Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position. Please refer to official GRESB documents for assessment related guidance.
Firstly, what is storytelling?
Storytelling is how people naturally communicate. Within your sustainability report, it is a means of communication, using narrative techniques surrounding employees, the organisation, the past and visions for the future, social bonding and work itself, to build in the reader a new point-of-view or reinforce an opinion or behaviour. Storytelling tools include using anecdotes, case studies, typography, colour, illustration, data visualisation, photography, interactivity, video and even gamification.
Reporting, by nature, is somewhat dull. Getting stakeholders to read your sustainability report is the biggest obstacle in reporting. Many companies keep packaging their reporting year-on-year in dense corporate documents, relying on stock templates, generic letters from the CEO, and pages and pages of text. Too often, large amounts of time, money and effort is spent on a report that very few people care to read.
These reports are not interesting to look at. They do not showcase a company’s brand and personality. And neither do they make the reader feel invested in the company or the work it does.
Why? Because they simply state numbers, charts, and straightforward facts; they don’t tell a story.
When companies are trying to advocate what they do through a report, data is integral to make convincing arguments. However, studies show that if you share a story, people are more likely to be persuaded. When data and stories are used together, audiences are moved both intellectually and emotionally.
And who doesn’t love listening to a good story?
Storytelling helps companies connect with their stakeholders, forming an emotional connection to increase brand loyalty. An essential part of content marketing, storytelling are useful techniques that craft communications in the most engaging way to capture the reader’s attention and make them excited about what you’re doing. Stories are even noted as being 22 more times more memorable than facts alone.
Sustainability reports can be a great avenue for powerful storytelling; creating inspiring stories and sharing data in more creative and engaging ways, ultimately demonstrating that real, tangible efforts are being made to make a company’s operations and portfolios more sustainable.
A report acts to serve as a purpose for the communication of two key aspects:
- An explanation of how sustainability is being managed to create long-term value.
- Data (evidence) to support these claims.
Do readers want to spend time ploughing through dense, formal corporate reports to get to this information?
Storytelling techniques strike emotive chords, and it can be argued that reports utilising these could be misleading in that they may not necessarily fully reflect a sustainability record. The report might even be choreographed to deflect attention away from areas where a company isn’t succeeding.
There is sometimes a disconnect between the information that these readers are looking for and what companies actually provide (PWC and others have been looking at this for several years). Investors and analysts have a limited interest in the majority of the content that ends up in a sustainability report.
The opposition would argue that there is no role for storytelling in sustainability reports, which should focus solely on the business case. Instead, storytelling should be confined to website content and social media streams.
Removal of storytelling in its entirety from the annual sustainability report seems extreme and unjustifiable.
Successful sustainability communications should always provide specific audiences with information that focuses on what’s most important to them – and presents information in ways that resonate. This may mean shorter, more impactful reports using imagery to illustrate effectively.
Some companies are also looking at taking a “modular” approach to reporting, with a centrepiece summary document supported by a variety of supplementary resources, including infographics, impact fact sheets or reports on specific themes. This approach could provide the required content in a clear bitesize manner, where the stakeholder can select material to meet their individual needs. EVORA advises caution in this approach of separating out sustainability information intended for different end-users in multiple reports and communications. Publishing information on a company’s ESG risks and opportunities and information on a company’s sustainability performance across separate reports may not serve investor needs and risks signalling that information on a company’s sustainability performance is not material for investors. In addition, multiple communications may hamper the ability for a company to present an overarching vision and strategy and could lead to inconsistent sustainability information.
The issues of materiality and external assurance are useful to give storytelling elements credibility and validity in accurately reflecting a company’s approach to sustainability. More specifically, stories employed in sustainability reports should reflect the concerns of a wide range of the company’s stakeholders and that the more general themes that such stories illustrate are externally assured. At the more everyday level, companies might also give consideration to selectively using such sustainability stories in social media posts.
Using storytelling in sustainability reporting doesn’t need a mega budget or substantial resources. There are many fantastic examples out there that are brilliant, bold and inspiring, but also quite simple. Align with an appropriate reporting framework to ensure transparency. And beyond this, be brave, be honest, share your brand story, demonstrate your impact and connect to your reader.
Jones, Peter ORCID: 0000-0002-9566-9393 and Comfort, Daphne (2018) Storytelling and Sustainability Reporting: An Exploratory Study of Leading US Retailers. Athens Journal of Business and Economics, 4 (2). pp. 147-162. doi:10.30958/ajbe.4.2.2