“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

Pull out the firecrackers and Mardi Gras beads! It’s time for the Nonprofit Blog Carnival, where we’re writing about our big dreams for 2013.

My big dream is to advance a meme.

Memes are catchy ideas that stick in one’s imagination and influence one’s worldview. SmartMeme’s book Re:Imagining Change contains many examples of nonprofits deliberately disrupting existing social memes and creating new ones.

Here’s an example of an environmental organization’s disruption of a popular meme:

Greenpeace satirized GMOs with this ad campaign.
Greenpeace satirized genetically modified corn with this ad.

The meme I want to promote this year is about a broader topic than Greenpeace’s – and it might appeal to a wide range of people.

Here it is:

Our environment is the root of our economy.

Everything we manufacture, produce, sell and trade comes from the planet we inhabit. If we disregard our environment, we will have no economy left to show. This is all we have – our somewhat damaged planet and its many resources.

Since I like automotive analogies, I’ll make one here. Imagine that you’re moving from New York to Arizona with everything you own in the back of your truck. As you drive across the desert, your truck starts having mechanical problems and your cell phone dies. It’s time to get out the wrench set.

Similarly, if we want a healthy planet, it’s time to repair our decisions and set a better course. Like the driver in the middle of the desert, we have no alternative. The repair will have to include economic adaptation and innovation. Businesses have the energy to transform society.

How do I plan to advance this meme in 2013? I plan to tweet and write about the green economy. I want to focus on solutions, reconstruction, and the repair of our existing systems.

How will this influence what I write? There are multiple avenues I can pursue to expand on this meme and make it part of my work.

  1. Using constructive angles in journalism and in this blog can motivate readers to take positive actions at home and at their jobs.
  2. Breaking news about university research can disseminate creative solutions.
  3. Supporting cross-pollination between sectors can build collaboration.
  4. Writing about urban sustainability projects can shine a light of possibility on the road to economic and environmental recovery.
  5. Building work relationships with larger organizations that support this meme can give me the tools and resources to take this message to larger audiences.

I work for an organization which supports sustainable business decisions and plan to make connections with other groups in New England which are doing the same. These groups include Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Council, and E2Tech.

Do you have any other ideas about ways to advance this meme about the environment and the economy?

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How does seeing this infographic make you feel? When you see how much coal you’re using, does it motivate you to green your home? Or does it leave you saying, “So what?”

The infographic, originally published in an article by EnergySavvy, puts energy use in context. But it could be improved. The EnergySavvy article explains the infographic using the following paragraph:

Reducing the original coal pile to 2,000 pounds prevents nearly 6,300 pounds of carbon dioxide, 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 16 pounds of nitrogen oxide from being emitted into the atmosphere annually (Environmental Protection Agency). It could also save the home around $300 on their electricity bills each year.

The problem with these numbers is that they do not translate directly to impacts people can understand. If I tell the average person that his new air conditioner will prevent a certain number of pounds of sulfur dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, what will he be able to do with that information? Not very much.

What is missing from this infographic is context that readers can use to relate these numbers and impacts to their everyday lives. What does that 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide do to the environment? Adding an illustration to show the scale of each environmental impact would make this infographic much stronger.

Without context, numbers mean much less than they would otherwise.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

claimtoken-50a01a203f085What makes energy journalism worth reading? Critical thinking, synthesis of information and perspectives, and coverage of the real-world impacts of programs can differentiate quality energy writing from other energy news.

I curate and write energy news for the Clean Energy Finance Center. So I’ve sorted through thousands of RSS posts and many Google alerts, looking for content that contains quality analysis and newsworthy ideas.

After reading these articles, I began asking questions about how energy journalism can be improved. A recent article from Grist explores this question from an industry-wide perspective. In this post, I’m offering a counterpoint to the Grist article by taking a “nuts and bolts” approach and brainstorming about how writers can improve their work.

A blog post from SmartPlanet has critiqued the absence of critical thinking and data analysis in some energy journalism. In January, I wrote a follow-up post with suggestions about how writers can ask questions about their data and get better results.

