My opinion, my conviction, gains infinitely in strength and success, the moment a second mind has adopted it.


The morning that I began to write this chapter for the first edition of this book, my then four year-old daughter and I had breakfast together. She often used breakfast as a time to plan what we would do together when I returned from work. At four, she had already mastered many of the finer points of persuasion. She understood that to persuade me she must first secure my attention. Further, she realized that she must compete with her sister, my wife, the radio, the morning newspaper and my own preoccupations, if she was going to obtain a commitment to do one of her favorite things when I returned from work.

She usually secured my attention by asking that I sit with her at the children’s table in our kitchen. This table had only two chairs, was secluded in a corner and, given its small size, placed us very close together. Further, the table was too small to place the morning paper on. From her perspective, the setting was perfect.

Once I was sitting at the table and she had my full attention, the real persuasion occurred. That summer, my daughter had three activities that she preferred above all others: going for a hike at a nearby beaver pond, having a picnic and swim at the wading pool, or going to the playground down the street (which just happened to be very close to the best place to get ice cream in Fredericton).

She rarely began by suggesting all three options. Instead, she began with the most preferred and least likely, going to the beaver pond. She understood that we rarely went to the beaver pond as we had to drive some distance to get there, so on any particular day she had little chance of persuading me to take her there. Nevertheless, she always started with the beaver pond. On that particular morning, when I began to explain why we couldn’t go to the beaver pond (we were there the night before), she cut me off by saying: “I’ve got a deal for you. We won’t go to the beaver pond, but we can go to the wading pool and have a picnic.” On that particular evening, we had a friend coming for dinner and so the picnic was quickly ruled out. Finally, she strategically turned to her third option: going to the playground down the street. Unconsciously she understood that she had the upper hand as she has already conceded the beaver pond and the wading pool. As a skilled negotiator, she knew that it was my turn to make a concession. Once she realized that I was beginning to say yes, she closed the deal by suggesting that after the playground we could get some of the ice cream that I like (she made no mention of her having any). As soon as I agreed, she immediately said, “It’s a deal, then?” As I acknowledged “it’s a deal,” she got up from the table to tell her sister that we were going to the playground after supper (making my commitment public), and then for ice cream, while I was left to ponder, how once again, I had been out maneuvered by a four-year-old.

Much of human communication involves persuasion. Whether done by a four-year-old or a marketing firm, the aims are the same: to influence our attitudes and/or our behavior. The transition to a sustainable future will require that the vast majority of people be persuaded to adopt different lifestyles. How can we most effectively persuade people to adopt lifestyles supportive of sustainability? The purpose of this chapter is to outline some of the critical aspects of effective persuasion.

Use Captivating Information

All persuasion begins with capturing attention. Without attention, persuasion is impossible. In a review of pamphlets and flyers produced by governmental agencies and utilities on energy conservation, Paul Stern and Elliot Aronson found that most of the reviewed materials did not meet this most basic requirement.1 The material reviewed was inconspicuous, boring or both.

How do we capture the attention then of those we wish to persuade? While, ideally, we would like to sit them down at a very small corner table, where we know we have their undivided attention, we have to resort to other means. One of the most effective ways to ensure attention is to present information that is vivid, concrete and personalized.

There are a variety of ways in which information can be made vivid, concrete and personal. For example, in a home energy audit a home assessor might utilize the householder’s utility bills to underscore money that is being lost by not retrofitting. Furthermore, the assessor can provide information about similar people who have installed resource-conserving devices or describe “super-conservers” who have been exceptionally effective in reducing resource consumption.2

The power of vividly presented information has been demonstrated in a unique experiment carried out in California.3 Marti Hope Gonzales and her colleagues trained nine of Pacific Gas and Electric’s home assessors to present information in a manner that was psychologically compelling (they were also trained to seek a commitment). Normally, assessors provide feedback to the householder regarding energy efficiency by noting the lack of insulation in a basement or attic, cracks around windows or doors, etc. However, in this study, the assessors were trained to present this same information vividly. Below is an example of what the assessors were trained to say:

