How to tell your sustainability story

In his article, “Why aren’t there more Ray Andersons?” Joel Makower distills the success of the legendary sustainability pioneer into six key characteristics. Together, these talents typify the CEO whose story helped elevate environmental leadership from niche to core value across corporate America. Whether intentional or just “Ray being Ray,” Anderson transformed his company Interface into a paragon of sustainability by wielding a singular skill set that included: 1) entrepreneurial vision, 2) a passion for learning, 3) missionary zeal, 4) conviction, 5) willingness to rethink everything, and 6) relentless storytelling.

The last of these jumps out as one proclivity that is not, to a large extent, inborn. Not everyone is entrepreneurial, for example, but anyone can learn to tell a story.

Storytelling, or rather lack of it, may be a reason why your prospects aren’t responding to your PowerPoint presentation on the “triple bottom line.” In contrast to jargon, stories invoke courage, imagination, and heroism. From Aesop’s Fables to the parables and poetry of the world’s major religious texts, stories stick with us for a lifetime. Fortunately, crafting your own story doesn’t require a major in Humanities, but it does call for a willingness to be human.

As a sustainability communications professional, I can testify that many experts have not leveraged their stories into branding assets. Learning to articulate an authentic narrative is crucial for engaging the people necessary to translate your vision into reality. Here are four steps to get started:

1. Know Your “Why”

Storytelling is essential to spreading ideas that matter. The phenomenal success of TED presenters, whose 18-minute talks get them instant visibility on the world stage and access to investors and donors, underscores the value of mastering the art of storytelling. Like most effective presenters, they usually begin with a story about the personal motivations that led to their breakthrough idea. A good starting point for crafting your own “I” story is to answer the question, “Why?”

As change agents, sustainability professionals lie outside the norm of the mainstream population. We are uniquely motivated, and it shows up in the words we use to contextualize our work. (Who else describes themselves as “bridge builders,” “catalysts,” or “social entrepreneurs”?) Looking at Alan AtKisson’s “amoeba” model for cultural change, change agents may not be as leading edge (or as eccentric) as innovators, but we are similarly guided to further new ideas. Although we are usually very clear about our “why,” our challenge is that in most corporate settings, we don’t feel comfortable sharing it (which is why we tend toward consulting, where we are rewarded for thinking differently).

Social innovators are not hampered by corporate speak. TOMS Blake Mycoskie and Ethos Water co-founder Peter Thum are among those that use their personal story to cast a vision inside their companies, and outside through the customers that buy their products. By contrast, change agents inside organizations may not have such freedom to break the mold. However, they can still engage in storytelling through thought leadership. The language may be less aspirational, more technical, and more concrete, but as long as you infuse the information with a bit of your personal experience, you can inspire action.

So where does your story begin? Pour a cup of coffee, grab your laptop, open up a document entitled “My Story,” and begin typing. Start putting your vision into words. Flesh it out with supporting evidence, case studies and research as you go. Edit frequently.

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