So how can a climate scientist best communicate their work to a sceptical audience? With that in mind, the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University has issued a guide on the psychology of climate change communication that brings together the latest social science research in the field. Although it's a serious topic, the guide is easy to read and contains many a cartoon and case study to illustrate its points.

"Gaining public support for climate change policies and encouraging environmentally responsible behaviour depends on a clear understanding of how people process information and make decisions," says the report. "Social science research provides an essential part of this puzzle but there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to the challenges of communicating about climate change. Rather, each of the many barriers presents a new opportunity to improve the way we present information."

To kick off, the guide reveals how people have mental models of particular concepts and ideas they are trying to understand. This model, although it may be inaccurate and incomplete, acts as a framework for adding new information. But it can get in the way of learning; people may selectively take in only information that fits in with their existing mental model, confirming their existing beliefs even if they are wrong.

This "confirmation bias" can mean that sceptics pay more attention to short-term cold swings in temperature, which reinforce their mental model that the climate isn't warming. Equally, climate change believers may over-interpret short-term hot swings. And when a fact doesn't fit in with their mental picture, people on both sides of the debate will tend to ignore it or interpret it as an exception to the rule.

To try and change skewed mental models, communicators should first aim to discover their audience's misconceptions, the report explains. For example, many people believe that because there is a hole in the ozone layer there is also a hole in the "greenhouse" formed by greenhouse gases around the Earth that lets in more solar radiation. As a result, some people believe that banning aerosol spray cans is the best way to solve climate change. Discovering misconceptions such as these means it's easier to replace them with a more accurate picture.

Frame and gain

Another tool that's worth a try is to frame the subject with an angle that appeals to the audience. For example, the attention of college students may be hooked by the creation of green jobs, city officials could be fascinated by a discussion of energy efficiency standards in building codes, people in winter sports areas such as Colorado may identify with the link between climate change and the ski industry, while sea level rise may seem of more immediate relevance to the inhabitants of Florida. It may even be useful to prepare frames in advance of a meeting, perhaps thinking about climate change as a religious, youth or economic issue.

Apparently some people respond better to a promotion focus, which stresses that it's best to stop climate change to maximize gains and advance progress, whereas others are more comfortable with a prevention focus – "it is our duty to prevent climate change to minimize losses and avoid mistakes". So it's best to include both types of wording in your message.

And it's good to include local examples of the impacts of climate change. Many people see climate change as a threat to wildlife and to people in other parts of the world but not as a local issue that could affect them.

If not now, then when?

Framing climate change as a problem in the present rather than the future is also likely to grab more attention. People tend to be more worried about immediate threats than future problems. According to the report, this is one of the top reasons that it's hard to motivate people to take action to prevent climate change.

Often we view environmental and financial consequences as less important for each year they are delayed. For example, the average person sees little difference between getting $250 now or $366 in one year's time, and not much discrepancy between 21 days of clean air now and 35 days of clean air next year. But communicators can use this mindset of discounting future losses to their advantage by getting people to commit to an undertaking in the future that will improve their environmental impact. Typically, when asked to sign up for an appointment in three months' time to evaluate the energy efficiency of their home, someone will think I'm busy now, but in the future I'll have more time and it won't be such a big deal. As a result they'll be more likely to sign up.

People tend to avoid losses rather than to seek gains – we're more upset about losing $100 than we are happy about winning $100. Similarly, when outcomes are projected into the future, people discount future gains more than future losses. So people may be more likely to change their behaviour if they believe their way of life is threatened and that inaction will cause even greater loss, than if they see the current situation as acceptable and discount future improvement of it. This means it could help to frame climate change information as "lose less now instead of losing more in the future". Similarly, energy efficient appliances are likely to be more popular if they're billed as helping homeowners avoid losing money on higher energy bills in the future rather than helping them save money in the future.

The triumph of experience over science

Although scientists are compelled by the evidence of climate change they have produced, the message doesn't seem to be getting across to the general public, or at least it's not instilling them with the same sense of urgency. The latest research indicates this may be down to the way that human brains work – we respond to immediate risks much more strongly than distant threats. What's more, the brain has two processing systems. The experiential processing system controls survival behaviour and is the source of emotions and instincts, while the analytical processing system is logical, deliberative and controls the analysis of scientific information.

Accessing our experiential processing system is much more likely to motivate us into action about climate change – the best way to do this is through images, films, analogies and stories, using emotionally charged communication and simulation exercises. Presenting scientific data, on the other hand, keys into the brain's analytic processing system, giving people a higher awareness that climate change is happening but without motivating them to do anything about it. The best approach, says the report, is to target both these processing systems to "leave a mark in more than one place in the brain".

Emotional worries

Wouldn't it be great if, having read this report, the world's climate scientists were able to change public opinion and influence policymakers simply by telling stories about their family's experience of climate change and including a short film about their visit to Glacier National Park? Unfortunately it's not that simple.

As in other areas of life, it's best to avoid overusing emotional appeals for action. It turns out that there's a limit to how many issues we can worry about at once. This concept, dubbed the "finite pool of worry" by researchers, is likely to be the reason that in 2008 and 2009 climate change fell to the bottom of people's list of concerns as anxiety about the economy rose.

Also, emotional appeals can gain someone's interest for a short time but it's hard to maintain that level of interest. Repeated exposure to a problem can lead to emotional numbing – the report reckons it's best to gauge an audience's degree of numbing by asking about their level of media exposure to climate change, checking out their reaction to well-known images associated with the issue, and getting them to consider their level of worry and potential numbness.

Another problem is that people tend to take just one action in response to a threat and then feel they've done enough. This "single action bias" can mean that, for example, those who recycle feel they've done their bit for solving climate change. And in the US it appears that Democrats believe that the environment is improving simply because of the election of Barack Obama. The guide suggests communicators illustrate the concept of single action bias by asking the audience to raise their hand if they use low-energy light bulbs, to raise their hand if they turn their computer off at night, and then to raise their hand if they do both. The number of hands in the air is likely to go down dramatically.

Communicating scientific uncertainty clearly is vital, so that the public realizes that scientists have a high confidence that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, even though they are uncertain exactly how much warmer the planet will be in 100 years' time. The report contains a useful list of words and phrases that have a different scientific meaning to their popular usage – for example to the non-scientist positive feedback means constructive criticism, and a positive trend is a good one. It's also worth invoking the precautionary principle and explaining that scientific uncertainty alone is not a good reason for taking no action.

CRED has found that people are more likely to understand information about risk and probability when they encounter it as a group and are able to discuss it. They're also more likely to implement solutions after group-work, and participating in a group can boost people's likelihood of cooperating.

Others tips for improving your communication of climate science include: recruiting a local person to help create a connection with your audience if you're from out of town; trying to find the smallest group or affiliation with which most of your audience can identify; understanding meeting etiquette and how people take part in groups; allowing lots of time for discussion, perhaps even breaking large groups into smaller groups; framing climate change as a problem that will have an impact on nearly every human system, such as health, the economy and national security; and making it easier for people to change their actions by making environmentally friendly behaviour the default option and providing a short-term incentive.

The last word goes to CRED, which feels it is key to ensure that "people feel both a personal connection with climate change and a desire to take action to mitigate its impact, without becoming overwhelmed by the scale of the problem".