Sustainability Communications: Four Tips for Bringing Your Written Materials to Life

Do you want your written communications to inspire new actions?

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 (see today’s piece Is Microsoft Going to Walk the Talk). 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.

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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.

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. She helps companies design and launch new green strategies and programs, as well as communicate about successes. She is a GRI-certified sustainability reporter and LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.Deborah has helped to design and implement numerous successful cross-sector partnerships and new green initiatives, including the California Environmental Dialogue, Curb Your Carbon and the Institute at the Golden Gate.She has helped create lasting alliances among such organizations as Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with companies such as Disney, Arco, Bank of America and Passport Resorts.You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at Deborah@greenimpact.com.

8 responses

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  2. Hi Deborah, very insightful of you, and very true. To blog about (and promote) sustainability is to apply these four lessons every day or not be heard.

  3. I just finished Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. It's a great read giving a full spectrum of examples in extremely different industries. I would reccomend it to anyone who has some passion about inciting change. thanks Deborah.

    Bryan

  4. Hi Deborah – those are some great points. As a business and cultural storyteller – I'm often exploring similar threads and angles. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the shadow side of this conversation – “manufactured authenticity”.

    That seems to me to be the larger problem since most companies are trying to tell the same similar story of sustainability. The believability factor is often missing, even when they try to tell actual stories. In fact, many stories in these corporate sustainability reports – use endorsements from the organizations they fund, don't exactly come off as the most credible independent sources. Know what I mean?

    Instead as you advocate, the best sustainability reports like GE for instance, do a great job of demystifying their mental model for sustainability and telling a story that shows that beyond lip service, the concepts are baked into the business model and value chain.

    The folks at the Global Reporting Initiative are working on an exciting new report all about this topic and emerging trends in sustainability reporting to release at their upcoming Amsterdam conference http://www.globalreporting.org

    Anyways, would love to hear your reflections on this notion of “manufactured authenticity”.

    BTW – As an invitation into further conversation, you might appreciate a free digital download of my storytelling manifesto for change-makers and innovators. http://www.believemethebook.com

  5. I just finished Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. It's a great read giving a full spectrum of examples in extremely different industries. I would reccomend it to anyone who has some passion about inciting change. thanks Deborah.

    Bryan

  6. Hi Deborah – those are some great points. As a business and cultural storyteller – I'm often exploring similar threads and angles. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the shadow side of this conversation – “manufactured authenticity”.

    That seems to me to be the larger problem since most companies are trying to tell the same similar story of sustainability. The believability factor is often missing, even when they try to tell actual stories. In fact, many stories in these corporate sustainability reports – use endorsements from the organizations they fund, don't exactly come off as the most credible independent sources. Know what I mean?

    Instead as you advocate, the best sustainability reports like GE for instance, do a great job of demystifying their mental model for sustainability and telling a story that shows that beyond lip service, the concepts are baked into the business model and value chain.

    The folks at the Global Reporting Initiative are working on an exciting new report all about this topic and emerging trends in sustainability reporting to release at their upcoming Amsterdam conference http://www.globalreporting.org

    Anyways, would love to hear your reflections on this notion of “manufactured authenticity”.

    BTW – As an invitation into further conversation, you might appreciate a free digital download of my storytelling manifesto for change-makers and innovators. http://www.believemethebook.com

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