Blog Article

The Power of Storytelling in ESG Reporting

Monday 06 February 2023

“There is no greater power on this earth than story.”
- Libba Bray, Author

Survival counts were low. In a forestry compartment, survival counts of seedlings constitute the most important indicator of success for the compartment. And along a large border of our Mubende plantation in Eastern Uganda, survival counts of recently planted seedlings were low. The reason was not hard to pin down.

“Grazers.” Jacob offered.

We all knew it. The reports from community development teams and forestry teams had been coming in weekly. Conflicts with grazers who wanted to bring their cattle to graze the sweet sprouts of sun-drenched grass that grew around newly planted tree seedlings had hit a fever pitch. Weeks of meeting with local leaders and cattle grazers, pleading with them, and offering alternative grazing locations had yielded nothing.

“This is an unpopular idea, but what about using Urea.” Bill suggested.

“What’s Urea? What would that do?” I asked.

“It’s nitrogen. We could sprinkle it in the newly planted compartments, on the seedling leaves, hope the rain doesn’t wash it off, and when the cows ingest it, it will effectively explode their stomachs and likely kill them.” He continued.

Killing cattle was not only extreme; but it would also destroy our reputation. People would hate us if we undermined their most lucrative source of income.

“There’s another way.” Fungai, who had been quietly listening and reflecting over the last few months of poor survival, unsuccessful negotiations with grazers and the deep frustration of his colleagues.

He asked for time to try out a new idea.

Three weeks later marked an investor visit, which caused the full management team to visit Uganda and to travel out to plantation, where survival counts in recently planted compartments had miraculously recovered. The community development teams reported no incidents of grazing and no conflicts with cattle holders.

On a plantation visit, our tour headed to the far Northern border of the plantation, where we knew the grazing problem had been most pronounced. The sun beat down on the wet fields, glistening from rain and the air smelled organic, wet, natural.

We walked the border and marveled at the beauty and health of the newly planted seedlings in the border compartments. I looked up, toward the community on the other side of the plantation border and noticed, between the seedlings and the crop fields being worked by our neighbors, there were newly dug ditches. Deep, hollowed out ditches that would prevent one from simply leading a cow from one area of ground to another.

“Trenches.” I turned to see Fungai, leaning up against the 4x4 truck, lighting a cigarette, and smiling.

“Problem Solved.” He concluded.

It was unexpected. It was creative. It was clear, simple, and highly effective. Fungai had solved our grazing problem and improved compartment survival counts with trenches. The story would go on to awe our visitors, used to complicated solutions to convoluted, multi-stakeholder problems faced by their other portfolio companies. Trenches had saved our seedlings.

We all love a good story. And story is arguably the best way to ensure engagement, retention, and memory. But some consider story to be the domain of fiction or creative writing, when really, story should infuse all communications. If it’s such a delight to bask in a good story, why reserve it for fiction or creative writing or tales at the pub.

ESG reports are often quite dry. Admittedly, the ESG report is an opportunity to feature details of a company’s performance. It is full of statistics, facts, measurements, policies, tracked performance against targets and conveying of material information to an audience of company shareholders and other stakeholders. What does storytelling have to do with ESG reporting? For those with some vision, the answer is everything.

If ESG reports are to be read and even enjoyed, then they need to do more than one job for the reader. They must convey the performance of a company, certainly. But they must also perform the function of entertainment, thought provocation, opining on issues relevant and germane to the industry in question.

ESG reports deliver information on Goals, Targets, and Progress toward realization of goals and targets. Arguably, goals can serve a narrative or qualitative function, while targets and progress will naturally be more quantitative.

At the top of any reporters mind should be consideration for the audience. What is it like to read this report? Is it pleasant? Is it dry? Is it easily navigable? Is the language clear and unambiguous? Thinking about your audience ensures you remain focused on not only that which is material, but to presenting material information in ways that will be retained and even enjoyed.

"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today." 
- Robert McKee 


The SCQA method is used by business leaders to convey information in a way that is compelling and holds the listeners attention. SCQA stands for Situation, Complication, Question, Answer.

By presenting information according to the SCQA method, an ESG reporter is far more likely to hold the readers attention and to ensure the thrust of the message is retained.

Positioning the situation allows for a level setting, an agreement on the state of things, pre-intervention. Articulating the complication is like creating Act 2 in a play or film. The complication represents the problem to be solved. The question is raised by the complication – it is what needs to be solved. And finally, the answer is the solution or the recommendation. By inverting the SCQA pyramid, and beginning a presentation with the answer, an ESG reporter can improve readability and satisfaction for the reader.

“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”
- Dr. Howard Gardner, Professor Harvard University

Storytelling & Impact

We turn to storytelling to show impact. In the logical framework composed of inputs (stuff we need to get stuff done) –to outputs (stuff we achieve in the short term – people trained, people treated, meetings held) –to outcomes (medium term change – increased knowledge, reduced incidence of negative behaviours) –to impact (long term change –reduction in the incidence of certain illnesses, change in the conditions at a city or state level), the piece of the framework that carries the most weight and engenders the most support is that of the impact component.

We care about change – for people, for communities, for society. And the ability to convey change lives in our stories.

ESG storytelling is the act of humanizing data. To report a 25% reduction in air pollution produced by company activity tells the reader the truth. But explaining the ways in which the reduced air pollution has improved the lives, outdoor activity and health of families surrounding the company’s operational sites tells a much more compelling and memorable truth.

Why It Matters

Storytelling underscores a deep, generative conversation around what ESG means to a company. Answering the questions: Who have we been? Who do we want to be? What can we change for the better? What is the long-term impact of our company? With whom do we work and why?

Most of what we do and what we believe boils down to a story we have chosen to adopt. On a personal and institutional level, our stories dictate our future and our legacy. The act of infusing our public ESG reporting with narrative, meaning, creativity, and consequence only serves to elevate, improve, and humanize information fundamental to a company.

"The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions."
- Michael Margolis

Join Kate on our brand new, 5-day course, ESG Fundamentals which includes guidance on how to enhance your ESG reports with compelling narratives. For more information about the course, please go here.

[1] https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/career/scqa/

About the Author

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