Skip to main content


How to tell your sustainability story

<p>Changing systems requires telling good stories that will take you out of your comfort zone.</p>

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.

Next Page: Inspiration, Information … and Application

2. Give Inspiration, Information … and Application

Data is necessary, but numbers alone will not reach people. (Just ask energy-efficiency installers how many people still won’t move forward with retrofits even when numbers project a payback of less than two years). As mathematician John Allen Paulos explained in his New York Times essay Stories vs. Statistics, “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.” A compelling story can, at least, prime the creative mind to recognize the opportunities within the data.

Stellar communicators use inspiration and information — as well as a third technique: application. Teach your ideas, and motivate an audience for an hour. But equip them with tools from your toolbox, and you’ll press them toward a definitive strategy for action.

3. Hone Your Message

Once you’ve got your “I” story down, turn your value proposition into sound bites to help you communicate a consistent and memorable message. Domestic energy proponent T. Boone Pickens demonstrates the power of laser-tight messaging. In our 2009 interview, he was unwavering: “natural gas is cleaner, cheaper and more abundant.” (Three is a magic number in messaging.) Type this phrase into Google, and see how many times it has reverberated across a range of media outlets. Regardless of what you think of Pickens's ideas, his flair for communication and mastery of the sound bite is something to behold.

4. Be Relatable

Speaking of T. Boone, just this morning he was answering questions about hydraulic fracturing on “The Ticket,” my husband’s favorite morning sports entertainment show. It didn’t take long for Pickens to drill down to the fact that the radio host didn’t know anything about natural gas extraction. Rather than insult the man, he said, “Let’s grab a beer sometime and I’ll explain it to you.” He even answered the final question, “What kind of deodorant do you use?” (Right Guard). My point? Humor can’t hurt, especially when communicating a controversial subject.

To leave room for interacting with your audience, stay flexible. Make your story malleable by memorizing it in separate chunks so that you can mix and match. For example, nail down your elevator pitch, and then layer it with one additional point for your stuck-in-an-elevator-on-the-47th-floor pitch. For presentations, on average we speak for 2 minutes per slide, so include no more than 20 slides for a 45-minute talk, and 10 for a 20-minute talk. And remember, less is usually more. (Read this Bloomberg article to see how PowerPoint pros do it.)

To summarize, communication entails the packaging of the ideas for different audiences and is therefore an essential skill for change agents. Communication is far more nuanced than it appears, involving a wide range of strategies and techniques. Storytelling is just one of them — but it’s an important one.

Revisiting our original query, “Why aren’t there more Ray Andersons?” I submit that most folks with his skills don’t find the courage to tell their story, let alone do so relentlessly. But perhaps Anderson’s greater strengths were his quieter ones: missionary zeal and unwavering commitment. As Mother Theresa said, "In order to be a saint, you have to seriously want to be one."

Changing systems takes work, and it will take you out of your comfort zone. The wonderful thing about keeping your narrative in your arsenal is this: People can always shoot down your ideas or your data, but they cannot deny your story.

Typewriter image by Ivelin Radkov via Shutterstock

More on this topic