Thinking about the sources and reliability of data is just the beginning of retooling energy journalism, though. To make energy writing jump off the screen and catch readers’ attention, writers should try synthesizing information in original ways and reaching outside the field for ideas from other sources.

The Energy Efficiency Markets Blog* stands out as a very strong example of information synthesis. The authors of this blog draw ideas from multiple sources rather than writing single-sourced articles. They also develop interesting and original angles for stories.

Synthesizing ideas from multiple sources is one way to add depth to news stories and to combine ideas from interviewees who may disagree with one another. This can make energy journalism both more useful and more engaging than it would be otherwise.

Drawing on ideas from multiple stakeholders can also introduce practical perspectives. Practical perspectives can strengthen news articles, connect ideas to everyday life, and add human interest. I would encourage energy writers to reach beyond their usual lists of sources. For example, an article on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might benefit from quotes from workforce development professionals, people whose homes have been weatherized, and green jobs training program graduates.

Weatherization photo
Including quotes and photos of weatherization can be one way to tell the story of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Source: Photobucket)
Energy efficiency and renewable energy decisions are not just theoretical mathematical exercises. Including the everyday stories of people who participate in these programs and/or benefit from them can add human interest to these stories and help a broader audience relate to them.

If you take the idea of synthesis to its logical conclusion, you’ll arrive at interdisciplinarity. One reason I combine communications ideas with writing about technical subjects is that I’m convinced these two fields can benefit from collaboration. Communicators can benefit from learning more about math and science, including how to cover it accurately. Engineering and science professionals can also benefit from learning communications skills.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, have recommended training science graduates in media skills and paying them to do outreach.

Some energy organizations encourage researchers to write articles already. Many of the best articles I see on energy efficiency and renewable energy are produced by researchers, not media professionals. If research organizations start investing more in outreach than they do today – a step which I believe is necessary in the face of climate change and widespread science illiteracy – some of these researchers may end up as communicators.

Some of the skills that improve research – synthesis, critical thinking and awareness of practical outcomes – are the same skills which can strengthen energy journalism. So I’d encourage energy writers to think like researchers. I’d also encourage energy researchers to learn media skills and write news articles.

* Disclaimer: I collaborate with one of the authors of the Energy Efficiency Markets Blog.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Sometimes I joke that sifting through environmental news is a forbidding task. Depending on what is going on in the world, it can be intimidating to log into Twitter, visit RSS feeds, and see what is happening.

What keeps me motivated? Among the reports of mayhem, I can see there are solutions. Environmental writing doesn’t have to be all about apocalypses. We can rewrite the stories, retool how we build things, and solve the problems we face.

Out there on the Internet are some of the answers to this question: how can we communicate effectively about environmental issues? I’ve gathered them together into a green communication guide. The guide addresses both newswriting and nonprofit communication (with an emphasis on newswriting).

Many of the articles in the guide are surprising and even controversial. From dispatches from the cutting edge of  journalism to articles on how to bring environmental views into the mainstream, this guide has tips that may be useful for a wide range of media professionals.

Of course, the guide is not intended as a substitute for attending professional conferences, joining associations like Society of Environmental Journalists, or taking journalism and public relations courses. DIY is valuable, but it only goes so far.

I encourage you to bookmark, share and/or forward the guide if you find it useful. I plan to expand it periodically as I see new resources appear online. If you have suggestions about articles to add to the list, please post a comment.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

I am ghostwriting part of an environmental physics book. That is why my blog posts have been sporadic recently.

Writing about physics has taught me more about simplicity in science writing. Although I was almost a physics major during college, this is my first time writing copy about environmental physics.

I’ve heard that the best teachers give the simplest explanations. Developing simple and clear explanations of challenging topics has taught me how to streamline science writing in a way I was not able to do easily before. I’m using a concise, crisp style to convey the key points.

