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9 Tips for Writing Your Sustainability Story

woofter, jennifer, strategic sustainability consultingIn 2012, Jeff Haden wrote an article for Inc. Magazine, 11 Tips to Write Your Own Story, on storytelling basics from a Pixar artist, and then he applied those principles to business and life. Here, I take his principles one step further and examine how some of the guidelines can help companies craft a more compelling sustainability story.

#1. You admire a character for trying more than for their success.

From Haden: Trying something easy and succeeding is satisfying in the moment, but ultimately fleeting. Trying something really hard, even if you fail, is something you — and others — will remember forever. Growth is a result of the effort, not the success.

For sustainability: Your stakeholders (employees, investors, suppliers, customers) don’t expect you to be perfect. What they want is to see you really grapple with the complexities of the sustainability challenge. Be transparent about your sustainability challenges — they will respect you for it.

#2. Simplify. Focus. Combine.

From Haden: What you leave out, what you put aside, and what you choose not to do frees you up to do what you really need to do. Try to do too much and you do almost nothing. Do a few things and you can do them all extremely well.

For sustainability: It’s hard to have a comprehensive sustainability program, because sustainability truly touches every single thing we do. So make sure you have systems in place to make effective decisions, but focus your efforts on the two or three major issues that impact your organization. Make that your sustainability priority.

#3. What is your character comfortable with? Challenge it. How does it deal?

From Haden: We fly our true colors in a crisis. Otherwise calm people freak out after an accident. Nice people turn ugly when confronted. Braggarts shrink in the face of danger. What you do under stress defines you.

For sustainability: When something goes wrong — and it always does — with regard to your sustainability plan, your reaction in the heat of the moment will speak volumes about where your organization’s true self really lies. Think about how your key executives will respond to a sustainability crisis and ask yourself: “Do I like how this fits with our sustainability story?”

#4. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle.

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2 thoughts on “9 Tips for Writing Your Sustainability Story

  1. You’re exactly right! Companies need to be proactive and strategic with their sustainability efforts. Developing a holistic vision now is essential in the communication process. Great post!

  2. Such a great list, and a great adaptation! Thank you!
    One disagreement:
    “Be proactive. Frame the debate. Listen to stakeholders, but decide for yourself what sustainability means for your organization.”
    Proactive, yes, decide what sustainability means, no.
    The entire point of sustainability is not to allow corporations to define how much they are “willing” to do, but setting an actual environmentally sustainable goal that they aspire to attain.
    It’s just as much about teaching the organization what is actually right for the environment, how far away from that goal the corporation is, the steps that can be taken to get there, and the timeframe within which it has to be reached.

    What is actually right for the environment and the timeframe within which we need to do it in is already decided by science, not up to individual corporations.
    What they can frame is their path to sustainability, not what sustainability is.

    Unless you educate everyone in the company about what is really going on with climate change and the environment, you’re just greenwashing. In fact, teaching the finer points of greenwashing (as a negative action) should also be taught, to give people context.

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