Part 2: Four tips for crafting an effective sustainability story

This morning, Wednesday, October 12, I presented alongside other local storytellers and sustainability professionals at the Environmental Initiative’s Sustainability Storytelling: Going Beyond the Report workshop.

As I prepared for this exciting event, I thought about what makes effective stories – especially in the sustainability sphere. Messages are often complex, our subject matter can feel weighty and the steps to live a more sustainable life can sometimes seem austere.

Everyone is talking about sustainability these days. But what are the elements found in the best sustainability stories?

1.     Make it personal.
Make sure your sustainability story starts with a solid foundation. First, you must know your audience. One of my favorite climate change communications authorities, EcoAmerica, states it simply – “Start with people, stay with people.” This means doing your homework and connecting with your audience by understanding their needs, concerns and values. Then you can craft messages designed to resonate with them.

A great example of this practice in action is Climate Wisconsin: Stories from a State of Change. In addition to dynamic graphics that explore temperature change and ice cover, this website features a series of videos that highlight how climate change is affecting different people living different lives throughout the state. From maple sugaring to fly fishing, great lakes shipping to urban heat waves, the videos are not only compelling, but are tailored to reach a wide variety of Wisconsinites.

2.     Be honest about the barriers.
A common pitfall of sustainability stories – especially in the nonprofit sphere – is to shy away from the challenges and bumps in the road. But, as they say, the struggle is real – and it’s relatable. Instead of sharing a story about how your business set a goal to recycle 50 percent of your waste, so we set our mind to it and “HOORAY! We did it,” take a moment to be honest about the barriers you faced and let readers know the way you overcame those challenges.

Consider Patagonia’s Worn Wear campaign, one that encourages customers to continue using their products long after they show signs of wear and teaches them how to make needed repairs. Through video stories, they shine a light on their products and the people who use them in the most extreme conditions. And they encourage their customers to submit their photos and stories. For those who need extra help learning to replace a broken zipper, Patagonia partners with the ifixit blog, which shares tips and tricks to get extra life out of their products, thus resulting in a small carbon footprint. They also take their show on the road each year with a mobile Worn Wear repair team. In short, they are taking steps to address the barriers to embracing worn wear.

3.     Reinforce a social norm.
Successful sustainability stories foster a sense that new sustainable lifestyles are the norm and “everyone is doing it.” What action are you encouraging? Riding your bike instead of driving? Saying goodbye to bottled water? Weatherproofing your home to prepare for another Minnesota winter? By sharing the story of someone who is taking those steps in a personable, honest and relatable way, you are applying social pressure and establishing a new norm.

One of my favorite examples of social norming in action comes from my experience managing the Clear the Air Challenge for three years. The Challenge, which encourages people in Utah to use alternative transportation to improve air quality, found success through engaging the business community. Once several large employers, including Overstock.com, jumped on board, other businesses followed suit. The Challenge platform, with its public leaderboard and real-time tracking, also added to the sense that everyone was doing their part and inspired a sense of fun, team building and a dose of good old-fashioned competition in the corporate world!

Pro tip: Check out the Community-Based Social Marketing model for more on the power of social norms.

4.     Emphasize impact and inspire action.
We want to know that our efforts are having a positive impact. Successful sustainability stories empower people to follow in each other’s footsteps and make a change for the better. Sustainability issues are complex and can seem overwhelming – especially for weighty issues such as climate change. By sharing the story of someone else’s journey to reduce their carbon footprint, you illuminate the path for others and inspire action by shrinking the steps involved in making a meaningful change.

Another example drawn from my own experience is a series of videos the Challenge produced that highlighted people’s Resolution to Clear the Air. The short videos, shared on YouTube and social media, highlighted the small, relatable steps people were taking to drive less and improve air quality. Whether it was a mother carpooling kids to an event or someone taking public transportation for the first time, these videos inspired action in others by demonstrating the change.

Having spent the last six years specializing in concise, resonate and impactful sustainability communications, I would love to help you strategically communicate your green initiatives. 

Posted by: Kate Lilja Lohnes

Kate presents at the sustainability storytelling workshop. Learn more about her background.

Kate presents at the sustainability storytelling workshop. Learn more about her background.