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Stop Speaking Martian: How to Effectively Translate the Language of Sustainability
July 10th, 2013
As the sustainability profession grapples with how it can invite and entice a new internal conversation with a broader, ‘beyond-sustainability-silo’ brand and business audience, we are struggling with many fundamental challenges. Language is one of these. But why so?
I remember being fifteen years old on a school ski trip to Austria. We shared a very long coach journey with another school. The other school kids all spoke ‘Egg language’ and they spoke it for 18 hours of winding and torturous coach travel. Egg language required that you inserted the word ‘egg’ wherever a vowel was and that you did it seamlessly and fast. Egg Language was impenetrable to me and my school friends. It was mind-blowing, frustrating and uncomfortable for those of us on the outside. I wanted in — I thought it was cool, but I couldn’t find my gateway and as such I needed to reject it. So I did. It was weird and silly and not for me.
Fluency in a given language or sub-language is powerful and brings a sense of place to the creators and adopters, but, it can also alienate and divide. Business silos are riddled with acronyms, linguistic closed-doors, lexical members clubs and language cliques. Is the language of sustainability any different, I wonder? Could it be less egg-like and made more accessible?
I started life in the world of brand and communications planning using the ‘dark arts’ to get mainstream people to buy more stuff. My role was to normalise the new — mobile phone ubiquity being just one of the populist outputs that proved that the marketing meme machine works when it comes to mainstreaming and social norm creation. I turned ‘gamekeeper’ (sustainability) along the way, but I didn’t unlearn the language of my past. To me, it is still normal. However, I have learned that for some, my old language is not normal and it is not accessible. Is it egg language V2.0?
A colleague recently introduced me to a client: “She speaks Martian” was the opener, followed by “but don’t worry, she is bilingual normal.” What they meant was, ‘she speaks a language I don’t quite understand (brand, marketing and consumer insights) and another one which I do (carbon, metrics, sequestration and PAS 2050 etc).' I guess I am flattered to be considered bilingual in this context and pleased to be a bridge of sorts between the two conversations.
But if we want to create transformative scale change, maybe we need more than bridging techniques. As Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, it goes to his heart.” My ‘Martian’ is about speaking human truths more loudly than I speak the inconvenient truths. Inconvenient truths are not compelling. They are inconvenient. I do not want to be inconvenienced. Most people don’t. And yet still we (sustainability) often cling to our own home-grown language, rather than seeking to learn the language of those we seek to engage. We add the word ‘sustainable’ to a word like ‘brand’ and hope against hope that the addition of the latter will open conversation, hearts and minds, to the former. But what if we talk the language of brand instead? In the main they don’t want to have a ‘sustainable brand,’ they want a ‘future-proofed brand.’ Same same?
Many of us talk a good deal about sustainability metrics. We are passionate about rigour. Rigour is great, but nineteenth decimal places of ‘truth’ are neither compelling, nor necessary when it comes to engaging non-sustainability people. It is not helpful or compelling to bang on about cradle-to-cradle closed loops, when a marketing director stands before us wanting to talk brand strategy, looking to articulate a vision, engage and enthrall a consumer, and future-proof a brand.
The recent UK Dream workshops were, upon reflection, a series of fun, foundation-level Martian courses. During the workshops to reframe sustainable living as aspirational, populist ‘new and normal’ living, there were sounds of willingly, bravely and happily shattered comfort zones all over the shop. We spent some time dusting down old language including ‘make do and mend,’ ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ and ‘a stitch in time.’ We realised that we had language enough and plenty to spare — all of it was already there. We didn’t need to reinvent, we needed to remember, re-use and relish.
Language is capable of being used in a way that unites. There is language enough out there that most can understand. At Uk Dream we use a little process: Our language translator is called Grannypedia — Granny is our wise keeper of dusted-down and newly shined human truths. ‘This is not actually new, dear ...’ and yes, these human truths are of course underpinned by clever, rigorous, inconvenient ones. But we wear those lightly that we might have new and meaningful conversations with the Martians among us.