“You know, if you were to add up all the cracks around and under these doors here, you’d have the equivalent of a hole the size of a football in your living room wall. Think for a moment about all the heat that would escape from a hole that size. That’s why I recommend you install weather-stripping ... And your attic totally lacks insulation. We professionals call that a naked attic. It’s as if your home is facing winter not just without an overcoat, but without any clothing at all. (p. 1052)”

Writing on the importance of presenting information vividly in home assessments, the authors state:

Psychologically, a crack is seen as minor, but a hole the size of a football feels disastrous. The fact that they encompass the same area is of interest to an engineer; but in the mind of the average homeowner, the football will loom larger than the cracks under the door. Similarly, insulation is something with which most people lack experience, but the idea of a naked attic in the winter is something that forces attention and increases the probability of action. (p. 1052)

Similarly, in describing the amount of waste produced annually by Californians, Shawn Burn, at California Polytechnic State University, depicts the waste as “enough to fill a two-lane highway, ten feet deep from Oregon to the Mexican border.”4 Clearly, her depiction is much more vivid than simply saying that Californians each produce 1,300 lbs. of waste annually.

Why is vivid information effective? Vivid information increases the likelihood that a message will be attended to initially, a process called encoding, as well as recalled later. That is, information that is vivid is likely to stand out against all the other information that is competing for our attention. Furthermore, because it is vivid, we are more likely to remember the information at a later time. This last point is critical, since if the information is only remembered fleetingly, it is not likely to have any long-lasting impact on our attitudes or behavior.

Research into the public’s understanding of resource use demonstrates that the public has a poor understanding of household energy consumption.5,6 Householders grossly overestimate the resources used by visible devices such as lighting and greatly underestimate less visible resource consumption, such as water heaters and furnaces. Indeed, in one study homeowners were found to believe that lighting and water heaters consumed an equivalent amount of energy. This lack of understanding is reasonable, given the dearth of information that utility bills provide regarding home resource use. This void of information has been compared to going grocery shopping and discovering that none of the items that you wish to purchase have a price tag.7 All you receive when you go through the checkout is a total for the items purchased, you are left on your own to estimate the cost of each item. To overcome this lack of information and the public’s bias toward visible sources of energy use, create a graph that shows the percentage of home energy use by item. Rather than using bars for the graph, instead replace each bar with a picture of the item itself (furnace, water heater, major appliances, lighting, etc.). By presenting information in this vivid format, you enable householders to clearly see where they should be putting most of their efforts to reduce energy use.

Once you have found a way to gain the attention of your intended audience, you next need to consider who your audience is.

Know Your Audience

Before you craft the content of your message and decide when and how you will present it, you need to know the attitudes, beliefs and behavior of your intended audience. In reality, rarely do you have just one audience. The messages you develop will need to be tailored to the different segments of the community that you wish to reach. For example, a program to decrease the purchase of household hazardous waste (HHW) and increase the incidence of household hazardous waste being taken to a depot for disposal, might target several different audiences. Preliminary research would need to determine if those who purchase HHW differ based upon the type of product; for example, household cleaner versus motor oil. Furthermore, you would need to know who would be most likely to collect the HHW in the household, and who would be most likely to take it to the depot.

Clearly, what is seemingly a relatively straightforward program has the potential to have multiple audiences for whom messages will need to be developed. To develop an effective program, therefore, you need to gather as much information as possible about the target audiences to determine how best you can communicate your messages to them. Gathering this type of information is frequently done through the use of surveys and focus groups. (See the chapter on uncovering barriers and benefits for further information.)

