Turn sustainability cynics into believers! An interview with John Marshall Roberts

JB: So, we’re talking about how advocates can effectively reach their audience. Does that mean communication is at the core of this method you teach?

JMR: You know, it’s not. My approach is actually about more than communication, it’s really about human understanding. My approach is pretty simple. If you want to make a difference in the world, and if you want to have an impact on people 1) you need to understand how the people around you think and 2) you need to be authentic. Basically, you have to really care about what you have to say and be coming at your audience in a way where you’re actually looking to contribute to them in a heartfelt way rather than trying to fix or change them. If you actually care about your audience and you have deep insight into how they think, there’s no limit to how powerful you can be.

JB: But do you really think anyone can learn to win over skeptics? You must have to be a good communicator, too, no?

JMR: Yes, but sometimes, the best communication could be a simple action. Let me give an example, Gandhi was kind of a small man. He started off with pretty small goals; he didn’t start off wanting India to be liberated from the British. He wasn’t so great at standing in front of crowds from what I’ve read, but he was a good communicator. One of his most famous communications was when he walked to that sea and grabbed a handful of salt, [breaking the British Raj salt laws]. This simple action was wordless, but spoke volumes.

What I’m getting at is that when you do the hard work of finding out what you really care about and allowing yourself to be gripped by that then eventually you will be led in your own unique way to communicate in a way that other people will get. It may involve words but it often will involve actions as well. And authenticity is ultimately what happens when your actions, your words and your thoughts all line up. This is the kind of strategic inner alignment that can move mountains, but it takes courage and insight.

JB: Let’s say you’ve won over a couple sustainability skeptics and earned some buy in your organization or sector, is there a continuing role for you as a change-maker?

JMR: Of course. I don’t think your work’s ever done. It’s a continual process of bringing into being that vision that you, like a mad artist, have decided you would like to create. It requires persistence and it requires humility and it requires tenacity.

I think really what we’re grappling with now—through this thing we call the sustainability movement—is a deeper, practical understanding of how systems grow and change and evolve over time. So we’re moving in this conversation of sustainability from the old model, which is the before/after model of reality (you know, the late-night, weight-loss infomercial model: “I weighed 500 pounds and now I’m skinny and I can go to the beach”), to the model that says we’re never done, it’s a continuous process of unfolding. And that’s why a lot of people don’t like sustainability and sustainability enthusiasts. It’s because they still want to believe there’s an end. They still live with the fantasy of retiring young, sipping a daiquiri on a yacht, with nothing left to do but gain weight and read trashy novels. Sustainability isn’t about that; it’s about the perpetual continuation and evolution of life through human systems, and it involves an endless dance of learning and improvement.

JB: What’s the toughest room you’ve ever had to work?

JMR: A couple of years ago, I did my first international speaking gig in Wellington, New Zealand. There was this big crowd and I got up and I felt flat. I gave all my best material and they were just staring at me stone-faced.

I stayed for two weeks and what I discovered is there’s a thing in New Zealand called the tall poppy syndrome: when someone thinks they’re too big for their britches they’re a tall poppy. So you’re not supposed to be one (whereas in the US the taller the poppy the better). And when they hear an American accent they assume a lot of the time that we’re full of ourselves. What I quickly learned is that I had to go out of my way at the beginning of conversations to make a self-deprecating joke, to let them know that I don’t think that I’m all great. Then they wouldn’t judge me as much for the funny way that I talk.

It was really interesting to push into that different culture with my speaking and to get that different response. It really goes to show how worldviews and values influence the way people perceive communication.

John Marshall Roberts is an applied behavioral scientist who has crafted his career around communicating with cynics. He has a subversive sense of humor, and more than a decade of consulting experience. His book Igniting Inspiration: A Persuasion Manual for Visionaries delivers an new paradigm for creating inspirational media and messaging using the science of worldviews.

A dynamic and popular speaker and workshop leader within the sustainability movement, John has recently been invited to speak by a variety of leading organizations, which include the US White House, Sustainable Life Media, LOHAS, SustainAbility (England), and TEDx (New Zealand). He is founder of the innovative communication strategy firm, Worldview Thinking.

Check back soon to learn about upcoming learning opportunities with John. If you’re a passionate advocate for sustainability in any organization, sector or industry, you won’t want to miss his webinars or speaking engagements.

One Response

  1. Kerri Brock

    My environmental mentor taught me to start with my learner in mind, when approaching the cycle of transformation. When we can guide another to reflect on their unique needs, and self interest and move them toward action is a sustainable model for behaviour change. They have made the decision, the choice and the effort. No shame, no guilt, no anxiety. One small step of modelling behaviour creates many ripples in the pool of social change!