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The Art of Storytelling

A synopsis of a presentation delivered by William Dietrich, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist on the art of telling your story to inspire environmental stewardship.

The following is summarized from William Dietrich's presentation Environmental Storytelling presented in October 2009 at the North Cascades Institute Learning Center.

John Muir could tell a fine story.
The web enables us all to publish and distribute original content like never before. It’s an exciting time to live in, but with any new technology we must also be aware of how it is being used. We all have websites now and publish content continually. However, we don’t tend to stop and look objectively at what is being published. In short, is your content any good? Are you reaching or influencing people with what you are saying?

William Dietrich, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author from the Seattle area recently gave a talk at the North Cascades Institute Learning Center on the subject of storytelling. Environmental groups are more interested than ever in finding ways to reach people outside of the core environmental audience. Here’s my summary of what Bill had to say on the subject.

Some Basic Questions

Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer. If you’re feeling stuck, out of ideas, or want a fresh perspective on your messaging, start with answering some of these fundamental questions:

  • What problem am I trying to solve?
  • What solution am I suggesting?
  • Who am I trying to persuade?
  • What story will persuade them?

If you're finding these questions difficult to answer, that may explain why your web content hasn't found a receptive audience. Do some critical thinking and pin down exactly what you're trying to do before moving on.

Image matters

One thing that has been a stumbling block for the environmental movement over the years is the issue of how we are perceived in the world. Often only the most extreme views and behaviors are the ones that get the high profile media coverage. Groups like Earth First and the Earth Liberation Front give the public the idea that environmentalists are anti-social malcontents who are willing to skirt the law to achieve their goals.

  • What perspective do you show? Do you include the voices of the audience you are trying to reach?
  • What imagery makes your point?
  • Who is your spokesperson? Can they do a good job of reaching the unconverted?
  • How effective is your packaging? What do your graphics, logo, website, etc look like?

Being right is not enough

  • Timing is everything (election cycle, economic cycles, etc)
  • Get into the "new" even if you have to fake what is new (a classic tool of journalism)
  • Money is everything: make the case for what pays
  • Entertain your audience, don't just throw facts and figures at them


What works

  • Truth and accuracy are paramount
  • Have a sense of humor
  • Parables work better than preaching (and make for better stories!)
  • Facts work better than opinion
  • Tell a compelling human story
  • Would your content persuade your mother?
  • Is there a clear, easy course of action the reader can take?
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