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18 December 2017

Successful Sustainability Stories

Our usual Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting last week went into 'general problem solving mode'. A couple of members couldn't make it due to last minute unavoidable personal issues and we decided to postpone the scheduled topic of 'Customer Engagement' until we were back to full strength.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing case studies. I've long preached that these should be in the style of stories rather than lists of achievements. We are naturally programmed to follow narratives, and most people's eyes simply glide over bullet points without really grasping the impact.

This took us on to "what makes a story compelling?"

Our conclusion was the structure of: challenge ➔ inspiration ➔ resolution.

When I interviewed people for my second book, The Green Executive, as a warm up I asked "What got you into Sustainability?" The answer to this question was always some kind of personal experience which triggered the change – the inspiration of my story structure. These were so compelling that I included one interview after every chapter to interspace the 'how to' stuff with these personal stories.

My own story trigger was standing by the roadside in the far north of Russia, looking at the devastation caused by acid rain from a nickel smelter. I could taste the acid on my tongue. I had been an armchair environmentalist before, I became a professional soon after.

When you are telling your Sustainability stories, whether personal or professional, try to identify such moments where everything pivoted towards the resolution. That's the essence of a story.


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27 September 2017

Putting the Personal Into Sustainability

Take_a_Break_(magazine)_coverSo, the Guardian Sustainable Business site is no more. I don't think I'm really going to miss it because I don't think I ever read anything there that really made me stop and think. Most articles read like PR pieces, because that's largely what they were – native advertising, advertorials, whatever you want to call them, businesses were paying to get their case studies up there. And of course, if they're paying, they want to make everything sound fantastic, but end up sounding incredibly bland.

I came up across this when I was doing interviews for my second book, The Green Executive. The initial purpose of the interviews was to get fresh examples rather than rehashing the same old case studies as everybody else, but soon they took on a life of their own, telling the inspiring story of individuals doing great things, so I decided to insert one more or less verbatim after each chapter. In my view they are worth the cover price alone.

As I was attributing these stories to the individuals who were telling them, I thought it was only fair to let them see a draft to ensure there were no errors or potentially career-limiting revelations. One guy forwarded the text to his PR department for a once over and it came back rewritten in that strangely antiseptic language of the advertorial, with all the personal insights and gritty reality excised. It was sooooo boring. The PR contact couldn't, or wouldn't, understand my repeated pleas for a simple gaffe-check, so I gave up and just published my original.

As I was explaining to one of my clients this week, nobody reads case studies unless they have to. But they do read personal stories – particularly the classic quest story where someone just like us takes on a challenge, faces down adversity and triumphs with great results. Think of all those Take-a-Break style magazines which clog up your newsagent shelves – full of personal stories about  ordinary people bringing up a child with a disability or losing weight or fighting off a mugger. If the Guardian Sustainable Business had taken a leaf out of those publications, maybe I and others would have paid a bit more attention.


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22 April 2016

Shakespeare, Storytelling & Sustainability

william-shakespeare-portrait11It's old Billy S's 400th death anniversary tomorrow - I'm sure you could hardly have missed the fuss. It's quite extraordinary how the bard has stood head and shoulders above his peers over the centuries, with no-one coming close to his reputation.

And it all comes down to one word: Storytelling.

We love stories, whether it is the rise and inevitable fall of Macbeth or the latest on Miley Cyrus' love life, our appetite for a good tale is insatiable. This is why I always recommend using storytelling as a vehicle for communicating sustainability, as it is an intrinsically engaging medium.

One of my favourites is the story of an engineer working at one of my clients. He was given a lift by his son in the latter's new car and was fascinated at how the engine would switch off when the vehicle was stationary and spring back to life as soon as it was time to move off. At work, the production line was designed to be set up and calibrated at the start of a particular product's production and if anything was switched off, the whole set up had to start again. He applied the thinking of the start/stop technology to that production line so machines could power down automatically while waiting for the next batch, yet spring to life when it came along. This saved huge amounts of energy.

