Blog 5 min read 05 October 2023

How to Talk About Climate, Credibly

Impact Insights – Four Leaders, Four Lessons in Communications

Communicating about climate action is non-negotiable for senior leaders in 2023. But the debate is complex, political and potentially high-risk.

With COP28 on the horizon, how do you speak about sustainability, with credibility?

20 seconds to persuade a nation

Rishi Sunak’s tactics to win over the skeptics

After announcing controversial changes to the UK’s climate policies, PM Rishi Sunak defended them in a live interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today programme. (listen from 02:10:00 here)

In the 20-minute interview, there’s one 20-second passage that’s critical to the credibility of Sunak’s message: he acknowledges off the bat the reality of the climate emergency, referencing specific weather events.

  • The effect is simple. He gives the impression that he shares the same perspective as the audience.
  • The message he sends is: “I’m not a climate skeptic, so don’t ignore me.” He then follows with the facts.
  • Leaders tend to begin with the facts of their argument. But it’s rarely the best approach. Without first acknowledging and empathizing with a potentially hostile audience, facts alone have no impact.

A takeaway for leaders: Persuasion takes place on common ground. Create fellow feeling with empathy, then argue with evidence.

Age-old tricks to own the room

Using rhetorical devices to cut through a noisy conversation

The climate conversation is crowded with people expressing similar sentiments. A leader’s first objective is to be heard above the roar of cliché.

In a COP27 packed with weighty speeches, why did the Barbados PM Mia Mottley’s call to arms move the audience in the room and make the headlines around the world?

  • She used a clutch of old-fashioned rhetorical devices to strike a chord on the world stage.
  • She built her case with anaphora, tricolon, personal testimony and powerful modulation of her pace.
  • And she used all those devices to point to a central phrase: the lack of “simple political will”. In landing those three words emphatically, she highlighted shared failings and responsibilities.

A takeaway for leaders: When your ideas overlap with others’, proven language tricks ensure your voice stands out.

Meryl Streep puts the audience in the driver’s seat

Driving engagement through imagination

Conveying urgency around climate without frightening the audience into inaction is a central communications challenge facing leaders.

In an interview with Amanpour and Co., Meryl Streep appealed directly to “mothers, wives, grandmothers”. This type of plea shifts the audience, from passive listener to active participant.

  • “Your husband is driving a car, all the kids are in the back, and he’s driving it straight for a cliff. You’re in the front seat, so you have to grab the wheel.”
  • You can hear the same approach in the first answer of Just Stop Oil founder, Indigo Rumbelow, defending her activism tactics on the Moral Maze podcast (listen from 3:30). Rumbelow doesn’t ask the audience to act, but simply to imagine a set of scenarios. Her bet is that action will follow.

A takeaway for leaders: Turning listeners into participants will drive action. How can you make your audience active, rather than passive, in climate comms and beyond?

Apple bites into a comms controversy

Compelling or cringeworthy? Tim Cook turns movie star

Apple’s latest sustainability status update – a five-minute film – has been met with criticism and praise in equal measure. It stars Octavia Spencer as Mother Nature and Apple CEO Tim Cook as… Tim Cook (he’s unlikely to be swapping his boardroom seat for the Oscars stage any time soon).

While Apple was mocked across social media for its “impossibly cringe” skit, there’s no question that, as a piece of corporate sustainability content, it beats a 50-page PDF, hands down. And 4 million views suggests it found an audience. So, what worked – and why?

  • In short, the clip made the skeptic the star of the show: Mother Nature articulated the typical greenwashing suspicions that dog corporates, allowing Apple to address them head-on.
  • Those 4 million viewers left with the idea Apple is doing more than its competitors to combat climate change – all without a press release or annual report in sight.

A takeaway for leaders: Engage with skeptics. Do it right and you’ll take the sting out of criticism.


If you’re interested in enhancing the impact you make, get in touch with the Impact Communication team: [email protected]