This year is the 5th year of the Rising Star Award for Sustainability, which is awarded each year at Ecobuild to the nominated professional who is considered to have made an outstanding contribution to promoting sustainability in the built environment and offers huge promise for the future. I’ve been on the judging panel since its inception in 2012, and was delighted to be there to see Clara Bagenal George won the award this year, and Highly Commended went to Ben Hopkins. Read about the award here.
To celebrate our fifth year, the UK Green Building Council organised a City Hall session on ‘How can we make Sustainability in the Built Environment Mainstream?’. Speakers included last year’s winner Lisa Pasquale of Six Cylinder who talked about visualising information for your audience, judge and former nominee Lindsey Malcolm of XC02 who talked about storytelling and Christina Houlgrave of Skanska (highly commended last year) who talked about the economic benefits of sustainability. I brought up the rear to summarise five key steps to communicating your message.
It was interesting to deliver a talk like this to an audience of enthusiasts. Some were enthusiasts for sustainability, some will have been enthusiasts for their products, many of which we could see displayed on the stands around the exhibition hall. I wondered who would respond best to what I was going to say. Here is a summary of what I said.
NB the Rising Star Award was created in memory of Mel Starrs, which is why I mention her occasionally.
“Hello everyone, I’m here to stand in for Phil Birch, who’s become a dad rather sooner than expected, so congratulations to Isaac Charles and all the family. To do Phil justice I’ll have to dress more smartly and smile a lot more, and know a lot more about the John Lewis Partnership, so that’s not going to happen. So instead I thought I’d share with you five things to consider when you want to communicate your message. Good communications, as you’ve heard today, is something that is central to all our Rising Stars.”
1. Listen to your Audience
Begin with the people with whom you want to communicate, and find out about them. It seems so obvious but few people do it. Marketers will do market research and construct persona profiles of the type of person they want to communicate with, but for you it may be as simple as talking to someone.
One of our finalists this year, Evan Landy of UCL, told a story about how he helped a cleaner with his job for 15 minutes, and that simple act of kindness completely transformed this person from sceptic to champion. I’m sure that experience also helped Evan understand so much more about how to get his message across. As Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
2. What do you want to Happen?
We all get involved in communications because we want something to change. More particularly we want people to change. Whoever that audience is; be it an MD or a cleaner, a client or a subcontractor, we want them to do something.
The late Richard White, a sales specialist, author and friend of mine, always used to ask me, ‘What is the pain you are going to take away?’ People are always more willing to do something differently if it makes life easier, if it takes away something painful or difficult. This is why so many of our rising star nominees are focused on the commercial benefits of sustainability. Whether we like it or not, people care more if they can save or make money.
So, think about what is in it for them? What will be easier? What problem will it solve? It is always so much easier to get people to do things if the outcome is something they want.
Decide what you want your audience to do, where you want them to go. And see it as a journey, that begins with single, simple steps. These are your goals. Write them down.
3. Free your Data
You all have information, you’re all experts in your own unique fields. Publish, publish, publish.
Make it simple for people to find and share. The internet is your friend here. We are all publishers now. Mel realised this when she started blogging in April 2006. And don’t worry about changing your mind – in her first blog post Mel wrote “I reserve the right at all times to change my mind on any opinions offered here.” This is a sentiment I concur with wholeheartedly.
When you are publishing, remember your audience and their simple steps. How can you make what you publish as easy as possible to understand? Visual media is your friend here, like this map from 2011 showing geolocated tweets and photographs mapping out Europe. It shows us that the Dutch and the Brits were really keen on Twitter!
When you’ve made your visual devices, show them to your mum, to find out if she can understand what you’re on about. The easier your data is to understand; the more people will share it. Which brings us to
4. Be Prepared to Have the Conversation
The best thing about how the Internet in my opinion is not the information, it’s the conversation.
The amazing things that Mel Starrs achieved in her short life were about having conversations with people, often people on the other side of the world, sometimes people who didn’t agree with her. Such conversations are what make us grow, and social media has made it possible for us to have them with anyone. Today it is not only true that a cat can look at a king – a cat can talk to a king as well. By publishing her thoughts on sustainability standards and regulations, Mel prompted conversations which reached beyond her own professional life into the lives of policy makers and politicians. We can never know the full impact of these conversations, but if we’re lucky we occasionally get glimpses.
Make it as easy as possible for people to talk to you about your ideas and theirs. Get online and talk to people. Don’t see blogging and twitter as broadcast media, see them as social media!
And finally we have to
5. Measure, Measure, Measure
In your work, you no doubt get involved in measuring performance of buildings, and trying to get performance measured. Well I’m going to suggest you measure the effect of your communication strategies.
Mel’s second blog post ever was called ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ and ain’t that the truth.
Look back at your audience and what you want them to do and ask yourself, how can I measure if tis working?
Then look at what you’re doing and ask – what worked? What didn’t? Why? And What can we do to make it work better?
Remember we are all on a journey of continual improvement, and we need to look at the results of our work to be able to learn from our mistakes as well as our successes.
So, here’s your homework:
- Listen to your Audience – so you can understand them better.
- What do you want to Happen? Make sure you set out some simple goals
- Free Your Data – and put it in a format that people can understand easily and want to share
- Be prepared to Have the Conversation – because that is how we grow, and
- Measure, Measure, Measure – because that is how we learn.
Thank you very much.
All images Creative Commons licence, used with permission. Click images for original source.