This is how climate scientists should talk

Ilissa Ocko

In late June, I found myself in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, in an intellectual, self-sustained bubble – filled with some of the world’s best thinkers and bold, exciting ideas.

It was at the Aspen Ideas Festival that I began thinking about what it’ll take for climate scientists to truly connect with people on the ground.

I credit three high-achieving, but humble, women I encountered there for making me see things in a new way. They knew how to tell personal, but poignant, stories that made everyone sit up and take note.

Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of the challenging decisions she had to make as Secretary of State, and that still keep her up at night. Indra Nooyi reflected on the struggle she encountered while raising children as the chief executive of a leading company, PepsiCo. Katie Couric, the well-known news anchor, spoke with self-deprecating humor that invoked empathy.

I heard them and realized how effective scientists could be at communicating if they were to incorporate some of these approaches.

Too often scientists get lost in technicalities, and approach a topic so analytically that they become disconnected from their audience. Even though I love science, when I watch documentaries with interviews from scientists, I often find them painfully boring and distant.

Of course, as climate scientists, it is imperative that we come across as knowledgeable and credible. But if we truly want to connect with an audience, we need much more than that – we need charisma, passion, vulnerability and relatability.

When scientists communicate through storytelling, they can draw an audience in no matter what the subject. And when they use science to explain events that affect lives and lifestyles, people care and listen. Even more so if they share a personal anecdote of how this influences their own life.  

When I now write and talk about science, I always think back to these three women in Aspen, and how they’ve inspired so many hearts and minds by being personal, engaging, and down-to-earth.