The art of storytelling in communicating sustainability

Written by Russ Avery.

Of all the myriad topics in today’s noisy world, sustainability remains a decidedly tricky one to communicate effectively. Although many organisations around the globe recognise that it’s something that should be included in their business plans, they’re either not really sure how to translate strategy into action, or they do so using the wrong tools. Behavioural and cultural change are key components of instigating corporate sustainability to the point where it is embedded into the very fabric of an organisation. Consequently, positive and effective communication is vital for success. However, even if a business acknowledges these facts, it is then faced with the following question: how do we communicate in such a way that we can inspire change and incite a major shift towards sustainability?

There's no point in just shouting out your message. You need to tell a story. Photo: Hazzat

There’s no point in just shouting out your message. You need to tell a story. Photo: Hazzat

Over the years, it has become clear that passion and conviction alone are not adequate enough to energise the masses and kickstart the necessary behavioural and subsequently cultural changes (behavioural change being short-term, cultural being long-term). People already suffer from information overload, so an additional barrage of facts and figures simply doesn’t work. Instead, a more specific form of persuasion is required: the art of storytelling.

When people can relate to you, the will have faith in you. When they have faith in you, they are more readily persuaded and convinced about what you are selling or telling them. Successful storytelling can gain someone’s faith, by way of making your story their story. It’s all about inclusion. Out of today’s numerous corporate sustainability strategies, the most successful, high-profile ones all include the element of emotive storytelling. This is what makes them real and more convincing. Take Company X. Nobody cares about their sustainability strategy, because they’re just telling people that they’re doing it, and that’s all. On the other hand, people do care about Company Y’s strategy, because they’re telling stories in a way that allows people to relate to what they do as part of their daily lives. It means something. It’s tangible. Company X’s customers have fallen asleep, while Company Y’s are begging for the next chapter.

It doesn’t make a difference whether you are communicating internally to your own staff, or externally to your customers, clients and stakeholders. The right story, told in the right way, is the key to gaining buy-in through the confidence and trust of your target audience. After all, what is a plan if it isn’t essentially a good story? A successful sustainability plan will paint a picture of what the company wants to achieve in five, ten and twenty years time. Next, the plan needs to relate to both the past and the present, thus essentially telling the story of the company’s evolution. It’s engaging. It’s involving. Employees want to be a part of it and customers want to experience it, confident that if they’re involved they can make a difference. It’s far more effective to share your goals and targets through storytelling than it is by showing some numbers. Do people remember numbers? Rarely. Do people remember a good story? Every time. It’s been this way for thousands of years.

The right story, told in the right way, is what you need to get staff and stakeholder buy-in. Photo: meemal

The right story, told in the right way, is what you need to get staff and stakeholder buy-in. Photo: meemal

The best thing about communicating sustainability is that, if done correctly, it’s a story that everyone can be a part of, from C-suite executives to interns, suppliers to customers. Positive and appealing messages are the ones that can inspire change and contribute to a meaningful shift towards sustainability. Like any good story, successful sustainability communications must be engaging, not boring, and emotive, not passive. It’s about determining people’s motivational drivers and having the ability to put a different spin on a story in order to make it appeal to a diverse audience. Encouraging people to change their behaviour is rarely an easy task. But it is possible. You’ve just got to tell the story right.

Have you seen any good examples of storytelling in communicating sustainability?

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