Storytelling and the Power of 'One Great Idea'

A couple years ago, at a meeting of the GreenBiz Executive Network — our membership-based learning forum for chief sustainability executives — we began the meeting by asking each attendee to present “one great idea” from their company. It was an ice-breaker of sorts, a way for everyone to weigh in on something they were doing that was exciting, different, making a difference.

We budgeted 45 minutes for this. Five and a half hours later, we got to the second item on the agenda.

It wasn’t merely that the members were verbose. It was that each “great idea” spurred a lengthy period of questions and comments. We could have cut it short, hewing to our original agenda, but we didn’t. The conversation served perfectly the network’s mission: to allow executives at some of the world’s largest companies to learn from one another in an open, safe environment.

Since then, “One Great Idea” has become part of the GreenBiz brand. At last month’s three GreenBiz Executive Forums, we instituted a series of 15-minute, one-person stand-up presentations (yes: à la TED Talks) using that title. They covered a breadth of topics and presenters: from 25-year-old technology wunderkind Alexis Ringwald, who has three startups under her belt; to Johnson Controls’ Clay Nesler, giving the inside scoop on the greening of the Empire State Building; to Ina Pockrass, who aims to nearly singlehandedly prod the dental industry toward greener practices. There were corporate presenters from Adobe, BASF, Campbell’s Sopu, IBM, Intuit, Method, Microsoft, Nike, and others. And innovators like Jim Kors, creator of the world’s first 3-D printed car. Each democratically allotted 15 minutes.

(You can view videos of many of their presentations here.)

They were, I believe, a resounding success. At least, that’s what the audience told us. And it highlights a need in the green business arena: Nearly everyone, it seems, has One Great Idea. The question is how to bring them to the fore, let alone to share them as widely as appropriate.

John Davies, vice president and senior analyst at GreenBiz Group, and the leader of the GreenBiz Executive Network, gets credit for the One Great Idea coinage. “I think asking people for One Great Idea makes them focus in a way that is different from their day to day work,” he told me the other day. “When people are asked to make a presentation, they tend to throw out a number of ideas and hope some of it connects.”

Instead, says Davies, One Great Idea is more like the challenge of desert island discs or books. “It's asking for that one legacy idea, one thing that others might benefit from and you might be remembered for. I think the approach works because people think more about sharing the idea, communicating it clearly, and not just pulling out a tired slide deck.”

Granted, doing a One Great Idea presentation can be challenging. When we prepped speakers for our State of Green Business Forums, we found that, despite the title of the session, some were prone to throw everything into the hopper. I recall one speaker, a senior corporate executive, saying, “Wow, 15 minutes. It usually takes me 30 minutes to get through everything. I’ll have to talk fast.”

No, I pointed out. “This isn’t about getting through everything. This is about one great idea. Just one.” Even with this admonition, a few of our speakers tried to shoehorn in their life’s work or their usual dog-and-pony show. But most rose to the occasion. And when it works, it’s a beautiful, powerful thing.

The idea of presenting One Great Idea shouldn’t be unique to sustainable business, of course. But it plays a special role here. Sustainability is multifaceted and complex, and many people — including many professionals — quickly find themselves overwhelmed by all of the moving parts. The to-do list for sustainability is long and — by definition — never-ending. It’s easy to get paralyzed by the enormity of it all.

One Great Idea helps in two ways. First, it gets us focused on a single tactic, technique, or takeaway. Second, it involves a story. And in sustainability, the power of storytelling is huge. It allows us to combine the technical and the personal, head and heart, creating something both credible and compelling. It’s simply the best way we know to spread an idea.

So, what’s your One Great Idea? How are you sharing it with those who could benefit? I’d love to know.