Fostering Creative Climate Communications “Inside the Greenhouse”

A visit by Andy Revkin, who shared his perspectives on climate challenges and played music from his new album “A Very Fine Line,” inspired our students to create “climate karaoke” to communicate about climate change.

A visit by New York Times journalist Andy Revkin, who shared his perspectives on climate challenges and performed music from his new album “A Very Fine Line,” inspired our students to create “climate karaoke” to communicate about climate change.

Last June, we 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows were asked to sketch out a “destination postcard” envisioning ways we’d work to advance a project during our practice year. I decided that I really wanted to move forward on a collective project that my two co-conspirators at the University of Colorado-Boulder – Rebecca Safran (Associate Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), and Beth Osnes (Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Theater and Dance) – and I have called “Inside the Greenhouse.”

Recently, journalist Alex Sobel Fitts wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that “‘just the facts’ haven’t been a good enough story…facts also have to be told compellingly. There are other ways of creating a narrative surrounding the facts of climate change that doesn’t distort, but is compelling.”

Welcome “Inside the Greenhouse.” Along with many collaborators and contributors, Beth, Rebecca, and I have constructed an experimental space where students can grab hold of the means of (creative) production to engage a range of audiences on climate-related topics. We work collectively to create constructive conditions where participants can analyze climate communication research, appraise effective methods for multimodal climate communication, and assemble artifacts through interactive theatre, film, fine art, performance, and television as well as new/social/digital media programming.

During the 2013-14 academic year, we held two sets of public and community events, hosting Constance Okollet and Ngozi Onuzo from “Climate Wise Women” in fall and Andy Revkin from New York Times Dot Earth and Pace University in spring. We also taught a two-course sequence: Rebecca taught “climate and film” focusing on personal narratives in the fall, and Beth and I co-taught a multi-modal creative climate communications course in the spring.

In our spring course, as our classroom erupted in applause after a set of impromptu “climate karaoke” performances, we gained further confirmation that we were tapping into powerful and productive energy for creative climate communication. There were forty juniors and seniors majoring in Environmental Studies, Geography, International Affairs and a few other disciplines. In 20 minutes from song assignment, each group composed climate-related lyrics for popular contemporary songs and classic hits and then performed them in front of the class.

As had been transpiring throughout the semester, habitually quiet and shy personalities mixed with the more outgoing ones, science-focused students mixed with those in the humanities, and groups happily harmonized and enthusiastically sang climate-themed karaoke ranging from versions of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” to the Isley Brothers’s classic “Shout.” Everyone stepped up and committed to the creative climate communications process.

Students engaged enthusiastically with each other to create "climate karaoke" in 20 minutes during class one day.

Students engaged in improv acting, role play and other activities throughout the semester to inspire creative climate communications and storytelling.

The karaoke session was one of many gratifying experiences that we’ve had in teaching these courses. In addition to reading and discussing social science and humanities literature on climate communications (“left brain” action), students got moving through improvisational acting, role play and other activities (“right brain” action). In small groups, they contributed to multimodal climate communications, such as:

Public art:

The "climate change board" on Pearl Street in Boulder

The “Climate Change Board” on Pearl Street in Boulder

James Petrie, Patty Bruder, MacKenzie Pope, Mike Elges and Conor Meyer created the “Climate Change Board,” placed it at two locations on campus and in downtown Boulder, and created a video with their reflections about the conversations it generated.

Performances: Gracie Nichols, Dylan Podel, Eddie Marovich and Alexis Levin created a radio program called “Dear Grandpa” (modeled after “This American Life”) where they read hypothetical letters written to their grandparents about climate change, focusing on intergenerational dimensions of the issue.

Board games:

Planet to Planet

Planet to Planet


Summer Hazlewood, Maxwell Fleming and Taylor Gifford created a climate-themed board game “Planet to Planet” (modeled after the popular game “Apples to Apples”) and built a website to support it.



Braeden Miguel, Chris Greenwood, Kyle Hockstad, Daniel Higgins, and Cameron Nelson created a board game called “Breakthrough” to provide an engaging new avenue for environmental thinking.

And videos:


“Eat More Pine” performers

Dylan Podel, Eddie Marovich, Gracie Nichols, Alexis Levin, & David Ushakow produced a heavy metal music video called “Eat More Pine,” performed by singing and tree-destroying pine beetles.

You’ll find nearly three dozen examples of our students’ work from the past few years here,  including additional examples from our spring 2014 course.

