How sexy are forests?

Frits Hesselink suggests how forest experts can better ‘arouse’ the general public about their subject.

“Is your species sexy" asked Ricardo Carvalho of IUCN's Commission on Education and Communication, while interviewing scientists of IUCN's Species Survival Commission. After two plenary sessions of many rather boring PowerPoint presentations with no time for interaction, the atmosphere among participants suddenly lightened up. There was laughter and people started to sell their lifetime's work in a different manner: “My species is unusually sexy as they have both sexes in one organism.” “Of course my species—cats—are sexy: lions spend 10% of their time on it.” “What's more sexy than insects? Oh yes, I forgot: my wife!”

I had to think of that episode when reading the latest publication of marine biologist and film maker Randy Olsen, Don't be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style. In this book Olsen argues that scientists should pay more attention to how they communicate their work. They should focus not only on substance or content, but much more on the style of communication: “…communication is not just one element in the struggle to make science relevant. It is the central element. Because if you gather scientific knowledge but are unable to convey it to others in a correct and compelling form, you might as well not even have bothered to gather the information.”

As a professor in marine biology, Olsen had gained a reputation on a range of conservation issues. But only as a film maker he learned that information, facts and figures do not speak for themselves, unless you are teaching students or talking to your peers. To get people—nonexperts—to listen to your research or project findings, you have to first stimulate curiosity in them. You do that not through content but through style: humour, spontaneity, personal messages. Only after you have ‘aroused’ your audience are they open for the content. Or in Olsen's How sexy are forests? words: “When it comes to connecting with the entire audience you have four bodily organs that are important: your head, your heart, your gut, and your sex organs. The object is to move the process down out of your head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humour, and, ideally if you're sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal.”

In the following matrix I present my personal summary of Olsen's explanation of how human psychology basically works.

The same psychology is at work when we are confronted with words. Words have not only their literal or dictionary meaning; they also have strong associative connotations. A word invokes feelings, images, memories and values. People in the disciplines of journalism or advertizing know how much words matter. Choose the wrong words in your headline or tagline and no one will read your article or buy your product. To illustrate how this works for the word forest, I did a little experiment with arborvitae readers, CEC members and people for whom forests or forest conservation is not of immediate concern. All were asked their first associations with the word ‘forest.’ In the matrix below I summarize the associations and ordered them according to the four domains.

The associations of most forest experts were in the domain of the brain. Some really tried to be ‘without a mistake’ in their answer, e.g. “Forest is a land which is dominantly covered by trees of different dimensions, in association with grasses, herbaceous plant, lianas and other flora such as epiphytes.” Only a few forest experts had some associations in the domain of the heart, one in the domain of the guts. The answers of CEC members were spread over the domains of brain, heart and guts. The great majority of the associations of the non experts were only in the lower three domains.

I hope this illustrates that if you—as a forest expert—want your information to be taken into account in decision-making, you have to realize that most people take decisions not based on the head, but on the heart, guts and sex. You have to arouse their interest by ‘communicating’ to those organs before they are open and willing to listen to the substance of your information.

The good news is that a few forest experts did come up with a personal story touching the heart and guts, such as this one: “My first association to forest is as a child—having been born and raised in a forest area in Africa—the first impression that I had of forests is an undeveloped area full of demons and spirits. I am always afraid of entering the forest due to fear, and the many stories told by elders of encounters with wild animals…” Here we have the beginning of a way to arouse and connect with nonexperts. If you are not a born communicator, this is where professional communicators can help to get attention for your science and project-based information: with style, storytelling, messaging, and tone of voice that appeals to the audience you want to reach.

This experiment was made possible through the kind cooperation of a number of forest experts. CEC members also asked the question to a number of ‘non-experts’ in their personal networks, e.g. adolescents, maids, gardeners, handymen, shop-keepers, farmers, corporate managers, engineers, artists, professors, politicians.

About the Author

Frits Hesselink is a communications management consultant and a member (and former Chair) of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication. He is a member of member of the EUROPARC think tank on the Communication Toolkit for Natura 2000.

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