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Point of View

A Failure to Communicate

by Randy Olson

Published in the January/February 2009 issue of Orion magazine



“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. 

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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.

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