Another reason for knowing your audience is provided by the following example. Imagine you wished to advocate that people adopt simpler, less consumptive lifestyles. You need to know both how receptive people are to such a message, as well as how many people would presently describe themselves as living such a lifestyle. A phone survey can be used to gather this information. Phone surveys and focus groups will also allow you to gauge the level of support for a variety of more and less extreme messages regarding less consumptive lifestyles. In doing this preliminary research, you are trying to find a message that has moderate support. If you have the resources to target your message to different sectors of the community, you will need to determine the level of support within each of these sectors, for example, single parents or the elderly. Why concern yourself with finding a message that has general support? Obviously, you don’t want a message that is fully supported, or you will simply be communicating what people already believe. However, you do not want to present a message that is too far removed from the beliefs of your audience. If your message is perceived to be too extreme, your audience will actually become less, rather than more, supportive. In summary, then, you want to tailor your message so that it is slightly more extreme than the beliefs of your audience. Messages that are just slightly more extreme are likely to be embraced. Over time, it is possible to move people’s attitudes and beliefs a great deal. However, you will need to have the patience and resources to do this as it is achieved one small step at a time.

Use a Credible Source

Who presents your message can have a dramatic impact upon how it is received. In general, the more credible the person or organization delivering the message, the more influence there will be upon the audience.8 The impact of credibility upon sustainable behavior is demonstrated in the following study. In this study, two groups of homes received an identical pamphlet on energy conservation. In one case, the pamphlet was enclosed in an envelope from the State Regulatory Agency, while in the other the envelope was from the local utility. Prior research had shown that the State Regulatory Agency was viewed as more credible than the local utility, but would simply enclosing the same pamphlet in the two different envelopes have an impact upon home energy use? The answer was, yes. Those householders who received the pamphlet from the State Regulatory Agency carried out more of the advocated changes than did the householders who received the identical pamphlet from the local utility.9

How do you determine who will be credible for your audience? One method is to use a survey to determine the credibility of several different spokespersons or organizations. A simpler method, however, is to search for organizations or individuals who are well known for their expertise in the area and have the public’s trust. Perceived credibility appears to be based primarily on these two attributes. You might also consider having your initiative endorsed by a number of credible individuals. Endorsement from several sources is more likely to be effective, since some individuals will be more credible to some segments of the public, while other individuals will be more credible to others.

Once you have decided who will deliver your message, you next need to concern yourself with what will be communicated.

Frame your Message

Interestingly, how you present, or “frame,” the activity you are trying to promote is very important. Most sustainable activities can be presented positively (“You should compost because you’ll save in garbage collection user fees”), or negatively (“If you don’t compost you’ll lose money by having to pay more to have your garbage collected”). Understandably, most organizations gravitate toward presenting positive rather than negative motivations to engage in a new activity, but should they? Apparently, they shouldn’t. Messages which emphasize losses which occur as a result of inaction are often more persuasive than messages that emphasize savings as a result of taking action.10

Consider the Use of Threatening Messages Carefully

Few public issues lend themselves better to threatening messages than sustainability. Evidence of the predicament we are in abounds. Issues such as species loss, climate change, ozone depletion, and air and water pollution are just a few of the many assaults on the environment and consequently ourselves. However, is it wise to use threatening messages in communicating with the public? There is no simple answer to this question, but here are some of the issues you should consider. First, literature in the field of stress and coping suggests that we need to begin by appraising an issue as a threat before we are likely to take appropriate action.11 Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, for example, demonstrated the importance and effectiveness of communicating imminent threats to a wide audience. However, to be effective, threatening messages need to communicate more than just the threat we face. In response to a threat, people have what Richard Lazarus refers to as two broad coping strategies. Lazarus’ research suggests that individuals respond to threats by using either problem-focused coping, or emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping, as the name suggests, refers to taking direct action to alleviate the threat. In the case of global warming, problem-focused coping might entail using alternative transportation, or increasing the energy efficiency of your home. In contrast, emotion-focused coping might involve ignoring the issue, changing the topic whenever it is raised in conversation, or denying that there is anything that can or needs to be done. Whether someone uses problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping appears to be determined by their perception of how much control they have to correct the problem. If we perceive that we have a significant amount of control, we are likely to use problem-focused coping. If we perceive that we have very little, we are likely to use emotion-focused coping. Further, research that I have conducted suggests that our perception of how much control we have regarding global issues is largely determined by our sense of community.12 If we feel that, in concert with others, we can have an impact, we are likely to act. If, however, we feel little common purpose, we are likely to perceive that there is little we can do personally.

