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Browbeating Is Bad and Charming Isn’t Enough: Sustainability Stories Should Be All About Stakeholders

There has been much debate about the effectiveness of the messaging in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006) | Image credit: Participant Media

These days, many conversations about the status of sustainability in business and society seem to fall into two categories. These can be summarized as 1. It’s mainstreaming, and 2. It’s not mainstreaming, or it’s not mainstreaming enough, or as quickly or as deeply as we would like.

Let’s look at the history: When we look at the record of efforts targeted at mainstreaming sustainability, first we see the moral case, the series of arguments supporting why sustainability is “the right thing to do.” Later, we see the business case being made, outlining the reasons and supporting cases about how “doing good can drive doing well.” And these arguments are true and good, so we’d think that these would be enough. But if it’s true that sustainability is not mainstreaming as quickly as many of us would like, among both business leaders and end-users, AKA customers and citizens, then a new means of persuasion may be necessary.

And, right on time, we’ve seen it arrive: storytelling. This year's Sustainable Brands conference had much energy around storytelling, a real passion about finding ways to make the sustainability story moving, entertaining or beguiling, using the techniques of brand communications. This is a good thing. But I think that the way storytelling is being discussed and pursued has an important limitation that may end up doing more harm than good. Put briefly, it has the story backwards; the story is too often about the teller and not about the listener.

Imagine a person is going on a first date. They style their hair and put on a stylish outfit. Then, say over dinner, they hold forth, talking only about themselves, albeit with great charm and energy and many smiles. They tell the only story told; they have all the answers and all the opinions. Then, over dessert, they might even start to make the case about why their dinner date should want to see them again, or even how they should change their life in order to form a relationship together. The only things missing are charts and metrics.

Bad approach, right? Yet too often this is exactly what we in sustainability do. But we need more than a nice outfit, a winning smile and passion about our own story. We need to understand our listeners’ stories, and find real and humble ways to connect with them and weave into them. Storytellers have always known that a story is much more than a rational argument, and it impacts the listener far beyond reason alone. Stories reach us rationally and emotionally, even somatically. And bonds are made this way, especially abiding love bonds. Moreover, stories reach us culturally, that is to say we experience a story in the context of all the other stories we have heard, all competing stories, and in the primary stories in which we live  the stories that form our worldview, our perspective and our frames.

In this way, in order to get through and have impact, every powerful story must be about the listener, not the teller. Great storytellers don’t tell their story, they tell, frame and extend our story — the listeners’ story.

Sadly, I’m not convinced that we in the sustainability community are doing a good job of making the story about listeners, about stakeholders. Too often the conversation, and the recommendations, have to do with getting our own story across, focusing on ways to get “them” to listen to “us.” Instead, it’s better if we take the opportunity to reveal the very real existing and possible stories of stakeholders, including senior leaders, teams, employees, customers, citizens, commentators and more. What are their values, their frames, their challenges, loves, passions, fears, pastimes, pain points, assumptions. How do they experience them and express them? What language and symbols? Only after this is done, with depth, nuance, and honesty, are we prepared and permitted to look for points of contact between our story and that of stakeholders, or between the possibly varying versions of the sustainability story that exist between us.

Browbeating isn’t good, and charming isn’t enough; rather, we have to connect genuinely. I’ll write much more about the how and the details of this connecting via storytelling in the future, but for now here are a few things to keep in mind and to try:

  • Start with stakeholders. Identify them, and group them into tiers of closeness and influence. Include management, teams, employees, brand zealots, communities, customers, partners, suppliers, and commentators such as journalists, bloggers, activists, academics and analysts.
  • Remember that these are people, with rich lives and perspectives, not merely roles.
  • Develop and implement powerful, subtle and revealing ways to understand their story landscape in terms of reason, emotion, culture and values.
  • Understand the stories they live inside now and map these to the landscape above.
  • Look for points of convergence and, more importantly, emergence; these are the basis of a shared story and relationship.
  • Use this knowledge to craft new, extended or deepened stories, and embed this into everything you say and do that requires the acceptance, activation and participation of your stakeholders.

Sustainability and brands have something in common: Transactional relationships, imbalanced relationships, and relationships of convenience aren’t good enough. Instead, to be meaningful, they have to be relationships of love and abiding, a shared story that we live inside. And for those of us who have it as our job to be a matchmaker between sustainability, brands and people, nothing less will suffice. And it starts with listening, not talking.


Bill Wilkie is a “narrative” strategist and storymaker working with brands, design, innovation, sustainability, and causes. He has worked with sustainability oriented brands for twenty three years. He is founder of Stori, where his sustainability and impact work… [Read more about Bill Wilkie]


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