Is your Sustainability message in the right language?

Last week, I was asked to talk about Sustainability to some ‘A’ level students.  I admit to feeling a little daunted – this is the group who should be most environmentally aware and for whom the need to change the way we currently live is the most urgent.  I thought I would be talking to people who had a far better understanding of the need for sustainability and how we can achieve it.

Of all the talks I have given, this was probably the hardest.  Usually I can look around the audience and see some heads nodding or someone making a note of something (even if it’s a reminder to make that urgent call!), but this was a group of weary students at the end of a long day being forced to listen to me talk about looking after resources.  They looked bored, tired and fed up.  I had hoped to engage them, excite them and send them away armed with an environmental ethos to take into their future careers, but at the end of the day, felt I had failed.

Message received and understood

I duly followed up the talk, thanking the students for inviting me and thought that would be that. 

Imagine my surprise then to get feedback from the teaching staff that my talk had struck a chord and the students had gathered a great deal of information from my talk.  In the following days, the practical references I had included stimulated really interesting debate in particular around issues such as the circular economy, or water as a precious resource, which were both news to them.  Their agile brains could quickly work out the relevance and importance of these and how they can be implemented.

Making the message relevant

Many of my talks and meetings are with like minded people, and I often feel as though I am preaching to the converted.  Whilst it is great to share energy and enthusiasm, the challenge comes when talking to those who feel that sustainability is about hugging a tree and doesn’t have a place in modern business.   The challenge is how to reach these people and talk their language. 

Talking about resilience rather than sustainability, referring to financial incentives instead of environmental impact and focussing on marketing opportunities are better received.  Statistics, success stories and examples have far more effect than talking about achieving Sustainable Development Goals or reducing carbon footprint, as these are relevant, easily measurable and relate directly to the individual business or organisation.

Back to my talk to the ‘A’ level students.  This reminded me that if you put the message in an easily understandable way, that is relevant to your audience, then regardless of whether they instantly understand that message, some of it will be absorbed and make an impact.   

Ensuring you’re talking the right language

Talking about the importance of effective resource management in a language that our audience can understand and can relate to will help the message hit home.  It might have an instant impact, or there may be a significant time lapse, but if eventually one nugget of the information given is used to inform a behaviour change, then that message has been successfully communicated.

Communication is key in promoting a more sustainable and resilient way of living and doing business, but the language needs to be altered to ensure that everyone can understand and relate to it.   We must ensure that the message is translated so that we can reach every sector of our society and embed sustainability into everyone’s lives.

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