The Pacific Northwest is burning today. Literally. As I write this, ash is fluttering through the air, and the sun is glowing a disturbing red from nearby forest fires. Everything smells like a campfire. That’s usually a good smell. Not today.

And I’m upset. Even though my family is safe, and the media is reporting that the health effects of the ash are not significant. I’m freaked out. I feel jittery and on edge. More importantly, I want to DO something about it. NOW. Rain dance anyone?

I feel differently than I do about any warning about climate change. Or any environmental issue. No matter how strongly worded.

And I think it’s because I can SEE the air pollution. And smell it, and taste it, and touch it.

Ash falling in the Portland area from the fires in the Columbia River Gorge.

It’s a reminder to all of us who are trying to move audiences to engage with and act on sustainability and social issues: The five senses move us beyond the “should do” to the “want to do.” When you can physically and tangibly feel the impact, the issue gets personal. And the need to do something feels urgent. Senses are immediate and emotional, and they inspire action.

Here are a few things to consider for your next campaign, blog post or employee email that go beyond just the visual. All five senses can be used in combination everywhere, even in everyday kinds of communications.

  1. Create experiences to bring the issue to life. Virtual reality can bring people to places they’ve never been, and help them see and hear things anew: A drought-stricken region, a polluted river, a food desert. But I suspect that real-life experiences are even more powerful. Field trips and other excursions and hands-on, museum-like exhibits give us the ability to bring all five senses into the mix. And retail environments and packaging can create other channels for delivering sensory messages too.
  2. Employ descriptive language. Good writing is vivid and alive. What does the air taste like when it’s clean or dirty? What’s a community sound like when it’s healthy? Describing social or environmental impacts in sensory terms helps a reader emotionally connect.
  3. Use your voice and your body language to connect. When people hear the shake in your voice over an issue that moves you, they’re moved too. A shout or a whisper helps them feel your message. Your facial expressions, your hand movements—they all deliver a powerful sensory story. Don’t hide your emotion. Instead, use it to your advantage when you’re recording a podcast or a video, or giving a presentation.

Keep your fingers crossed, friends.