That story had permeated the business and the engineer had become a minor celebrity amongst his peers – much to his embarrassment, he was a modest man who just liked solving problems.

So next time you want to communicate sustainability, try framing it in the context of a story – how individuals overcame adversity or had a flash of genius which made something amazing happen. It will spread the word much faster and deeper than any set of statistics.


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23 April 2014

Why storytelling gets your Sustainability message across

ReadersIf I had to choose the best method for communicating sustainability, my automatic first choice would be involvement (workshops, problem solving etc). But if you are need an effective broadcast method, then storytelling is the next best thing. We relate to stories in a way we can't relate to raw facts or data.

I must admit my evidence for this came mainly from my own experiences and received wisdom, but now scientists have weighed in with proof. Some recent neuroscience research by Uri Hanson at Princeton shows that when you tell a story, brain activity of audience members starts to reflect that of the storyteller:

By simply telling a story, the [storyteller] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains.

[Hasson] found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's.  When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.

So the next time you are giving a talk on sustainability or writing the 'green pages' on your company newsletter, make sure that you tell stories - lots of them. It's what your audience will latch onto. And that's scientific fact.



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7 January 2013

Once upon a time there was a problem with the climate...

There was a very interesting article in the Guardian last week by Oliver Burkeman where he lamented the lack of widespread public interest in the whole US "fiscal cliff" farrago and in climate change. The problem, Burkeman argues,

"is that they're not stories about the sufferings or triumphs of individual, knowable humans.They're failures of complex systems: millions of individuals are affected, but in incremental, widely dispersed ways; in the case of global warming, most of those millions aren't even born yet."

He goes on to say:

"The economist Tyler Cowen rightly warns that our addiction to stories is dangerous. Stories strip facts away, dragging attention to what's most narratively satisfying, not what's most important. One of the least appetising tasks of the journalist, I can say from experience, is the struggle to combat this by injecting "the human element" into news that doesn't naturally possess it. The results are often painful."

While I agree with the analysis, I disagree completely with the prognosis. If human beings are so obsessed with stories - and I spend a huge amount of time reading them to my kids (see pic) - then lets embrace that to communicate climate change and sustainability, as resistance is futile.

You see time and time again organisations trying to communicate sustainability by bombarding the reader with facts, occasionally leavened with classroom comparisons - "that's the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road" etc. Trying to convert everybody into fully educated climate scientists, energy economists and environmental toxicologists is an impossible and pointless task. You don't need to understand the albedo effect to choose the most energy efficient equipment for your company.

My green jujitsu approach says "if they like stories, give 'em stories!" Turn sustainability challenges and solutions into stories of individuals' challenges, endeavours and resolutions. Add humour for extra zing. Leave the detailed stats and analysis for Burkeman and the rest of us geeks - unless of course you are dealing with geeks, then fact away!

And they'll all live happily ever after. The End.


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21 March 2012

The Wisdom of Craig Sams, Green & Blacks

Yesterday I was delivering workshops at the Get It Sussed event in Gateshead. While for some the highlight was hanging around in the foyer with a rather sullen looking Little Mix showing no X Factor whatsoever during a fire alarm (their dark lord, Simon Cowell, was said to have been spotted as well), I was rather more starstruck by the keynote speech from Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods and Green & Black.

Sams tells a great story - from his parents growing up in the dust bowl in the 30s (flour companies started producing prettily decorated sacks as a form of marketing as it was standard practice for desperately poor farmers to upcycle them into clothes for their children) through the hippy entrepreneur days at Whole Earth to his more recent work on Green & Blacks and biochar. I took the following points away:

  • We are (or should be) all pioneers in this game. This takes resilience, guile and, above all, unrelenting optimism;
  • The product is paramount - Whole Earth peanut butter is very popular because it has a great taste, Green & Blacks because it is very rich chocolate AND they are both very sustainable;
  • Branding should be bold - they chose the name Green & Blacks because it was strong, easy to remember and had the hint of environment (green) and dark chocolate (black). Names with "eco" or the like in them were considered but quickly ditched;
  • Storytelling is a very powerful form of communication - and Sams is a master;
  • If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough - he told us how at one point he had bailiffs evaluating how much his bakery was worth, but he managed to pay his tax bill just in time.