Reflections:  Through ITG, we’ve sought to capture, value, interrogate and creatively communicate complex, multi-scale 21st century climate challenges. We’ve seen journeys in the classroom spill out into the “real world,” and the notion of “meeting requirements for the class” give way to students making the most of the classroom opportunities. We hope this work inspires and fosters sustained, productive, interdisciplinary creative climate communication collaborations and engages students and the public alike to make climate change meaningful. Our project illustrates ways in which many people are confronting the challenges of meeting others “where they are” while encouraging them to consider climate issues in new ways.

In getting to know 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows, as well as others in the Leopold network and beyond, I’ve learned about many fantastic projects underway around the country and the world. Do you have a project on creative climate communications that you’re involved in, or that you know about that you’d like to share? Please share a story about your work in these areas, and/or a link to a project you have found inspiring and useful.

Max Boykoff, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the Center for Science and Technology Policy, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder. For more about “Inside the Greenhouse” check here and follow @ITG_Boulder on Twitter. See Andy Revkin perform “Liberated Carbon” (from his new album “A Very Fine Line”) with the Shadow Puppet Theater during his visit to the University of Colorado-Boulder this spring.

9 Prompts for the Storytelling Challenged

"Story prompts" are a great way to generate story ideas

“Story prompts” are a great way to generate story ideas

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I came across some great advice for ways to generate stories when you’re stuck. One of the best tips was to use a “storytelling prompt.” I found this useful as I prepared for a keynote to honors students at a local high school. Below are tips from three of my favorite experts that might help you to identify a long-forgotten story that might help connect you with your audience.

From Nancy Duarte:

Prompt #1: Think about items you own. Think about why these items are valuable to you and identify what underlies their meaning.

Duarte found one example in a teacup. “This seemingly valueless trinket would be worthless at a yard sale, yet it was precious. Not because of the craftsmanship or design but because of how and when it was used. I could visit Gram for hours, sipping from that cup as she told stories…..”

Prompt #2: Reflect on a timeline of your life. You can go year by year or cluster the years into phases like early childhood, middle/high school, college, career, parenting….

Prompt #3: Break the chronological pattern. According to Duarte, this “can help recall a deeper—and possibly dormant—set of stories.” As you explore, draw sketches of what you see to better classify and recall stories from the right side (or imaginative part of) the brain. Instead of thinking about a series of events, think about:

People: Create a list of people you’ve known. Think about things you did together and places you’ve been.

Places: Think about spaces where you’ve spent time such as homes, schools, offices, neighborhoods, sporting facilities, vacation spots, etc. Use your memories to sketch these locations out and move from point to point, drawing as many details as you can remember. You’re likely to “see” things you’d forgotten as you trigger scenes and even long-disregarded scents and sounds.

I once needed a story for a talk on presentation skills. I wanted to draw from a personal experience that led me to the point I was in my career. Instead of creating a timeline of my youth, I outlined my experiences in school. While other memories evade me, I have a vivid recollection of my childhood teachers, classrooms and the subject matter taught.  I identified a pattern of positive encouragement that began with the recital of a poem in third grade… which over time led me to be overconfident. In the tenth grade this “natural” gave a disastrous presentation on the Ottoman Empire (I got up in front of the class, froze, and said absolutely nothing). I drew from this experience to explain how “natural” ability can be taught with practice but thwarted by overconfidence.

From Annette Simmons:

Go on a daily scavenger hunt for stories. You can find stories anywhere…..

Prompt #4: Look for Lessons. Remember a setback or failure in your life and articulate the lesson you learned; recall the biggest mistake you ever made; a time you were glad you listened to your parents (or didn’t); look back and consider the things you might have done differently.

Prompt #5: Look for Vulnerability. Tell about the last time you cried; the last time you were so happy you wanted to dance a little jig of joy; an embarrassing moment; a time when you wanted to crawl under the table and hide; or touching family stories.

Prompt #6: Look for Story Recollections. Find a story that stuck with you and mine it for meaning, structure, and content. Recall your favorite movie or book and identify why it is your favorite.

From Jeremey Donovan:

Prompt 7: One Lesson. If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? What lesson would you give to your professional self?

Prompt 8: Defining Moment. What was a defining moment that most dramatically changed the course of your life?

Prompt 9: Overcoming Weakness. What early weakness led you to find your passion?

