Storytelling For Sustainability

Climate change has thrown our society into disarray.

  There is conflict and confusion over cause, severity and outcomes, a million ideas and solutions drowning each other out. And in the middle of it all, consumers don't know who to believe, what to do, and how to feel. At best, we're stressed and confused. At worst, we're going catatonic and numb, unable to effect any change at all.

Funny as it may sound, what we need is a good story.

Storytelling is, and always has been, the antidote to information overload. As Edward Wachtman says, stories are the structure that brings order to our existence.

As humans, we are wired for order and sequence. We intuitively organize the millions of independent events in our lives into a clean, comprehensible structure with a past, present and future. One of the mechanisms we use to do this is storytelling.

Stories bring an emotional context to the unfamiliar, enabling us to not only process information, but determine if that information should sway us.

Truth is, you can't win anyone over with a superior argument. You need to connect with them on an emotional level.

When Aeschines spoke, they said "How well he speaks." But when Demosthenes spoke, they said "Let us march against Philip."

What's the green story?

Climate change, sustainability and green innovation may be relatively new topics. But as the dusty newspaper aphorism goes, there are no new stories.

In fact, when you dig into the disarray, you find many elements of our current situation fall naturally into a story template. That template, described by green PR expert James Hoggan, has the following elements:

1. Foreboding -- a vague sense that something isn't right
2. Triggering event -- a moment that causes us to act
3. Epiphany -- the curtains draw back and we see clearly
4. Reconciliation -- we act to bring reality in line with our vision
5. Transformation -- we grow based on the experience
6. Return and responsibility -- we bring our new wisdom to daily life

Let's take the Ray Anderson story. Anderson runs Interface Carpet, a shining light of green innovation. For years, he answered Interface's environmental critics with "I'm doing what I have to -- I'm obeying the law" despite his growing sense of foreboding about his company's environmental impact.

His triggering event came when he read Paul Hawken's Ecology of Commerce, leading to the epiphany that 'business as usual' would make his legacy a dead planet.

Reconciliation came when he redefined Interface's mission, and brought his managers aboard to create a bold new vision.

This led to Interface's transformation, with incredible product and business model innovations -- culminating in its No. 1 ranking in the SustainAbility global survey.

The story concludes with Anderson living a new life as a sought after speaker and advisor on all issues eco -- including a key role advising on President Obama's Climate Action Plan.

Innovation needs storytelling

Innovation (green or otherwise) is, by definition, new. In a world moving at breakneck speed, new is not always welcome.

Storytelling ensures that your innovation has the momentum it needs to overcome inertia and resistance to change - both inside your organization, and out in the real world.

A staggeringly large number of things have to go just right for a new idea, service or business model to ever see the light of day -- and many of them involve changing or expanding consumer thinking. Without the glue, context, and inspiration of storytelling, the odds are stacked against you.

Without a story, a great innovation can be reduced to a clever invention among a million clever inventions. With a story, it can help educate consumers, drive them to positive behavior change, and perhaps even inspire greater, more fervent climate action. Not bad for a new product or service.

6 comments about "Storytelling For Sustainability ".
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  1. Brooke Farrell, March 31, 2010 at 12:42 p.m.

    Good post. I totally agree. Sometimes the story is more compelling than even the idea. Most of us spend the day buried in the details and facts, but pulling back to see where we are within the larger story is helpful to staying on track with our longer term vision.

  2. Jane Tabachnick from Jane Tabachnick Marketing, March 31, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.

    Well done Marc! Storytelling is always a good technique in marketing. Its especially valuable in the green space as it helps people in all levels of sustainable awareness and knowledge connect with what you are trying to communicate. It can also lend validation, if it includes enough specificity, and separate you from those making sketchy and unsubstantiated green claims.

  3. Dewita Soeharjono from Some Things Organic, March 31, 2010 at 3:11 p.m.

    The stories that Anni Leonard put together on water, trade and cap - are great examples. She's got her side of the story, very educational and inspiring. It's easy for kids and adults to understand.

  4. Chris Corbett from KMA Direct Communications, March 31, 2010 at 7 p.m.

    My story:

    1. Foreboding -- "Experts" kept telling me that global warming would soon destroy the world, but I didn't see it happening and wondered if it was a delusion, yet felt guilty thinking it.
    2. Triggering event -- I looked at the evidence pro and con.
    3. Epiphany -- The pro evidence seemed weak and inconclusive, and then I discovered that global warming scientists with financial interests in perpetuating the narrative of warming had cooked the books and covered it up!
    4. Reconciliation -- I began to share what I had learned and found that many others were traveling a similar journey of discovery, and shared a similar irritation with being played for suckers.
    5. Transformation -- I began to share my views on Green Marketing posts and elsewhere.
    6. Return and responsibility -- I no longer live in fear that the globe is overheating, and rejoice with the growing public understanding that they no longer need be scared or succumb to the scam. We can be responsible conservationists without being eco-hysterics.

  5. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, April 2, 2010 at 4:56 a.m.

    Let me add to Chris Corbett's brilliant understanding of the storytelling theme:

    There really are pesticides and hormones in our food that shouldn't be there for our individual good (but are there because of greed and the bogus idea that the greater good is being achieved by making more food available more cheaply). Chemical companies and Nanotechnology really are being reckless with new compounds. People are still unknowingly subjected to working and living in buildings with asbestos.

    But the credibility of the legitimate calls of micro-ecology advocates has been badly hurt by those macro advocates whom Chris Corbett just roasted and who have to admit that they seem to have deliberately angered at least half the population of the UK and the USA with their determination to believe a tenuous theory that man-made global warming really is happening.

    What I am saying here is that I probably agree more with Marc Stoiber on most green issues especially if Chris Corbett were to take his great caricature and mistakenly say this applies not only to the flawed and politicized greenhouse gas theories, but to all attempts to stop local pollution and greedy corporations letting human populations get poisoned (asbestos, nano-particles, poor wiring creating deadly fields).

    If Chris would say that Monsanto deserves less oversight on the new chemicals they unleash and the tobacco companies should be free to let people poison themselves with a deliciously addictive product, I would relish an argument with him on that. But that is not the story the politicians spend much time on.

    The real story here could be that the green people are right but for the wrong reason. They need to say more often "Global warming is not the issue - Localized Pollution is". If you stop localized pollution, the believers in man-made global warming may still get their wish to see a reverse.

    But the real story, unfortunately, seems to be that "the left" wants to continue to brazenly antagonize and fight capitalism on a global scale and needed a new ideology after communism started to collapse in the late 80s.

    Individuals will continue getting poisoned while politicians argue like children about whether the entire world is going to end.

  6. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, April 2, 2010 at 5:11 a.m.

    If one says "there is no proof that second hand smoke is harmful to the health" there is an immediate credibility loss that hurts those trying to say "there is no proof that man-made global warming is happening". Keep in mind that the worst thing about second hand smoke is that non-smokers can't stand it and want others to stop polluting their local environment. Conservatives need to step up to the plate and more forcefully condemn the pollutions and poisons the left was always right about. Only then will more people see where the left may have overstated their case.

    I ridiculed Jimmy Carter's leftism, but he may have saved my life. He banned asbestos while the Republicans I was supporting were kicking and screaming to stop him from doing that (what was I thinking? There is nothing free-market about allowing people to be slowly murdered in their homes).

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