In a way, this writing style mirrors how physics works. Physicists seek the most simple explanation for phenomena. From gravity to quantum physics and relativity, simplicity drives physics.

Newton's Cradle
Newton’s Cradle demonstrates the relationship between force, mass and acceleration. (Source: stock.xchng)

Because I am writing for a physicist, I am developing a writing style that reflects how some physicists probably think. It is a fascinating experience to capture the “voice” of a professional thinking style and put it on paper.

If I hadn’t taken physics courses during college, I would probably find this project more difficult than I do. As it is, it has been an exercise in messaging and education: understanding the audiences, capturing the right voice, and shaping explanations clearly and simply.

Now that I have done this, I see that simplicity is useful in other areas of science writing as well. I plan to apply it to my future projects and to other areas of my life.

So far, I am also streamlining my social media use, giving away some of my possessions, and moving to a monastery… well, not really. I’m moving to a house in the woods near Boston. I’m also taking a vacation from some of my other commitments.

For writers, productivity requires space and time. I am creating space by simplifying my schedule. I’ll continue to blog intermittently during this project and will resume my regular posting schedule later.

Leatherback sea turtles are tough, but waterborne plastic can kill them. See Turtles, a nonprofit organization, says “hundreds of thousands of sea turtles… die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.” Many of these pieces of plastic come from landfills.

To show passersby how plastic threatens leatherback turtles’ survival, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is getting ready for the Revere Beach National Sand Sculpting Festival next week by making a wire sculpture of a leatherback turtle. I helped to build the turtle’s flippers and head this afternoon today in a back yard in Revere.

Leatherback turtle sculpture
Leatherback turtle sculpture. Photo credit: Matthew Nash.

At the festival, Visitor Services Supervisor Matthew Nash will invite people to pick up plastic trash from the beach and use it to decorate the turtle’s wire structure. At the end of the festival, he expects, the turtle will be covered with pieces of plastic. Each piece of plastic the visitors retrieve will reduce the beach refuse that turtles – or other animals and birds – might ingest.

When they aren’t dining on dangerous plastic debris, leatherback turtles are very tough. Their range extends all the way to northern Canada; they don’t object to cold weather. Their shells are made of flexible pieces which help them decompress when they are surfacing from deep water. A medium-sized leatherback turtle is about six feet long.

Orion Magazine hosted an online meeting, “Bringing Cultural Diversity to the Environmental Movement,” on June 19. The speakers set the stage for the conversation by talking about alienation. They’ve noticed a culture of subtle silencing, unintentional exclusion, and institutionalized discrimination in the environmental movement which shuts down the contributions of people of color.

When environmental professionals of color meet one another, said presenter Marcelo Bonta, they begin telling stories about their innovations which have not been accepted by their employers. They also talk about the social exclusion they experience regularly.

“I always feel like an outsider,” Bonta said. He founded an organization, Environmental Professionals of Color, to provide a structure where environmentalists of color can connect with one another and advise organizations about diversity.

This bleak environment still exists despite a backdrop of increasing diversity in the United States. 2011 was the first year since the country was colonized when more ethnic minority children were born here than white children. This trend is likely to continue and could affect the long-term viability of the environmental movement in the United States. If environmental organizations do not diversify, social justice organizations may end up taking on their responsibilities.

Minority communities do take an interest in environmental issues, careers and activities, Bonta said. Since environmental groups and degree programs are failing to connect with minority communities, social justice organizations have stepped in to fill this role and are engaging in sustainability and environmental justice efforts.

One of the presenters, Ginny McGinn, leads a retreat called Young Leaders Reimagining Conservation where she encourages environmentalists to examine issues of privilege and race. The program is based at the Center for Whole Communities. Half of the attendees at the retreats are environmentalists of color.

Retreat photo

Monica Smiley, executive director of Tualatin Riverkeepers  in Oregon, says the retreat was one of the most profound experiences of her life. “It really lit the fire,” she said. She returned to Oregon determined to diversify her organization’s staff, board and outreach. Tualatin Riverkeepers is in a watershed region with a mostly Latino population; Smiley resolved to reach out to Latinos and include them in environmental programs and decision making.

