How to Write Your Company's Sustainability Story

In last week's post, How to Choose Case Studies for Your Sustainability Report, we talked about the advanced practice of telling your sustainability story. Today we'd like to explore that topic a little more.

Inc. Magazine recently ran an article, “11 Tips to Write Your Own Story” by Jeff Haden on storytelling basics from a Pixar artist, and then applied those principles to business and life. We'd like to take it a step further and examine how some of these 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 it 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.

From Haden: Decide how you want your story to end and work backwards. Every decision along the way will be a lot easier to make.

For sustainability: YES! Most of our clients come to us because they are plodding along, making sustainability decisions on an ad hoc basis. They have no idea if they are strategic, or meaningful, or worth the time and effort. Starting with a clear vision of what sustainability means to your company (in practical, realistic language) is an essential starting point to developing a compelling sustainability story.

#5. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is part of you.

From Haden: We admire people because we recognize something in them we see in ourselves -- a quality we recognize, a quality we someday hope to possess, or a dream we share. Don't just admire a person or a business. Think hard about why you admire them, and do more of what you admire. Take the best from others and make it your own.

For sustainability: There are dozens of amazing companies tackling sustainability. Learn from them, be inspired, and ask them questions! (Just make sure that you don't try to flat-out imitate them -- making sure that your sustainability story fits your operating model, your internal culture, and your industry impacts.)

#6. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it.

From Haden: Every idea is great as long as it stays in your mind. Stories are based on actions, not ideas -- turn your ideas into actions that you can then improve. Plus the pain of regret is much worse than the pain of effort. Do everything you can to avoid looking back and thinking, "I wonder what would have happened if I had just tried...?"

For sustainability: Too many times, the "green team" or "sustainability steering council" talks about sustainability, but doesn't take the time to write out the explicit approach it is taking. Does everyone really have the same understanding of their role in contributing to the company's sustainability strategy? Hell, do people even agree on what the sustainability strategy looks like?

#7. Give your character opinions. Passive and malleable is poison to the audience.

From Haden: You don't need to please everyone. You can't. And you shouldn't try, especially if that means compromising your beliefs, ethics, or point of view. Be courteous. Be considerate. Be professional. And be yourself.

For sustainability: Simply following other people's views on sustainability issues (whether it’s the EPA, or your local community, or your biggest customer) is a recipe for disaster. You can please some of them, but not all of them. And as too many companies are finding out, being reactive on sustainability is the fastest way to quadruple your workload. Be proactive. Frame the debate. Listen to stakeholders but decide for yourself what sustainability means for your organization.

#8. Know the difference between doing your best and fussing.

From Haden: If no one will notice the result of additional effort but -- maybe -- you, it's time to let go. You can refine it more later, based on the opinion that really matters: your customers.

For sustainability: Don't wait to have the perfect sustainability strategy in place (see #1 above) to start talking about sustainability. People want to see you wrestle with issues, grow your understanding, and mature your programs. START NOW.

#9. What is the belief burning in you that your story feeds off?

From Haden: Go through the motions and your story isn't just boring to everyone else. It's boring to you. What could ever be worse than that?

For sustainability: Your organization's sustainability story must tie in to the larger goals of your business. What drives your company forward? Why do your employees love you? Find the larger motivation (innovation, excellence, loyalty, efficiency, etc.) and tie your sustainability story to it. Don't let sustainability drift as an "add on" program -- drive it to the heart of your organization and it will be part of the larger story to tell.