Words matter: burning trees and biomass

June 13, 2013

How do you feel about generating electricity from biomass? A good idea? Not so much? Not sure?

It sounds vaguely green, doesn’t it?

How about chopping down whole trees in America’s southeastern forests and shipping them to Europe to be burned for electricity? How does that grab you? Chances are that sounds a whole lot less green.

The words we use matter. How we talk about our issues can either cause our audience to tune out, or lean in to learn more.

As recent coverage of the liquidation of southeastern forests to meet the EU’s renewable energy directive demonstrates, the right words can translate into major media attention.

In Resource Media’s work with scientists, researchers, environmentalists and others, we have to understand a wide range of issue-specific jargon. But we like to think we’re bilingual: we can speak jargon, but we can also speak values.  We spend a lot of time helping a wide variety of causes translate their jargon into stories that resonate.

Here are two things advocates can do to better connect with their audiences:

  1. Speak in language your audience can understand. While biomass may have a clear meaning to those steeped in the issue on a day-to-day basis, it is confusing and potentially misleading jargon to the general public. It doesn’t convey much, and may even sound sustainable and green. Chopping down trees in Appalachian forests, running them through a grinder and hauling them across the Atlantic to be burned in Europe? Now that inspires a visceral and powerful response.
  2. Use specific examples, not generalities. Burning wood for electricity is a generality. Chopping down an American hardwood forest to provide electricity for the European Union? Now that’s specific.

We’re all guilty of using too much jargon. The trick is to talk about your issue in the way your audience experiences it, not the way you experience it. That means bypassing jargon for simple language and stories that resonate.

We first blogged on this biomass issue last October, with a guest post from our colleague Danna Smith with the Dogwood Alliance. If you want to stay on top of this issue as it’s playing out, you can follow Dogwood on Twitter or Facebook.

You can also check out this High Country News United States of Energy map to see the potential for biomass mischief in your area (Pacific Northwest residents, beware!).

– Amy Frykman