Over the past decade, I've met with senior leaders at big energy companies and solar, wind, and renewable energy firms, and with government leaders weaning their countries away from fossil fuels. I've always been left with one thought: Solving the climate change problem is far, far more complex than most people realize.

Bill Gates agrees. In the 2019 Bill and Melinda Gates annual newsletter, which was published on Tuesday, Gates writes, "I wish more people fully understood what it will take to stop climate change."

Luckily, Gates is a noted student of communication. He's known for using creative strategies to help people understand complicated, stubborn problems.

And in that newsletter, he shows it. His explanation of climate change is brilliant--and his approach can help you explain information that people have a hard time understanding.

The 80-Second Squishy Explainer

In a video embedded in the newsletter, Gates spends 80 seconds to explain the challenge of solving climate change. He begins by picking up a foam squishy that looks like a windmill.

"People say we're getting solar panels and windmills to get a lot less expensive," he says. "And isn't that helping reduce greenhouse gases? The answer is absolutely. But there's a lot more to do than just taking electricity to zero emissions. There's a variety of things that emit greenhouse gases."

Gates then pulls out squishies that represent agriculture (pigs, cows, chickens), transportation (cars, trucks, and cargo ships), and manufacturing, which Gates says makes up nearly one-quarter of all emissions. "Everything we make--even a cute little squishy like this--is emitting 21 percent of greenhouse gas emissions," he says.  

Next up, Gates adds squishies that look like buildings. As he keeps piling up buildings, he says, "The number of buildings in the world is going to double by 2060. That's like building a new New York City every month for the next forty years. It's a gigantic amount of materials. Steels, cements, wood, all emitting greenhouse gases."

His point is that solving the problem will require a lot of change and a lot of innovation to bring the emissions from all those areas down to zero. Does he use the newest cutting-edge technology to illustrate that?

No. He uses cute little squishy toys.

Why Retro Is Better

I'm a fan of going retro to explain new, abstract, or complex ideas. The squishy toys are a great example.

You'll notice that neither Bill nor Melinda Gates uses PowerPoint in their newsletter videos. There's nothing wrong with effectively designed PowerPoint presentations, but sometimes, complexity requires jarring people out of their comfort zones and giving them new ways to understand the problems.

In a Harvard University executive education class that I teach every year, I challenge the students to think differently about presenting their ideas. Recently, I've found that going retro helps people understand abstract ideas.

The classrooms in the Harvard law building where I taught last year have both the latest digital education equipment and old-fashioned chalkboards. I suggested to the students with the most complex subjects that they should sketch out their ideas on the chalkboard. At the end of the class, students in the audience gave better reviews to the chalkboard presentations than to most of the PowerPoint presentations.

Going retro forces you to simplify your idea. People cannot act on something they don't understand. If anything, they'll tend to ignore it.

Gates knows that, which is why he uses creative communication strategies to get you to pay attention. Did it work on you?

Published on: Feb 12, 2019