Try these out with friends and family members. You’ll be surprised at how much they can add to your stories and how many dormant memories they can recall… Or try them in a workshop with your students, labs, or faculty. Leave a comment about how they worked for you.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

Why I Write – Or What We Can All Learn from George Orwell

George Orwell

Sixty years later, George Orwell’s advice rings true for expressing complex ideas in a clear, compelling way.

In June 2013 my cohort of Leopold Fellows were given our marching orders: spend a year practicing skills to move from knowledge to action. I watched my fellow fellows take steps to shape the future of agriculture, transportation, and fisheries. For better or worse, I’ve been learning to write essays.

I came to this decision after reading a series of pieces by George Orwell written in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Anyone grappling with public speech – tweets, Congressional testimony, whatever – will find Orwell’s words worth a look.

First, he sums up his, my (and perhaps your?) motivations for public expression:

“four great motives … exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time  … They are: Sheer egoism… aesthetic enthusiasm… historical impulse… political purpose.”

Why do I write? Aesthetic enthusiasm is probably last, but that’s not true for all scientist-writers. Aaron Hirsh, a Ph.D biologist turned author, just published Telling Our Way to the Sea about the biology and people of the Gulf of California. Its carefully crafted and beautiful prose is both literary science writing and scientific literature. But for me the content of the story is more important than exactly how it’s told. And I definitely have a political purpose. Beautiful prose would be nice, but it is not my goal – I want to inform, inspire, and ultimately convince people to change the way they run the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, tweets may stimulate discussion and expose us to interesting ideas in the blink of an eye. That said, the idea of coming up with a pithy 140 characters leaves me cold. I’ve tried. It’s not me.

But the essay – that dinosaur – has always had a place in my heart. David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo introduced me to ecology and conservation biology. My mother regaled us with excerpts in Stephen J. Gould’s monthly Natural History pieces long before I had ever heard of evolution.

For my purpose, I think essays are actually good venue. They are short enough to be readable, long enough to be interestingly complex. Avoiding environmental catastrophe requires recognition of complexity, and it requires people to be interested enough to pay attention. It also requires passion. The persistence of The New YorkerThe Atlantic Monthly, and similar publications tells me that there are people — perhaps many people — who are willing to grapple with complexity, if it is presented compellingly enough. Perhaps if I can master the essay, my passion for the cause will be infectious.

So lesson number one, from my year, from Orwell: choose the right medium for the message and messenger.

The bigger trick is mastering it. Here Orwell has advice that is remarkably up to date, and fully in line with our Leopold training:

“1) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

More than 50 years before the message box, he warned:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? … You can shirk it [your job] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you…and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

If this seems abstract, here’s one of his examples of good versus bad writing. Which one has conveyed the moral imperative for society to look after the unfortunate for the past 2000 years? Which sounds more like the last paper any of us just published?

From Ecclesiastes:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And Orwell’s rendition in “modern” language (1946):

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomenon compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

So lesson number two: the next time you want to convey something important to an audience that really matters to you, channel Orwell. His advice is sound across the intervening decades. Letting him have the last word:

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

Stephen Porder, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology and a fellow in the Institute for the Study of Environment and Society at Brown University.

Applying My 5 Secrets of Captivating Stories

A story from my son's Field Day helped me connect with high school students

A story from my son’s Field Day helped me connect with high school students

I may be an open-book extrovert, but I still find stories hard to tell. They bring me back to elementary school days when my nerves got the best of me: voice cracking, knees shaking, sweaty palms….

For the practice year following my Leopold training, I set a goal of getting comfortable with storytelling by practicing the storytelling skills I read about over this year. I decided to use stories regularly in my class lectures and include at least one in every presentation I made on and off campus.

My best opportunity for practice came with an invitation to give a talk at an honors society induction for a large preparatory school in my area. My charge was to motivate the students to continue along their positive academic path, go to college, and succeed in life. Clearly, they were already highly motivated. How could I inspire them further? I thought about advising them to study hard, reach out to faculty when they don’t understand, and get extra help when they need it. But this didn’t seem very inspirational.

I decided on a story about my son, Solomon, that illustrated the message that in life it’s ok to fail  — it’s just not ok not to learn from failure. I set the stage by citing statics on college graduation that are pretty bleak: only 40% of undergraduates complete their degrees in 4 years; and this only increases to 60% by 6 years. I emphasized that these statistics hold for honors students at the best colleges in the country. I then juxtaposed this negative message with one of hope. I gave them a hook: that I knew the secret to college success. I led up to the “reveal” of this secret by using the story about my son to illustrate how failure, even failure in a kindergarten race, could be an opportunity to learn and succeed another day.

