I am still reading Seth Godin’s book ‘This is marketing” how ideas spread and ideas develop, and it still keeps giving me great ideas and inspiration.

What Seth really emphasis is the role of narratives and the importance of paying attention to these:

“You can’t get someone to do something that they don’t want to do, and most of the time what people want to do is take action (or not take action) that reinforces their internal narratives” (p. 102).

If we don’t understand how our audience or target group thinks, what makes them tick, we are not going to be able to entice them to take rapid action.


The role of narratives

Most of us are driven by the core question of what do people like us do.

Because behaviour is very much driven by our need to belong, being able to fit in and also act in a particular way that reinforces our desired status, we need to understand what that driving narrative is.

So what do people like us do?

We can never change the culture but we can change culture.

This begins from individuals, from families, from small social networks where people like us see the value in changing their behaviours.

Normalising an idea doesn’t mean that everyone braces it.

But the more and more particular trends and ideas are around and are embraced by people, the more “normal” they become:

“Normalisation creates culture, and culture drives our choices, which leads to more normalisation” (p. 106).

For example, as Seth notes, why do we cringe when we think about eating crickets but feel no remorse in eating steaks?

Because eating a steak is normal whereas eating crickets is weird.

We each have a narrative as to who we are, what we like, and a story about where we came from and how we became who we are.

When we meet a new person, the first thing most of us often do is to sum up our narrative about who we are, and how our life has shaped us.

These narratives are incredibly powerful, so powerful even that when people fail to live up to the story they tell about themselves, you might forgive a lot of their failings because you still believe and are impressed by that narrative who they are (or want to be).


Normalising adaptation

For the past 12 months I have been discussing with several colleagues about climate change adaptation and how we can in a way normalise adaptation into mainstream.

This is particularly important for scientific assessments, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where we need to deliver the latest most robust knowledge on adaptation in a manner that is actionable.

In other words, it is very much about normalising adaptation to policymakers and others interested in adaptation e.g. what kinds of actions one can take to adapt to impacts of climate change.

In Australia, we have broken so many heat records in the last 3 weeks that it’s ridiculous.

Higher temperatures mean we need to think how we adapt: how do we cool our houses, protect our infrastructure from failure, make sure people have access to both information what to do and also emergency services.

If higher temperatures become the new norm, then normalising adaptation is no longer a quest but rather a part of everyone’s survival kit.

I had a really good discussion with one of my colleagues the other night about how particular concepts take hold in scientific fields and how some just fail.

What it made me realise is that it does matter how we package ideas but also in what format we deliver an idea.

For example, a foundational scientific paper like “vulnerability” or “adaptive capacity” that unpacks a particular concept has often much more weight in idea development than a paper or a book chapter that uses the concept.

If the idea is not separated from others and if it is not explained in a clear way so that the concept can be easily normalised, it has significantly less impact.


Defining concepts for clarity 

For climate adaptation then, the question really is how we explain, frame, and conceptualise adaptation, and also its relationship with other terms such as resilience, transformation, risk, and risk management.

Why are they different and how?

This is core business of science because robust theory and robust practice need clear cut concepts that make sense in both theoretical sense but also can be actioned on the ground.

This is not easy feat by any means.

Normalising a concept is hard enough as much of the marketing and branding books tell us and even harder with a concept in a highly politized discussion of climate change.

But I do firmly believe that if we can “normalise” adaptation and make it not only trendy (this is what people like us do) but also easy to grasp, we run a much better opportunity in enabling real change.

And at the same time, bringing conceptual clarity to a field also serves in developing a much more robust theoretical foundation we can build on.


Role of education in creating narratives

This week in Durban I have spent pretty much most of my time indoors, trying to start thinking how the next assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II report should look like.

One thing that I have noticed is the diversity of people, not just in terms of countries that we come from but also the number of different scientific disciplines.

It made me think that many of us have been shaped by the different traditions of thought, the different disciplinary thinking, even in the way we use particular words and concepts.

The way we often see a solution or what is possible can be quite foreign to others especially if we use concepts and words they are not at all familiar with.

But it’s just not only scientific disciplines that influence the way we think.

It is also the scientific institutions and institutes, such as the universities, where we have studied that also have notable influence on how we think.

Institutions also create particular narratives as to where they have come from, what kind of people have shaped their directions, and how the new people entering these institutions fit into this narrative.

Think about Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford:

all of these top universities have a strong particular brand; a story of what you can become if you only become part of that institution and that narrative.

These institutional narratives are in many ways idea currency: places to develop ideas, places to access ideas, and places to merge ideas.

But more importantly, these institutional narratives are shared by the very people who attend these institutions and re-told over time, resulting in an alumni tribe that has a sense of belonging.

And in many ways this is what scientific assessments are about as well: a chance to assess a culture of ideas and through (painstaking) peer review to arrive to the best ideas that can be normalised.

So perhaps the focus should be on what kind of narrative we think reaches our core audience, and really invest in those people who will and can enact the change we desire to see.

Normalising a concept or an idea does not mean everyone will embrace it.

But if we understand our own vision and goals and are able to create a powerful narrative, a new narrative around what kinds of change is needed, we stand a much better chance in changing a culture.

Being bold in our vision is the first step, and am very grateful for coming across this book as it shows us how.