frequency.

screen shot of U2 sheet music to I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

For example, my keyword research has revealed that while I will include ‘sustainability communication’ in my meta data because I see that is what my site is about, from my potential readers’ perspective, I will be found more easily if I use ‘behaviour change’ which is what people are searching for.

When Adelaide hosted US producer and author John de Graaf last year, there was an overwhelming response in the RSVPs from the health sector, because the talk was framed not as sustainability, but ‘wellbeing’.

As the person ‘running’ John during an afternoon talk at the University of Adelaide and an evening talk on the same day at the University of South Australia, I was astounded to note that there were *none* of the faces I would expect to see at such a session had it been framed with ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ language.

cartoon images of people all speaking in different coloured cartoon bubbles (no words - different colours show different 'dialects')

Another colleague was speaking to her interstate counterparts recently, and discovered they were engaging in what they called “Secret Sustainability”. Having discovered that about a third of the number of people would turn up to a ‘Fair Food Week’ event (or similarly framed environmental or social justice get togethers) as they did to cooking events, they now run ‘cooking demonstrations’ attended by many more people – and at which fair food, food waste etc messages can be easily incorporated.

Further, while it is important for all the ‘green’ groups to know what each other is doing and work with each other where there are opportunities to do so, I see it as just as important that they are building relationships with other groups where there are commonalities; for example connecting with a local school or sporting club around energy saving or health themes, or with migrant groups who have food growing or ‘maker’ skills (which is also good way of helping to integrate these groups into the wider social fabric), or engaging with the local chamber of commerce on how transition-style relocalisation might support small business.

As the cooking demo anecdote reveals, one of the best ways to people’s hearts is through their stomachs – and bringing people together around food is through something that Transition is already great at doing! At the very least, sustainability incognito may well be the means to the ends.

In organisations, consider whether the language of ‘kilowatt hours’ and ‘tonnes of C02’ resonates with the different audiences you need to influence to gain support for sustainability.

For accountants and financial managers, present a business case that shows short term cost savings (such as energy bills) and also speaks to longer term value, such as insulating the organisation against future shocks as resources become more expensive or scarce.

For business development folks, demonstrate how sustainability could drive innovation and create new opportunities – and highlight the risk of inaction such as loss of competitive advantage.

For marketing and PR-types, show how sustainability can help with brand/reputation and market positioning, such as when large organisations are looking to ‘green’ their supply chains – early adopters in those chains will be in the box seat for selection.

pied piper followed by Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, Speedy Gonzales, Stuart Little etc

If you want others to hear your tune, then sing the song of your intended audiences.

Go forth with ‘Transition’ or ‘sustainability’ in mind, but if you can connect to a wider base of groups with approaches that use their language, and address their interests, then you start to build some traction with mobilising other latent sources of time and energy.

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