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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: The challenge of communicating on “sustainability”

Anthony Haynes

18 Dec 2018

“Much of my work with sustainability researchers involves helping them to tell stories….Shakespeare wouldn’t have made it if he’d only ever written the first acts of his plays.”

What does “sustainability” mean?  Why is it important?  These are fair questions about a new and sometimes frustratingly elusive field.  Yet at its heart, sustainability is about how we live together in a place which can no longer support our habits.  In this piece, we hear from an expert on communication, Mr. Anthony Haynes, mentor for the University of Cambridge’s School of Technology, on how to understand and overcome these challenges. Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Tim: What do you see as the main challenge for communications in sustainability?

Anthony: The top challenge is that our audiences are tribal, so we have to develop ways to communicate between tribes: an in-house memo needs to speak to technical and managerial departments; an outreach talk needs to engage scientists and non-scientists; or a paper or report needs to persuade, say, both biologists and engineers.

The problem is that each tribe has its own language, its own lenses, and its own set of norms.

Having worked with the written word for decades, I find the challenge of communicating with two or more tribes at the same time the most taxing of all.

Tim: So what solutions are available?

Anthony: First, avoid trying to do everything at once. If, for example, you’re writing an article or a blog post, write a first draft aimed entirely at the least specialised of your audiences. Once you’ve got that in place, edit it by adding – it’s more usually a case of adding rather than cutting – material to satisfy your more specialist audience.

Also, use parallelism: make the same point twice, in different registers (‘we need to put some numbers to this; we need to develop metrics’). And create layers: abstracts; executive summaries; boxed material; appendices and so on. In particular, stuff that the lay audience can skip.

Finally, think not textually, but intertextually: that is, rather than think one piece at a time (and so trying to cram everything you want to say into that one piece), think in terms of a constellation of pieces. Ask yourself: how can I distribute the various parts of my message across a range of pieces – for example, a presentation, a web page, a press release, and a blog post?

Tim: What are the main pitfalls in writing about sustainability?

Anthony: Sustainability experts often under-estimate the importance of vocabulary – as if concepts, arguments, and data are what really matters and their phrasing is of only secondary importance.

In English we often have a choice between words derived from Latin (and related languages such as French) and those derived from northern European languages, such as Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, and Norse. These vocabularies have different textures: the former tend to feel polished and cultivated, the latter more earthy or muscular.

The pitfall is that too many communicators – especially those that work in universities or public administration — remain locked in Latinate language. Ever wondered why your evidenced-based, carefully reasoned, arguments aren’t having any effect in practice? Well, try dropping in more northerly wording.

Let’s stop ‘addressing’ (Latin: ‘addirectiare’) problems, for example, and start actually dealing (Anglo-Saxon: ‘daelan’) with them.

I see that the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on sustainability reads as follows:

Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

I reckon Cicero would be able to make sense of that sentence – but such language will never get anyone out of bed. All those syllables.

Tim: What are the main pitfalls in giving presentations on sustainability?

Anthony: First, people treat ‘presentation’ as a synonym for ‘slides’. People ask me, ‘Can you email me your presentation?’ No, I can’t, because it hasn’t happened yet, and when it does it will constitute a multimodal act involving my voice, my facial expressions, my gestures, the audience, some moments of silence, quite possibly some slides, and eye contact between me and the audience.

And the greatest of these is eye contact: it creates a sense of connection in the room, helps you gauge your audience’s reactions, and tells you when to depart from your script.

Sometimes you need slides. One of our clients completed a drainage project involving a variant on an Archimedean screw. You need a diagram to illustrate that: it’s no good trying to do it in words. But if you haven’t got anything that demands visual treatment, dispense with slides. In my experience, nobody will complain.

And if you have stats, references, or equations, try reserving them for a second edition of the slides – that is, the one that you publish or distribute after the event.

Tim: How would you assess the maturity of communication generally on sustainability?

Anthony: I guess that resolves into two questions:

  1. To what extent have communicators on sustainability come to recognise that effective communication tends to require story-telling?
  2. How good are they at that?

Broadly, I’d say that think tanks, NGOs, and charities have matured in that regard; universities and governments, less so. The former have learnt from developments in content marketing; the latter tend, rather lazily in my opinion, to present information and analysis without condescending to encode it in narrative form. Read any good stories from the IPCC? No, me neither.

Much of my work with sustainability researchers involves helping them to tell stories. The experience has taught me that most scientific stories follow a single plot, one that moves from a problem to a solution (and often then to a further problem and a further solution, and so on).

Yet I find that, with worthy institutions, they’re often content just to bang on about the problem.

Shakespeare wouldn’t have made it if he’d only ever written the first acts of his plays.

Tim: What advances are you seeing and where, looking at business, policy and NGOs?

Anthony: The biggest advance lies in the handling of grey literature in general.

By ‘grey literature’ I mean ‘sort-of’ publishing: publications emanating from organisations that aren’t primarily publishing houses, in a variety of formats. For example, white papers, reports, pamphlets, leaflets, briefings – the Grey Literature Network Service has a helpful list of genres on its website (

In the days of print only, librarians and information scientists often found such formats difficult to classify and archive. Grey lit typically had a short shelf-life: it tended to disappear into people’s filing cabinets and rubbish bins.

In the digital era, such publications are altogether easier to curate, with the result that the shelf-life (if we can still call it that) of grey literature is lengthening.

In other words, the good news is that sustainability communications have themselves become more sustainable.

Tim: In your work, you’re keen to provide communicators with practical resources. What resources do you recommend to communicators in sustainability?

Anthony: Despite much searching, I’ve found little specifically on sustainability. If anyone knows of any, I invite them to contact me!

In the meantime, the closest I can find are the invariably excellent Smart Communications Podcast (, focused on not-for-profits, and also Wonk Comms (, focused on think tanks.

Beyond that, there are two books that communicate on communication (!) in general very accessibly. They are Krogerus and Tschappleler, The communication book (Penguin) and Tony Buon, Communication genius (John Murray).

And I hope I’m allowed to mention a book that Irenee Daly and Aoife Brophy Haney edited for our own company. It’s 53 interesting ways to communicate your research.



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