Threatening or fear-arousing messages need to be combined with clear suggestions regarding what people can do to reduce the threat. Using threatening messages, then, needs to be carefully considered. It is important that your audience understands the gravity of the situation. However, if you are not able to engender a feeling of common purpose and efficacy in dealing with the threat at the same time, your message may cause people to avoid, rather than constructively deal with the issue.

In summary, threatening messages are a necessary part of directing people’s attention to crises. However, they are likely to be counter-productive if they are not coupled with messages that are empowering. Furthermore, repeatedly presenting a threatening message can cause people to habituate to the message. Once people understand the “crisis,” it is wise to move primarily to dealing with solutions.

Decide on a One-Sided versus Two-Sided Message

All issues have more than one side. However, in developing persuasive communication, should you address just one or both sides? The answer, as with most things in life, is “it depends.” If you are presenting your communication to an audience that has little comprehension of the issue, you will be most persuasive if you present just one side. However, if you are communicating with an audience that is aware of both sides of the issue, then you need to present both sides in order to be perceived as credible. As with the content of the message, deciding on a one-sided versus two-sided message underscores the importance of knowing your audience.

Presenting two sides of the issue has an additional advantage. By presenting the opposing viewpoint, and providing the counter-arguments to this viewpoint, it is possible to “inoculate” your audience against alternative views.

Make your Message Specific

When crafting your message, you will want to ensure that the actions you advocate are clearly articulated. Messages that describe actions to be taken in clear, straightforward steps are more likely to be understood and followed. For example, rather than simply suggesting that households weather-strip, you need to show each of the steps that are involved in weather-stripping a door or window.

Make Your Message Easy to Remember

All actions that support sustainability rely upon memory. Some activities, such as recycling, make substantial demands on memory. In asking someone to recycle, we are requiring them to remember how to recycle, for example, whether it is necessary to separate or wash items, when to recycle, and what to recycle. Research suggests that failing to address the role that memory plays can significantly harm the success of a program.13 Stuart Oskamp has demonstrated, for example, that recycling programs which make it easy to remember how to recycle, by having the recyclable items commingled rather than separated, have higher participation and substantially higher capture rates. Of course, this effect might also be due to greater convenience.14 Furthermore, programs that make it easy to remember when to recycle by having recycling occur on the same day as garbage collection, also report higher participation rates.15 Finally, the public can find it quite difficult to remember what to recycle. Many curbside recycling programs have extensive lists of recyclable items. Indeed, when I once asked the project team who had developed the promotional and educational recycling materials for a large municipality to name all of the items that could be recycled, none could. Research suggests that the public knows the main items that can be recycled, such as glass, cans, and newspaper, but has a great deal of difficulty in remembering many other items. In contrast, remembering what to compost is significantly easier. People can create a simple memory device, or heuristic, to guide them in remembering what to compost. For example, if it is food waste or yard waste it is compostable, as long as it is not meat, oil or dairy. In contrast, no simple memory device will work for recycling since there is no unifying theme that unites all the items.

One of the simplest ways to remove the burden that a sustainable activity can place upon memory is through the use of prompts. Remember that, to be effective, the prompt needs to be presented as close as possible to where the activity is going to occur. See the chapter on prompts for further information. Affixing a prompt to the side of a recycling container meets this criterion of proximity and may be more useful than providing prompts that are affixed to a fridge. It may, in fact, be advantageous to provide both since some households do not collect recyclables in their recycling container. Similarly, attaching a prompt to a kitchen-organics catcher can make it easy for people to remember what can be composted, and cut down on contamination rates.

