John Marshall Roberts: The Keys to Communication that Resonates

By Nathan Schock

“Understanding” and authenticity are the keys to designing communications that inspire people to live a more sustainable lifestyle and its importance is often overlooked. That was the message from John Marshall Roberts on day two of the Sustainable Brands Seminar in St. Paul, Minn.

Marshall Roberts opened his workshop with a quote from German-American Psychologist Kurt Lewin: “If you want to understand something, try to change it.” Marshall Roberts said the reverse is true as well. If you want to change something (or someone), try to understand it (them).

Understanding your audience is one of two steps that Marshall Roberts laid out for designing communications that resonate. The other was simply “be authentic.”

But understanding is where changemakers and communicators of sustainability often fall short. They design their communications with themselves in mind, mistakenly thinking that everyone else shares their view of the world. But people have very different worldviews that that make them receptive to some messages about sustainability while other messages can have the opposite effect.

There are those who are doing this successfully. In Kansas, the Climate and Energy Project has made inroads by understanding the people and sticking to messages that resonate in the country’s heartland. To convince Kansans, their chairwoman said “Don’t mention global warming. And don’t mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him.” Instead they focused on “on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity.”

That’s right. The same Al Gore that is a hero to many sustainability advocates is persona non grata among their target audience in Kansas. Imagine if the Climate and Energy Project hadn’t taken the time to understand this and had scheduled screenings of Inconvenient Truth?

I guess Stephen Covey was right. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.


Nathan Schock is the director of public relations for POET, the largest producer of biofuels in the world. He is also a digital advocate of sustainability and corporate social responsibility on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter @nathanschock.

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