An illustration of two arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down, a person is climbing a rope to try to get on the up-arrow

Communicating in crisis— creating narratives that inspire change

Featured in the Washington Post, a CNS researcher examines how we talk about crises and offers tips to better our narratives and encourage action

January 22, 2021

Images of overcrowded hospitals, maps of wildfire destruction, real-time twitter updates of political upheaval. It seems that over the past year, stories of crisis and catastrophe follow us everywhere we go— so much so that the term “doomscrolling” (the act of almost obsessively consuming news of suffering and injustice on social media) gained global popularity. Many of us feel overwhelmed, not knowing how to create positive change. 

 

Ezra Markowitz, Environmental Conservation, recently published an article in the Washington Post discussing what decades of social-science research tell us about the effectiveness of different approaches to catastrophe story-telling. In particular, he details four ways to improve how we talk about crises and encourage powerful action. 

From "After 2020, we need to talk about how we talk about catastrophe:"

 

First, avoiding overt crisis and catastrophe frames does not mean playing down the urgency of the challenge. Urgency comes not only from recognizing and trying to avoid negative consequences; it can also come from  identifying  the kind of world we want to live in and striving to make that world our reality. 

Second, communicators need to engage the full suite of human emotional responses, not just fear, despair and guilt. Research by psychologists and social scientists finds that people are motivated to take costly prosocial action by a wide array of emotions, including  awe,  pride  and  anger. Stoking negative emotions neglects the critical role that positive emotions such as  hope  and  gratitude  play in sustaining participation in social movements over the long haul. 

Third, people need coherent explanations about how our problems became problems in the first place. Simply yelling “Panic!” in a crowded room doesn’t work when the challenge is complex, long term and counterintuitive. It’s not enough simply to tell people that a problem exists. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, stories that foreground pragmatic, concrete solutions that people can see and feel are critical to promote public engagement with the societal challenges we face. Even when the path forward is difficult, solutions-oriented  narratives  and  imagery  offer a positive vision that can promote greater issue engagement, efficacy and large-scale public action. 

In truth, we  are  living through an era of compounding crisis and catastrophe. If we want to empower ourselves and our communities to address the challenges before us, it’s time to tell stories that actually work. 

Read on

Full article in the Washington Post: "After 2020, we need to talk about how we talk about catastrophe"

Share this story: