You’ve heard the phrase “look before you leap.” But what does that mean when it comes to environmental writing and communications?
First, an urban legend about what can happen if you don’t look before you leap. Enjoying healthy sales of its Nova automobile in the U.S., Chevrolet introduced it to Latin America — where it bombed. As it turned out, “no va” — means “no go” in Spanish, and the name was turning potential customers away.
Environmental insiders make mistakes like this all the time, but you don’t have to.
When the stakes are high, savvy communicators pre-test their message before they commit to it. For example, advertising executives screen their latest commercial with a sample audience, before they spend millions to air it. Political campaigns test out slogans and speech lines with voters, before the candidates use them on the stump. Trial lawyers practice their arguments in front of mock juries, before they head into court.
They use the pretesting to avoid mistakes — and to sharpen their message so they get what they want.
In my practice, I help nature protection and pollution control organizations pre-test their fundraising letters, petitions, brochures, webpages, and related materials. I see some mistakes come up again and again. So here’s a short list of our own “no va” moments that you should take care to avoid:
Mistake #1: “If only they knew.” I hear this one from my clients a lot. “If only they knew they lived in a watershed,” “If only they knew they knew the storm drain went to the creek.” So they produce materials that are long on science education and short on action messages. As you might expect, these materials produce little action.
Mistake #2: Weak photography. Nature protection groups use a lot of pretty nature pictures. Pollution control organizations show a lot of pipes and oil slicks. No problem there, but when we pre-test those messages, test subjects often ask for photographs that demonstrate what action they can take.
Mistake #3: Professional jargon. Scientists, engineers, and lawyers tend to use professional lingo that sends the message to the public that your message isn’t meant for them. Pre-testing your materials is great way to uncover words that you thought were plain English, but aren’t.
Mistake #4: Too depressing. Sure, you have to convince people there’s a problem before they will do something to help solve it. But if you go to far, you will demoralize your audience.
Mistake #5: It’s all up to you. Let’s face it. Most of the things that everyday citizens can do to protect nature or control pollution make a pretty small difference — and they know it. But when we all do our part, it adds up to something big. So it’s very important to include in your message some words and pictures about the other people who are doing their part: donating, picking up after their dog, turning off their lights, signing that petition, etc.
Learning what the five mistakes are is a great way to avoid them. And another way to avoid these mistakes is to follow some writing guidelines like the Water Words That Work method. This 4-step method incorporates the findings from many environmental message pre-tests and opinion polls.
Finally, pretesting your environmental message isn’t just for those with deep pockets anymore. There are many new market research services coming onto the market that you can use to catch mistakes and sharpen your message, just like major corporations and candidates for high office do. When you simply can’t afford “no va,” pretesting is a “no brainer.”