From Bonta’s perspective, linking sustainability to equity will open the doors of the environmental movement to more diverse points of view – a change which he feels is urgently needed. “That’s the future – not just of the environmental movement, but society in general,” he said.

“Conserving [and] preserving the environment is also about people,” McGinn said. “Van Jones really got it once he began to connect the dots.”

McGinn pointed out that environmentalists understand the value of biodiversity; diversity of background and opinion is just as valuable as biodiversity, from an organizational standpoint. “Diversity is what creates a healthy environment,” she said.

To listen to the audio recording of the event, visit the Orion Magazine multimedia website.

Since it’s Earth Day, that gives me an opportunity to talk about eco-friendly electronics.

Environmentally speaking, bloggers and other electronics enthusiasts aren’t innocent. We use and discard electronics while consuming energy from coal-fired power plants. Our computers and cell phones also contribute to air and water pollution during their mining, manufacturing and disposal.

For a simple overview of how this cycle happens, check out The Story of Electronics:

As the video explains, companies design our electronics for a relatively short life cycle – less than two years. After that, recycling companies dispose of the electronics unsafely overseas. The workers who produce the electronics suffer from miscarriages and cancer.

What’s a responsible electronics enthusiast to do? The good news is that you have many opportunities to break the cycle.

Buy Refurbished or Eco-Friendly Electronics

Eco-friendly cell phones are starting to show up on the market. This is important because some of the materials inside cell phones come from nations that have few protections for mine workers. CNet has reviewed some of the eco-friendly phones.

The Green Electronics Council has created a certification called EPEAT for eco-friendly computers. EPEAT-certified computers are manufactured with more recycled components and fewer toxic chemicals than other computers, leading to less hazardous waste.

Repair Your Electronics

Although it may be convenient to buy a shiny new computer when your old one has lost its charm, resist the urge to shop. Fix your computer instead.

You may not be able to impress your friends with new gadgets if you fix your electronics instead of throwing them away, but you’ll be preventing pollution-related health problems in China, India and/or Africa. So you can give yourself a gold star for that. Maybe someday your friends will consider your computer hip and vintage, like an old record player.

Plug into Renewable Energy

If your utility company offers a renewable energy option, buy into it. The cost difference is often minimal. If you want to impress your roommates or family, buy your own solar panel. Energy experts say solar panels are in style.

Save Power

Turn off electronics and power strips when you aren’t using them. Turn down the brightness on your cell phone and computer screens. Uninstall apps which keep your phone using extra energy. Adjust your power-saving control panel settings. Beware of entertaining screen savers – the odds are that they aren’t helping you save energy.

Donate Unwanted Electronics

If your old computers and cell phones are gathering dust, donate them instead of recycling them. You should clean your hard drive before donating your computer.

Domestic violence shelters reuse cell phones after removing identifying information. When people in these shelters have cell phones, they can call for help in emergencies. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence accepts phone donations.

Nonprofits often accept donated computers. Check out their wish lists during the holiday season. World Computer Exchange will send your computer to a community organization in a developing nation.

What choices have you made to reduce the environmental impact of using electronics?

There are many intersections between dance, health and the environment.

Dance can raise awareness of environmental disasters. This article from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media links to a video of dancers from the Pacific islands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau performing “Water Is Rising.” This performance toured the United States and made a stop in Boston at the Museum of Science.

These three islands are at the epicenter of climate change since they are only a few feet above sea level. Situated on coral formations, they will be the first inhabited islands to be submerged by climate change’s rising seas. The tour shows the rich cultural legacy of these islands.

Global Water Dances took place worldwide last June to raise awareness of threats to freshwater supplies – including mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracking. The second set of dance performances is scheduled for 2013. Boston’s Global Water Dance was held near the Charles River in Cambridge.

No post on the Global Water Dances would be complete without video. These dances are from the Netherlands, Germany and Israel.