Storytelling is part of your story

Words matter. They can make us laugh, or cry; change our point of view, or move us to act. Yet the sustainability movement still rarely uses the power of language to bring people to the cause. In-fact, just as often as not, the way we write about it can have the opposite effect of alienating or confusing people. But I believe that companies which have something meaningful to say on sustainability shouldn’t be afraid of storytelling: it is not the same as spin.

Most organisations now generally have a good understanding of the competitive advantage that responsible business practices can bring, but this isn’t translating successfully into the way they talk to their customers and stakeholders nearly often enough. No doubt afraid of being accused of greenwash, they churn out over-long reports brimming with jargon, data, and intricate graphs you need a microscope to read, as if to say: “this is so long and complicated, we must be sincere!” The problem is that while the reports may indeed be brimming over with sincerity, no-one actually wants to read them.

And worse: the reams and reams of information can actually make you wonder what is being hidden. As George Orwell put it: “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns…to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

To foster trust, you need to do more than generate information: you need to make that information palatable, put it into context, and weave a clear narrative that people will engage with. Sustainable business, despite the dullest of titles, is actually endlessly fascinating, with people at the heart of every story. Making your story dull, or incomprehensible, does not confer worth on your activities, but instead confines your messages to the few who can make sense of it.

Consider these excerpts:

“We systematically identify, assess, manage and monitor these risks throughout the life cycle of our work. Our pursuit of superior environmental performance is founded on a thorough understanding of local regulatory environmental, socioeconomic and health contexts…”

“A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, component and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles…”

Wake up! Could you tell the person sitting next to you what you’ve just read? Do you trust the company more who has just communicated this? Whether or not you are talking to specialist stakeholders, employees, or customers, most sustainability communications could be boiled down into simpler language.

Here are some examples which show just how powerful the written and spoken word can be:

“We just didn’t realise how special the Earth was…we didn’t know what we had until it was gone… We are not apart from nature: we are a part of nature.” (Prince EA)

“In its early stages, and in between the wrenching disasters, climate change is about an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, (or) the late arrival of a migratory bird.” (Naomi Klein)

“Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species.” (Leonardo di Caprio)

How do these lines make you feel? Sad; anxious; fearful; angry; hopeful? Possibly one or more of these things, but at least they most likely do make you feel. You’ve understood them, they’ve generated an emotion: you may even just take an action because of them.

Of course sustainability communications are not works of fiction: persuasive language cannot be used at the expense of fact or the piece of communications becomes even more meaningless. I’m not advocating spin, or the isolated selection of a few good case studies; just that we all strive to become better storytellers – to communicate facts, figures, and progress clearly, openly, and in a way that connects with people.

If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at Tom Idle’s excellent article ‘46 suggestions for better sustainability storytelling’; consider using an agency like the Plain English campaign to take a look at your work; or just read the words out loud, imagining you’re reading them to an acquaintance in the pub – you’ll soon find out what’s working. Above all, don’t be a cuttlefish.


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