Remember, unless we make it easy for people to remember how, when, and what to do, it is unlikely that a program will be very successful.

Provide Personal or Community Goals

Providing targets for a household or a community to reach can be effective in reducing energy and water use and in increasing waste reduction. A national survey of the directors of 264 U.S. recycling programs revealed that those cities that had set community recycling goals were more successful than those that had not. Clearly, these programs likely differed in other important ways as well.16

This recycling container sticker by Sonoma County, California makes it significantly easier to remember what to recycle by grouping items (e.g., Cans & foil, Paper, etc.) and using pictures to depict the items that are recyclable. Note that using the pictures can also assist in addressing literacy issues. © Sonoma County.

Emphasize Personal Contact

Research on persuasion demonstrates that the major influence upon our attitudes and behavior is not the media, but rather our contact with other people. That is not to say that the media is without influence. Advertising can be effective in two ways. First, it is effective when the objective is to increase market share by switching the public from one brand of a product to another.17 Increasing market share is a relatively easy process given that the consumer is already committed to purchasing a type of product and there are few impediments to altering brand loyalties. Second, the media has an indirect effect by influencing the topics that we discuss. For example, the media may not directly influence you to be more energy efficient, but if you watch a documentary on climate change, and subsequently discuss it, the conversation you have may convince you to make your home more efficient.

Model Sustainable Behavior

Whether the contact is made personally or through the media, one of the more effective methods for increasing adoption of a sustainable behavior is to model the behavior we wish others to adopt. Modeling involves demonstrating a desired behavior.18 Modeling can occur in person, or through television or internet-based instructional videos. For example, studies have documented significant reductions in energy use in response to a broadcast that demonstrated simple energy efficient actions and mentioned the financial benefits to be gained from carrying them out.19,20

Community Block Leaders

Commitment, modeling, norms and social diffusion all have at their core, the interaction of individuals in a community. Commitment occurs when one individual pledges to another to carry out some form of activity. Modeling results when we observe the actions of others. Norms develop as people interact and develop guidelines for their behavior, and social diffusion occurs as people pass information to one another regarding their experiences with new activities. Research has documented that it is possible to harness these processes in order to have a significant impact on the adoption of sustainable behaviors. By making use of community volunteers or block leaders, Shawn Burn has demonstrated the powerful and cost-effective impact that some of these factors can have.21 Working with city officials in Claremont, California, she arranged to have homes that were not recycling randomly divided into three groups: the first received a persuasive appeal delivered by a block leader; the second received a written persuasive appeal; and the third was a control group. Both the persuasive appeal delivered by the block leader and the written persuasive appeal made use of the same message. Homes in the control group were not approached and served as a comparison for the other conditions. In the condition in which a persuasive appeal was delivered by a block leader, homeowners were approached by individuals from their community who were already recycling. These “block leaders” delivered a persuasive appeal and left orange recycling bags with the homeowner. In the persuasive message-alone condition, homeowners received a written version of the same message and the recycling bags. In the 10 weeks that followed the delivery of the messages, the results firmly supported the block leader approach as being most effective. An average of 28% of the homes visited by the block leader recycled weekly, compared with 12% for those who received only the written appeal, and only 3% for the control group. Further, over 58% of those households in the “block leader” condition recycled at least once in the follow-up, compared with 38% for the written appeal and 19.6% for the control group. It should be note that the use of block leaders need not be limited to recycling. It could have been used similarly to promote a variety of activities such as composting, source reduction, energy conservation or water efficiency.