It was great stuff and very inspiring - I've heard him tell most of this story before but it was still worth sitting through again.

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27 February 2012

From Dickens to the Green Executive: Storytelling for Sustainability

At Tipping Point Newcastle last week there was a lot of talk about how "angry" we should be about the state of the world and how we could "sustain that anger." After an initial, but clearly unsustainable, blast from the angry young men and women in the room, a more sober reflection on the intersection between art and sustainability took over. At one breakout session, someone raised the awareness of poverty that Charles Dickens brought to the middle and ruling classes of Victorian England by writing extremely good stories about it.

I ventured that a modern equivalent might be Ian McEwan's Solar which avoids the preaching and presents a venal, very human protagonist in the battle for sustainability, rather than the virtuous and boring green heroes that some portray. But most importantly, McEwan wrote a cracking good story that made you want to read it. I think Alan Davey of The Arts Council summed it up well when he said "don't preach" and "bad climate art is worse than no climate art."

The last session I took part in was about communicating with executives of big business. Having pledged to myself to talk a little less and listen a little more in this session, I was bullied (it took at least 2 seconds to persuade me) to talk about what I had done in The Green Executive - tell the stories of the people who had succeeded in changing their organisation for the better.  When I started the book, I decided to interview some leading green executives to generate case studies, but the results were so compelling that I included them almost verbatim between chapters. Some of them were very personal - such as Jim Hagan of GlaxoSmithKline touching on the death of his father. These stories gave a compelling, human edge to book that I couldn't have created any other way.

So if you want to change your organisation, or the whole world, don't get angry, tell stories about where you are and where you should be.

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18 July 2011


I was delighted at the weekend to be sent this amazing picture by Melvin Redeker of him reading The Green Executive while on a kayaking trip around the North Sea island of Noss. Melvin is a business speaker and photographer who has mission to reconnect business with the natural world - you should check out his website here for the wonderful pictures if nothing else.

Well this got me thinking, what makes someone pick up a business book like The Green Executive after a hard day's paddling in the open sea? Well the simple answer is that I packed the book full of stories.

When I started the book I didn't want to regurgitate the same old case studies over again, so I interviewed 18 senior managers/directors charged with transforming their business. These interviews took on a life of their own, so I included a transcript at the end of each chapter as a short intermission called "The View from the Front Line". I found the stories were inspirational - somehow we managed to duck their PR machines' blue pencil of death and got some really personal insights and anecdotes. Virtually all the feedback on the book - reviews and on Amazon - has lauded the interviews.

None of this is surprising - humankind has always revered the story. Very few of us would willingly wade through a book of stats, equations and mathematical proofs, but whole industries depend on stories, from the Take A Break style magazine through to blockbuster movies.

So how can you use storytelling in your green communications? In exactly the same way I used it in the book - sprinkle anecdotes and personal stories through your reports, websites and other publications. One of the interviewees from the book, Julie Parr of lawyers Muckle LLP, used a story of how one partner was taking waste paper away to use as horse bedding in their in house magazine. OK, it's not the most exciting thing they are doing if you are a sustainability geek like me, but for the rest of the world (the people we need to communicate with) it the story is far more engaging than a bar chart or a picture of hands cupping a sapling.

So go on, what's your story?

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19 October 2009

Telling Tales

Story-telling is a powerful way of creating a compelling vision for the future. When doing backcasting exercises in strategy workshops, I used to get participants to draw their vision of their organisation in 20-whatever, but I've recently found it much more effective if I get them to tell a story about it. Not a sitting-round-the-campfire story, but something like "write the CEO's foreword to your 2020 CSR report summarising the six headline achievements you would like to have made by then". This keeps the vision on the right side of science fiction and, it appears, is an easier ask of participants.

You read it here first!

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