I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to communicate positive, encouraging stories of change. That’s because I believe that helping to tell such stories contributes to accelerating the change they can bring. In connection with this, I want to share something that I see as a real problem emerging for sustainability storytellers.

I help companies to report on their sustainability status and progress – most recently the Sustainability Reports for mining and cement industry supplier FLSmidth from 2021 to 2023. Working with various compliance partners within and outside the company, I get a 360-degree view of how the sustainability reporting game is undergoing rapid – and quite daunting – change.

Here’s the problem: The volume and complexity of parameters that need to be reported are already high, and they are only set to increase in the coming years. This is particularly true with the introduction of the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) legislation, which takes effect in 2024 or 2025 for medium and large-sized companies, depending on a number of criteria.

While data is crucial for measuring and monitoring sustainability performance, there is a potential downside that corporate communicators need to be aware of: the risk of drowning out their sustainability storytelling in a sea of numbers.

Storytelling drives engagement

Sustainability storytelling plays a vital role in engaging stakeholders and communicating a company’s purpose and brand. It enables organizations to create meaningful connections with their audience, driving engagement, loyalty and support. However, as the data set grows larger and more complex, there’s a danger that such storytelling could be overshadowed by numbers and metrics aimed at analysts and compliance watchdogs.

What might this problem mean for corporate communicators?

  • Loss of stakeholder engagement: When inundated with an abundance of data, stakeholders may become overwhelmed and disengaged. Complex reports and technical language can alienate audiences, making it difficult for them to connect emotionally with the company’s sustainability efforts. This can hinder the organization’s ability to build trust and gain support from stakeholders.
  • Diminished brand differentiation: Sustainability storytelling helps companies differentiate themselves in the market by highlighting their unique approaches and impacts. However, if the narrative is buried beneath layers of data, the distinctiveness and brand identity associated with sustainability initiatives may get lost. It becomes challenging to stand out and convey a compelling brand story that resonates with stakeholders.
  • Missed opportunities for influence: Storytelling is a powerful tool for driving change and inspiring action. By weaving narratives around sustainability, companies can motivate stakeholders to embrace sustainable practices. If storytelling takes a backseat to data overload, the ability to influence behaviors and catalyze positive change may be diminished.

Balancing numbers and narratives

What’s the solution? As always, it’s about determining a workable balance. I suggest adopting various strategies to enhance stakeholder engagement and corporate branding, including:

  • Simplify and contextualize data: Instead of simply bombarding stakeholders with column after column of raw data, focus on presenting key insights and outcomes. Simplify complex metrics into digestible information that’s easy to understand and relate to. Provide context by linking data to real-world impacts and illustrating progress towards sustainability goals.
  • Embrace visual storytelling: Visual elements, such as infographics, charts, and images, can effectively communicate complex information in an engaging and accessible manner. Incorporate storytelling techniques through visuals to bring data to life and evoke an emotional connection with stakeholders.
  • Humanize sustainability: Remember the power of personal stories and narratives. Share stories of individuals whose lives have been positively impacted by the company’s initiatives. Highlight employee experiences, community partnerships or customer testimonials to create an emotional connection and inspire others to get involved.
  • Tailor messages to different stakeholders: Recognize that different stakeholders have varying levels of interest and knowledge about sustainability. Tailor the storytelling approach to suit each group’s preferences and requirements. Craft narratives that resonate with customers, investors, employees and local communities, ensuring relevance and resonance.
  • Integrate sustainability into brand storytelling: Sustainability should be an integral part of a company’s brand narrative, rather than a standalone component. Align sustainability goals and initiatives with the overall brand story, weaving a cohesive narrative that showcases the company’s purpose, values and commitment to sustainable practices.

Find the balance

Balancing data-driven reporting with compelling storytelling is crucial for effectively communicating a company’s purpose and brand, and for fostering meaningful connections with stakeholders in the pursuit of a sustainable future.

If you’re a sustainability professional, possibly watching in dismay as the Finance department takes over more and more of the control in your company’s sustainability reporting, I’m keen to hear what you think – and, if you share my concerns, how you expect to tackle the storytelling problem in your own context.

About the author

David Hoskin is a sustainability communications consultant with a background in marketing, brand communications and business strategy. With a passion for storytelling and a focus on sustainable practices, David helps organizations achieve their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. His work includes developing sustainability reports and stakeholder engagement programs for employees, customers and investors. Driven by a personal commitment to biodiversity and nature conservation, David aims to integrate sustainability into core business operations, making it a strategic asset within organizational cultures.

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