Provide Feedback

Effective communications involve more than simply presenting information to persuade people to adopt a new activity, or making it easy for them to remember what, when and how to do the activity. To be fully effective, information about the impact of newly adopted activities needs to be presented as well. Numerous studies document the impact that providing feedback can have upon the adoption and maintenance of sustainable behavior. Here are several examples:

  • Posting signs above aluminum can recycling containers that provided feedback about the number of cans that had been recycled during the previous weeks increased capture rates by 65%.22
  • Households were mailed monthly letters that indicated the extent to which they had been able to reduce energy use over the same month during the previous year. In a letter that was sent separately from their bill, they were provided both with the reduction in kWhs and cost. This simple procedure reduced energy use by nearly 5% compared to similar periods during the previous two years. Furthermore, this study included a control group of households that never received this feedback. During the period of time in which the households who were receiving feedback were reducing energy use, the control households increased energy use.
  • Households that received daily feedback on electricity consumption lowered energy use by 11%, compared to physically identical households that did not receive feedback.24
  • Households that received weekly group feedback on the total pounds of paper they had recycled increased the amount recycled by 26%.25 When weekly feedback was combined with public commitments, there was a 40% increase.
  • When residents of the Midland-Odessa (Texas) area were provided with conservation tips and daily feedback via television, gasoline usage was reduced by 32%.26 Furthermore, three months after ending the feedback, gasoline usage was 15% lower than it had been prior to the program.

check list for effective communications

This chapter has provided a variety of methods by which you can enhance the effectiveness of the communications you produce. In creating future communications, use this checklist as a guide;

  • Make sure that your message is vivid, personal and concrete.
  • Using the techniques described in the chapter on uncovering barriers and benefits, explore the attitudes and behavior of your intended audience prior to developing your message.
  • Have your message delivered by an individual (or organization) who has credibility with the audience you are trying to reach.
  • Frame your message to indicate what the individual is losing by not acting, rather than what he/she is saving by acting.
  • If you use a threatening message, make sure that you couple it with specific suggestions regarding what actions an individual can take to remedy the situation.
  • Use a one-sided or two-sided message depending upon the knowledge of your audience regarding the particular issue.
  • Make your communication, especially instructions for a desired behavior, clear and specific.
  • Make it easy for people to remember what to do, and how and when to do it.
  • Integrate personal or community goals into the delivery of your program.
  • Enhance knowledge by modeling behaviors.
  • Make sure that your program enhances social diffusion by increasing the likelihood that people will discuss their new activity with others.
  • Where possible, use personal contact to deliver your message.
  • Provide feedback at both the individual and community levels about the impact of sustainable behaviors.

Below are a variety of suggestions for using effective communication to promote sustainable behavior.

Examples: Using Prompts to Foster Sustainable Behavior
Agriculture & Conservation
  • Recruit individuals and/or organizations that are credible to speak to the importance of engaging in actions that enhance biodiversity.
  • Use brightly colored door-hangers rather than flyers or bill inserts to provide feedback on energy use. Flyers and bill inserts are frequently ignored. Door hangers that are well-designed have a higher likelihood of being noticed.
  • Provide company-wide feedback on reductions in energy use as result of personal actions, such as turning off office equipment.
  • Enhance the likelihood of staff discussing alternative transportation by showcasing those who carpool, use mass transit, bike or walk to work.
Waste & Pollution
  • To portray vividly the amount of waste generated by a community, consider comparing it to a well-known local landmark.
  • Life magazine once portrayed our consumptive lifestyles by taking all the possessions of an American family and placing them on the front lawn of their house. Next to this picture was a picture of a family from a developing country, once again, with all of their possessions placed in front of their home. The contrast in lifestyles and the attendant impact upon the environment were blatant. Prepare a similar display for your community.
  • To bring attention to the amount of water that is used for lawn watering, prepare a chart that depicts the amount of water consumed for lawn watering, showering, cooking, etc. Lawn watering will dwarf the other items.
  • Follow Canberra, Australia’s lead by providing community feedback on daily water consumption via roadside digital signs.

Next Chapter » Incentives: Enhancing Motivation to Act