Sustainability Communications: Start with a good story


Over the weekend, I was reading a few of the books in my pile on organizational change and motivation and I started thinking about how these concepts could be integrated into my current sustainability writing projects.

How can we create CSR reports, corporate sustainability web sites and annual reports that cause a change and inspire new actions? I recently heard at a green conference that the CSR report is dead. Consider the following four guidelines to bring your written materials to life: tell stories, paint a detailed vision, but make a specific request, engage people’s emotions and use non-controlling language.

1. Tell Stories

While I imagine few people actually read a 100-page CSR report these days, your employees, stakeholders, customers and investors want to hear engaging stories about your successes and challenges. The US Green Building Council’s Annual Report 2008 is a great example of a report that brings successes to life using stories. Try using positive stories to highlight what is working. And while most 3P readers are social media savvy, remember to tell your stories where your audience is, which today probably means Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In (I heard about today’s earthquake in southern California minutes after in happened from someone on Twitter!).

2. Paint a Detailed Vision, But Make a Specific Request

Start by painting a detailed picture of your vision–make it specific and inspiring. In addition to the big picture, the New York Times best-seller Switch:How to Change Things When Change is Hard suggests translating what you want into a specific action that can be easily executed. “If you want people to change, you must provide crystal-clear direction,” explains the authors Chip and Dan Heath. The example they give in the book is if you want people to change, “you don’t ask them to act healthier. You ask them to buy skim milk next time they are at the store.” Tell your employees about your commitment to sustainability and how it makes you a stronger, more competitive company, yet at the same time, ask them to print-double sided or to use a reusable bottle for water.

3. Engage People’s Emotions

If you are trying to change behavior with your communications, analytical, quantitative data alone is not enough. Paint a picture or experience that makes people feel something.

Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us stresses the importance of using more “purpose-oriented dialect.” Words like efficiency, focus and differentiation “lack the power to rouse human hearts.” He cites strategy Guru Gary Hamel as saying, “business leaders must find ways to infuse mundane business activities with deeper, soul-searching ideals, such as honor, truth, love, justice and beauty.”

In Switch, the authors recommend making the need for change visual. What graphics or pictures can you integrate to show your colleagues what’s possible? Perhaps a sculpture made of all the wasted plastic bottles in the lobby? Or translating all the wasted paper in the office into the number of trees that could be saved over a year.

Bloomberg’s online Sustainability Report provides a great example of using graphics in a smart way.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the domes Yahoo! created from disposable coffee cups to inspire employees to use their own mug (see Four Ways to Get Ready for Earth Day).

4. Use Non-Controlling Language

In Drive, Pink explains that autonomy and choice are critical factors that motivate creativity. He suggests using words such as “think about” or “consider” rather than say “must” or “should.”

“A small change in wording can help promote engagement over compliance and might even reduce some people’s urge to defy,” he says.

So think about these guidelines next time you want to influence behavior with your writing. All of the above is not to say to ignore the Global Reporting Initiative and all the detailed data investors and stakeholders expect when you are developing your next CSR report.  I just think the facts and only the facts can be deadly boring and will not bring about any real change. Consider creating a short on-line report or summary that supports the data and integrates some of these tips.
Deborah Fleischer is President of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. Green Impact designs campaigns to engage employees and develops sustainability communications that bring successes to life. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact.

One Response

  1. Brennan Duty


    This is very well-written article and I couldn’t agree with you more on many of these points. My company is based in Brazil and we develop GHG reductions projects that have enormous social, environmental and economic benefits for the communities that these projects touch. I always tell my clients that, if they want to get ahead in the sustainability world, they must tell a story with their platform. Carbon credits with social benefits certainly help companies go a long way to making this happen, but they must tell stories in regards to other initiatives as well.

    Great post/article – thank you for this.

    Kind regards,
    Brennan Duty
    Commercial Director | Sustainable Carbon – Projetos Ambientais Ltda