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The best story wins: amplify your environmental message using storytelling

Written on March 13, 2016
Photo Naomi Klein speaks at Paris Climate Summit 2015, Democracy Now

Naomi Klein speaks at Paris Climate Summit 2015, Image Democracy Now

As the power of story has been increasingly recognised, the quote ‘the best story wins’ (1) has enjoyed high circulation. Organisational storyteller, Annette Simmons used it in the title of a book and subsequent workshops. So let’s unpack for a bit, why stories are such a powerful way to communicate.

We are hard-wired to process information in the form of a story.

Information skilfully encoded into an emotionally engaging story is retained for far longer than facts alone. Educational research has shown that told stories ‘enhance recall, retention, application of concepts into new situations, understanding and learner enthusiasm for the subject matter.’ Coles (1989).

OK, so stories are good. But how can we use them to amplify an environmental message?  How do we successfully evoke, not only understanding of an environmental message, but new behaviour and action that is in alignment with that awareness?

Know your audience: cultural creatives, big ‘S’ and little ‘s’ stories 

Firstly, it is important to clearly understanding your target audience. Last year, I did a two day training with corporate trainer and change agent, Margot Cairnes.

Margot explained the strategic importance of persuading independent thinkers (also called cultural creatives).

They represent about 25% of the population. Independent thinkers weigh up evidence. Even if their conclusions are opposite to the status quo, they are capable of changing their minds and changing their behaviour. But this is enhanced when they become emotionally engaged.

Once a critical mass of independent thinkers take on an idea, the rest of society will follow, sooner or later. This shift can be swift and dramatic. Naomi Klein has documented an ‘effervescence of rebellion’ arising on a global scale with attitudes and action on a grass roots level in response to climate change. Independent thinkers are taking the lead with action on climate change and this had a powerful effect on the outcome of the Paris Climate summit.

So, target the cultural creatives or independent thinkers first and work to get that critical mass.

Little ‘s’ stories for corporates

Next consider whether you need a big ‘S’ story or a little ‘s’ story. I heard Shawn Callahan of Anecdote, speak recently. Shawn is author of “Putting Stories to Work” and one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultants. He says, ‘To change a culture, you need to change the stories told’. However, in a corporate setting, Shawn advises you will have much more success with little ‘s’ storytelling. By this he means short, informal anecdotes, told naturally without fanfare, rather than big ‘S’ stories which are grand, dramatic narratives. (2)

I agree with Shawn that little ‘s’ stories are best in a business setting. But, I would argue that in non-corporate settings, it is possible to use ‘big ‘S’ storytelling for environmental messaging not just for kids, but with adults as well.

My colleague and mentor, US biologist and environmental storyteller, Fran Stallings, teaches environmental educators ways to repurpose simple, short folk tales to communicate scientific facts. She uses a strategy reminiscent of Gladwell, who created a simple and effective formula: tell a story, then use it to illustrate your point.(3) Fran especially likes using folktales to illustrate Barry Commoners Four Laws of Ecology.

Jenni-Cargill-Strong-March in March 2014 Echo

Jenni tells three fables to illustrate social change principles at a rally. Photo: Echo

As long as the point is clear and the story serves the message, rather than overwhelming it, a little fantasy and whimsy can delight and enchant adult listeners who are generally more starved than they realise for soul food. It is my experience, that even though adults assume storytelling is just for kids, when they hear a tale told with deep layers of meaning, they are usually enchanted and gratified. It is deeply rewarding to watch the faces of adults, who don’t expect to enjoy storytelling, sink into their chair and listen with an unmoving ‘reptilian gaze’. After the story, when I explain ways  to interpret the tale for modern real world situations, this delight is only deepened.  There is an ‘aha’ moment, as it sinks in that our ancestors addressed perennial issues, using the code of metaphor.

Many environmentalists have assumed that the way to transform peoples understanding and behaviour is by giving them more scientific information and trust that they will then make rational decisions, based on the evidence. They are assuming the problem is one of information deficit. But this is not the way we humans work! In this Age of Information, we suffer the opposite: information overload! What we lack is emotional engagement with that information. (4) Poet, David Whyte puts it beautifully.

‘Loaves and Fishes’. 

This is not
 the age of information.

This is not the age of information.

Forget the news, 
and the radio, 
and the blurred screen.

This is the time 
of loaves 
and fishes.

People are hungry 
and one good word

is bread for a thousand. (5)

 

Weaving your message into a well crafted story is a potent way to make that ‘bread for a thousand’, so that people can become emotionally as well as intellectually engaged, retain and act on your message.

Contact me if you’d like me to teach these skills to your group, staff or organisation.

   About  Jenni Cargill-Strong

Jenni Cargill-StrongJenni is a professional storyteller. She is also Principal of The Story Tree Company and under that label, she has recorded and self published five award-winning recordings for children and adults. She is Owner Operator of “Stories on Foot: Tales of Byron Bay and the Rainbow Region”, a storytelling tour for visitors. In the academic realm, Jenni has worked at Southern Cross University (SCU) since 2009. Her roles include being a featured presenter for UniBound Hero’s Journey program for Year 7 & 9 students run by Equity and Diversity. She teaching Storytelling to pre-service teachers through the Education faculty​ and is also a Guest Lecturer for SCU Occupational Therapy students.

Jenni co-founded and leads the Byron Circle of Tellers who convene ‘The Golden Tale’​ local storytelling concerts in Brunswick Heads in Byron Shire. Her passions and expertise are focused on storytelling for environmental education, community building, healing, myths and tales of the feminine.

Denmark COP, Kris Krug

Denmark COP, Kris Krug

Read more posts by Jenni on Environmental storytelling workshop

  1. Green Stories and The Hero’s Journey here
  2. Video of interview with Jenni by Manly Councillor Paul Joseph, plus transcript here

 Connect with Jenni

Facebook: storytreetales
Instagram: jennistorytree

 

References

(1) ‘The best story wins’ is a quote from the Stephen Spielberg film ‘Amistad’, based on a landmark court case during the Abolitionist movement,

in which slaves rebelled against their cruel treatment on a ship of that name.

(2) Shawn’s slideshare presentation (slide #13) illustrates this. 

(3) Gladwell quoted by Shawn Callahan in his blogpost ‘Sharing stories so they can be retold’.

(4) Paul Lussier, teacher at Yale College quoted in Reframing the Climate Story by Kevin Dennehy

(5) Excerpt from ‘Loaves and Fishes’ by  David Whyte, The House of Belonging ©1996 Many Rivers Press

Klein, N., 2014, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus Climate Change’, Simon and Schuster.

Participants at Jenni's workshop at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney

Participants at Jenni’s workshop at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney

 

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