Erb Institute | Business for Sustainability - Why You Need Both a Picture and a Thousand Words

Oct 18, 2017 12:00 PM ET

To be heard in many public debates, you may need more than the proverbial picture that’s worth a thousand words—you may need both a picture and a thousand words.

Language choice
Labels and metaphors are powerful. Well-chosen ones evoke positive imagery, emotions and values, while poorly chosen ones can be disastrous. For example, “global warming” is a much more divisive term than “climate change.”

People often default to the language they are most comfortable with. Actors and songwriters use dramatic language. Politicians talk about “the facts.” Businesspeople talk about net present value. But if we stick to our own language and our standard conversations, we might simply be preaching to the converted.

But you can use more inclusive language that appeals to wider-ranging groups and broad values, such as “thriving families and communities,” “patriotism” and “innovation capacity.” Such values can galvanize your audiences. By talking about “sustainability” and “resilience” and focusing on disaster preparedness instead of debating the science, politically conservative communities are simply preparing for volatile weather.

Compelling images
Images act as a flag; a startling image will catch people’s attention and motivate them to process it. Besides being more eye-catching than words, images are intuitively understandable and motivational. Words require cognitive processing, but images create an unconscious emotional response and nearly instantaneous understanding, because we process visual information quickly.

A wider audience
Include audiences beyond those you normally consider relevant. If excluded groups start criticizing your company, they are likely to be more vocal, negative and emotional in their attacks than they would be if you had included them in initial discussions.

Typically, relevant groups are considered residents near the operations, parties along the supply chain (suppliers, employees, regulators and customers), competitors and business partners. But others may get involved quickly.

Location and timing matter
Consider where and when to release messaging to best reach your key audiences. If you are responding in the wrong venues or too late, no one will hear you.

Multinational corporations have broad geographical reach, financial assets, public visibility, and influence. Conscious, proactive business discuss their sustainability agendas ˗ rather than remaining silent on inflammatory issues. By re-crafting your message, you can better capture attention and increase your persuasive appeal—even in emotional public debates that you might rather avoid.

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