I practiced the story enough times that on the day of the talk I spoke without my notes and was able to act out my son’s stubbornness, his clenched fists when he lost, and my reactions. I was able to make eye contact and see that most audience members were sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes wide open. I used three well-positioned pauses to emphasize my main points: the first right after my story (to let listeners absorb the lesson of the story), the second after a quote by Michael Jordan, and the third right before the big “reveal” of my secret. A week later I received a letter from the headmaster that I think speaks to the power of storytelling. According to him, the students were “effusive in their praise and especially appreciated the delivery of ideas that were sprinkled with generous doses of humor. They really listened.”

Have you tried adding stories to your presentations or writing? What has been the most difficult part of this process?  If it is simply creating them, you’re not alone.  See my next post for ideas on prompts that can help with this process. Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

5 Secrets of Captivating Stories



credit: Salisbury University publications

Notice what happens the next time you tell a group that you want to tell them a story. People will perk up, get comfortable, and prepare to listen. Storytelling is a powerful way to connect, communicate, and convince. Annette Simmons (The Story Factor) sums it up: “Other methods of influence—persuasion, bribery, or charismatic appeals—are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people—of their own free will—come to the conclusion they can trust you and the message you bring.”

Communicating facts can trap listeners into supporting one idea or another. If an explanation runs counter to their beliefs and understanding, they don’t hear the message. Facts don’t have the power to change people’s minds, but stories do. This is because in story, there is room for non-linearity, room for messages to seep in, and room for both sides to be true. As Stephen Denning says in The Springboard, people listen to stories with little effort. Once digested, a good story can replay itself and continue to have impact long after its telling.

Stories generally have a specific structure (a beginning, middle, and end), but storytelling involves elements of style that are more difficult to list and number. When developing a story, a good place to start is with prompts. Here are a few from Jeremey Donovan (“How to Deliver a TED Talk”): “If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? “What was a defining moment that changed the course of your life? “What early weakness led you to find your passion?” Simmons suggests looking for stories in everyday life: any event that creates emotion or is memorable can become a story.

Here are 5 key elements of captivating stories:

1. Keep the specifics out and the details in: The details of the story are important. They set the scene, invite the listener in, and allow for emotion to seep through. The specifics are not important. It doesn’t matter that 55% of the invertebrates in your story were impacted, but rather what they looked like, how they smelled, and what the day was like. Like maps, stories communicate complexities with simple, incomplete views of reality.

2. Make your story positive: Science, critical thinking, and scientists are often seen as negative. Action is never born of frustration, depression, or ignorance. Hope, joy, and fulfillment motivate. Keep it positive.

3. Make your stories come to life: Remember that body language matters. You want to re-experience your story as you tell it. You want your listener to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the elements of your narrative. Nancy Duarte (HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations) states that you want to create conflict by emphasizing the contrast between what is and what could be. Remember that even the most compelling stories lose their power if they’re not told well. Practice your delivery.

4. Embrace silence: Silence can amplify the sensory and emotional aspects of your story. Don’t be afraid to pause to make a point or use silence to enhance your words.

5. Connect with your audience: Tone is important because it overrides or reinforces every message your gestures, body, and words relay. Tone cannot be faked. You must respect your audience and believe that they have an essential role in your message. Only then can you connect with them through humor, emotion, and passion. Audience members will almost never contact you weeks later about a presentation to say that they loved point 2, but you will find that they want to tell you how and why your story resonated.

In his fabulous TED talk the filmmaker Andrew Stanton says, “There isn’t anyone that you can’t learn to love once you have heard their story.” This likeability element is essential to getting your audience on board with your message, especially if you want to motivate change. Likeability can also break through the negativity of critical thinking. Science, and the advancement of scientific knowledge, is inherently negative. Think about it… hypotheses are wrong until proved otherwise, new ideas are spurred by recognition that prior knowledge was incomplete. As Randy Olson (Don’t Be Such a Scientist) observes, critical thinking is admired within academia but can be “horrifying” elsewhere in a world that thrives on positivity and affirmation. Stories help bridge this rift between scientists and the rest of the world. Stories make us care.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I used these tips to overcome my fear of storytelling and to embrace the secret sauce of science communication. What helps you tell captivating stories? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.