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There's No Role for Storytelling in Your Sustainability Report

By 3p Contributor

By Jeff Sutton

This year Ethical Corporation asked my company, thinkPARALLAX, to present at its Responsible Business Summit on the role of storytelling in corporate reporting — a subject many organizations struggle to address properly.

Our view on the subject is straightforward: A report is not for storytelling.

Very few stakeholders spend time reading dense, formal corporate reports, and those that do want two things:

  • An explanation of how sustainability and/or CSR create long-term value for an organization and its many stakeholders

  • Data (evidence) to supports these claims

The audiences who read formal sustainability and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports are not concerned with the heart-touching, human interest stories that resonate with audiences on websites, social media, and elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean that reading these reports can’t be an engaging experience. It just means that the majority of report readers are interested in engaging with a different type of content.

Here are a few tactics to make reports interesting for the people who actually read them:
(For a deeper dive into the different audiences of sustainability, check out our piece on the evolution of sustainability reporting — it includes tips, insights, and examples of how to meet the needs of a few specific stakeholder groups.)

The business case

During our session and throughout the conference, we noticed an interesting theme: Many of the people we spoke with and heard from mentioned a spike in interest in ESG-related content from analysts, investors, and business leadership. The business community at large is increasingly becoming concerned with how ESG and/or sustainability can contribute to the long-term value and/or viability of a business.

However, although interest from the investment community seems to be increasing, there’s still a gap between the information that these readers are looking for and what companies actually provide. (PWC, EY, BlackRock and others have touted this disconnect for a couple years now.) Investors, analysts, and business leaders have a limited appetite for the majority of content that typically ends up in a sustainability report, what they desire is more information than most companies provide about how sustainability relates to strategic alignment, company goals, and value creation.

If they want to know more about how sustainability positions an organization for long-term growth, why would we keep this information from them? The business case for sustainability is the most important narrative of a sustainability report — and will make your report an engaging read for those who are interested.

Explain why sustainability is core to the viability of your business, describe external environmental and social trends that impact your bottom line, and show how sustainability helps your organization navigate the bumpy waters of business. How do your strategic pillars and key material issues align with your business strategy? What goals and targets have you set, and what is your progress against them? Be transparent and explain why you’re progressing well against some and not others. Investors will read attentively.

Less is more

For the record, just because there is value in a reporting narrative doesn't mean your report should be a 100+ page document. Unless you’re being paid to read a report, the odds are you’re not going to read it cover to cover. Honestly, when was the last time you read an entire report?

All of us are inundated with far too much content these days and have very little time to take it all in. As is often the case, less is more. A business case for sustainability can be conveyed in less than 20 pages. Keep it simple, impactful and visual. An overview of your sustainability strategy is enough to pique the interest of the reader to want to dive deeper if need be. Many companies are increasingly taking a “modular” approach to reporting, with an overview or summary document as the centerpiece supported by a variety of supplemental materials – like, videos, infographics, single-issue fact sheets, and reports. This approach allows organizations to provide a menu of digestible content in ways that meet the needs of their various stakeholder groups.

An integrated approach
And (of course) we can’t fail to discuss the merit of integrated reporting. From a reporting standpoint, there’s no more effective way to frame sustainability/CSR inside of an organization’s business case than combining non-financial and financial information into a single narrative.

However, we heard from many organizations where this simply wasn’t possible — for a variety of reasons. If an organization is not in a position to integrate reports, they should not assume that the investors will think to look for and read a sustainability report. Instead, consider integrating the business case narrative into existing investor relations communications — your corporate site, annual financial reports, investor decks, targeted email campaigns, roadshow presentations, quarterly calls, etc.

In summary

Sustainability/CSR reports as we know them are not aligned with the needs of the diverse audiences of different corporate stakeholders — yet many businesses feel handcuffed by the limitations of their team’s resources, capacity, and budgets to meet the requirements of ever-evolving reporting standards.

To overcome these challenges, we need to think differently and to remind ourselves that most successful sustainability communication presents specific audiences with information that focuses on what’s most important to them — and presents that information in ways that resonate with that group. For the readers of your formal report, the audience’s priorities are extremely clear — cut right to the business case.

If these users want storytelling, they’ll be able to find it on your website.

Image credit: Pexels

Jeff Sutton is the Vice President of thinkPARALLAX, a communications consultancy dedicated to building brands with purpose. Their work sits at the intersection of business strategy, corporate responsibility, and communication. Creating strategies, campaigns, and stories that influence behavior and drive positive change in the world and greater business community.

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