A Failure to Communicate

“HOW ARE YOU GOING to cut through the green fog?” The radio interviewer was referring to the glut of environmental media these days. And as a filmmaker, I knew what he was getting at; last year, independent film distributors developed a “no mas” attitude toward films that aim to save the planet. Unless they are amazingly entertaining, the distributors just don’t see a market for them.

This question — how to communicate effectively to the general public — first grabbed my interest when I was a professor of marine biology. Intrigued, I ended up resigning from my tenured position, moving to Southern California, and entering film school and acting school. I arrived in Hollywood in 1994 with a great deal of self-confidence. My short films had won some awards, I had a PhD, and I really felt I knew more about communication than most of the “idiots” who inhabit the film and television industry.
I was wrong.

As an academic, my brain was as well developed as the biceps of an Olympic athlete. I could recite for you the phyla and major classes of the entire animal kingdom, as well as the Latin names of countless species. And I thought that was all you needed to do to enlighten people: spout the facts. It took a crazy acting teacher for me to begin to grasp my handicaps as a communicator.

At first, I was totally lost in the class. Our bombastic teacher used to scream one basic rule to us, night after night: “As an actor, when it comes to connecting with the audience — the entire audience — you have four organs in your body that are important: your head, your heart, your gut, and your sex organs. Guess which is the most powerful.”

A few years later I returned to working with academics and environmentalists, and her words began to resonate. I found myself looking at failed environmental communications campaigns and seeing the enormous amount of information — facts and figures — they were hurling at the public. I began hearing the humorlessness of so many environmentalists and wondering why they couldn’t just lighten up a bit. And while some great environmental writers know how to speak directly to and from the heart, so much of what gets communicated by large environmental organizations ends up devoid of passion and sincerity.

That acting teacher was right. The four organs are indeed a major secret to reaching the public. The object is to move the message out of the head and into the heart with sincerity, into the gut with humor, and if you’re skillful enough, all the way down to the lower organs with sex appeal. But there’s a catch. As you reach the broader audience, you may find your more academic colleagues staging a flank attack. My movie Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy causes large audiences to laugh raucously, and Variety gave it a rave review, saying the movie is “an exceedingly clever vehicle for making science engaging for a general audience.” But the science world? Nature, the most important voice of science, titled their review “Climate Comedy Falls Flat.” The humor and emotion seemed to offend the Nature reviewer.

Taking risks to protect the environment is not just about standing up in front of bulldozers in a forest. There is a courage needed for mass communication, too. You can stick with only the facts and figures, but they will never reach the heart of a mass movement. To truly motivate the nonacademic public, you have to take some chances, come down out of your head, and reach for the other organs of the body.

Figuring that out is essential to saving nature.

Randy Olson wrote and directed Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. He is the author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, published in summer 2009 by Island Press.


  1. I agree 100% with this and would only add that performance skills are useful–no, essential–tools for communicating just about any serious message you can think of, environmental or otherwise.

  2. Wonderful! Reminds me of my brother, who comes to the communications dilemma from the other end of the stick. As one of Texas’ most knowledgeable environmental restorationists, with only a GED to his name, he often shows up to speak to academic audiences carrying a post-hole digger — which he proudly displays to those assembled as his “P-H-D.”

    We learn best to use all our organs in communicating as we go through the real-life learning process of walking the walk for real, rather than just being content to talk the talk. As Randy Olson has discovered in his own way, and has communicated so beautifully. Thank you.

  3. Spot on! Thanks Randy for your contributions!

  4. Such a great article. So many “well intentioned” citizens walking around with their tails between their legs. Being sincere as all get out does not make you a hit or lets face it it may not even make you likable.

    I think there is one non-organ that could get a mention: the fists. Respecting can only be got by standing up to any kind of bullying and there are lots of kinds of bullying. Standing up ready to fight most probably shows a big heart. The big heart connected to the fits can be the ticket.

    Yesterday, I was musing about the late great Tommy Douglas. The man is known to all Canadians as the founder of medicare in Canada.

    Tommy was a wee chap who nearly lost a leg while a child but was saved by a kind surgeon. He was a minister and an amateur boxer and he taught the young boys in his parish to box. Though small he stood up for himself. He stood up for those who were good people but could not stand up for themselves.
    And he taught them to meet the challenges. He was a determined young man and he built a better country.

  5. I write environmental songs for children–and adults–and I know that humor and heart are what reach people. Once they are interested, they can always look up the facts and figures.
    And I love the post-hole digger story.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful article. Not to be overly academic, but Randy Olson’s four organs closely parallel Aristotle’s three forms of persuasive rhetoric: Logos, Pathos and Ethos. For Aristotle, effective communication must appeal to the audience logically (logos), emotionally (pathos) and ethically (ethos). So that covers the brain, the heart and the gut (our instincts and basic values)… As for the fourth group of organs, I doubt Aristotle would have disagreed with the edition of “eroticos” to his trinity. The man clearly had a healthy appreciation for sex appeal.

  7. The need for effective communicators on environmental issues has never been greater, and the reminder to go beyond the facts and figures is a good one. Not many can come up with Aristotle’s three forms of persuasive rhetoric (Logos, Pathos and Ethos), but most Americans could come up with the Wizard of Oz version: The Tin Man looking for a heart, the Scarecrow a brain, and the Cowardly Lion the nerve.

  8. Can I trade in my Ph.D. for a Post Hole Digger? I’m sure I’d get more use out of it. These are all great comments. Thanks!

  9. This very much reminds me of marketing guru Solitaire Townshend. She talks about how most environmental stuff is geared toward Joyce (brains and ethics), but fails to reach Heather (status and sex appeal) and Martha (ethics and emotion). Unfortunately, Heather and Martha represent the larger demographics to we miss a big audience.

    Great article, can you provide some examples of good and bad? Very few of us Joyces studied marketing . . . that’s Heather’s domain.

  10. There’s one problem with providing examples of good and bad to the “Joyces” and their even blinder male counterparts. Unless you manage to make a living out of doing this, you’re likely to be sucked dry.

    Spoon feeding people who can’t see doesn’t work. First they need to want to see and make room for it. Examples of good include what is accurate and works, no matter what the format. Examples of bad include what is accurate but doesn’t work and what is inaccurate but accepted as truth.

    Randy Olson started by learning to see. According to his article, it was humbling, and it took work. He had to fumble his way through. The details of how things happened were different, but process was the same for me. For each of us who assumes that the brain trumps all, it’s likely to be pretty much the same.

    One important thing for the male and female “Joyces” to notice, actors, musicians, and film students don’t study marketing either. There’s a real, living, breathing world out there that they somehow manage to look at and take into account. How can you really be an environmentalist if you don’t also include the human environment of which you are part and participant?

  11. Love this! As I read over my nature blog posts and journal entries I see erotic images and themes I hadn’t been conscious of as I wrote. This all happens “organically.” After all, nature invented sex!
    One of my favorite examples of this is the brillant script and production of “Adaptation” with Nicholas Cage.

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