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Storytelling for the 4 Returns

Stories have an incredible power to change the way we think and act. Telling stories can therefore be incredibly effective in inspiring positive change in landscapes. In this module, you’ll learn tips and tricks for telling your landscape’s stories.

What we mean by storytelling

In one sense, storytelling means anything you communicate. But storytelling also allows you to change a narrative, by choosing to emphasize one thing over another. Storytelling, in this line of thinking, focuses not just on information, but emotions and experiences. Personal stories can play a massive role in bringing alive people’s realities in your landscape to audiences near and far. As an example, think of a family living in your landscape and how their personal story – their relationship to the landscape – is much more powerful than your average PowerPoint deck. We tell stories because they provide the emotional context to understand the reality that numbers can’t communicate. They embed the message you want to tell in the minds you need to persuade. And getting going with storytelling is much easier than you think – in fact, you are already doing it.

Stories are a profound vehicle for forging connection, fostering solidarity and shared understanding. So, they should be an integral part of Theory U and of sensemaking in your landscape. They are a tool for communication, but also for listening to diverse perspectives. So, buckle up, as we introduce you to all the ways that stories can bring your landscape alive.

Stories connect
“Gazing at the shape of a hill,
The grey horizon,
A woman reading a book,
A landscape shaped by history.
All we do is story.”
Ben Okri – The Mystery Feast

Yes, but what actually is it

We tell stories when we make videos, write articles, post on social media, give presentations and informal conversations. We’ll call these stories for communication. Then there are the stories we harvest and listen to learn from diverse perspectives present in the landscape. You gain these from story circles or interviews. We’ll call these stories for insight. This chapter deals with both kinds of stories. But first, we’ll look at the common elements that tie them together.

Four story elements

It can be sometimes difficult to work out what distinguishes a story from anything that’s spoken or written down. These four elements – supplied by Storyourself – make this distinction clearer. Rather than definitions, however, you can see them as recommendations for what makes a good story.

Experiences. Take the audience with you into the landscape. Get them to feel their hands in the soil, smell the compost and taste its produce. Help them get to know the hills, valleys, rivers and scrub around you. The sensory experiences contained in your landscape really help implant your activities in the audience’s mind.

As an exercise, make a chart of the different sensory experiences in your landscape: what can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. Add these experiences to your stories. For example, when rosemary is harvested, relay how it smells to your audience with a quick social post. You can record a dawn chorus of birdsong or share a view of the sunset. These impressions line your communication so when you have data or news to share people have contextual experiences to absorb it.

Emotions. how you and those around you are feeling is also part of the story. Excitement, enthusiasm, disappointment, and sadness are all natural ways of experiencing your project. Bringing them into your communication makes what you’re doing feel more real to your audience. Bringing emotion to your story doesn’t mean over-sharing and doesn’t mean sharing something you feel uncomfortable about. It’s more of a question of when you’re communicating – how do I feel about what’s going on? Our emotions often unlock a lot in the story and are usually the key to opening creative blocks.

Tests and Trials. Hercules, Oddysseus and gold-medal sprinters didn’t just win, but overcame. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about what’s not going well but doing so adds to credibility and ability to draw people in. Turn challenges you experience into gripping narratives by sharing what you’re disappointed or exasperated about – then the steps you’re going to take to get out of the current hole. Check out Grounded’s account of challenges in their first years helps build a picture of their integrity and dedication to keep going in spite of setbacks. Sharing challenges changes your narrative from one of success and failure to one of resilience – the way you change and evolve just as your landscape does.

Perspectives. When reporting on a big event, journalists include multiple viewpoints so the audience can synthesise a picture of what has happened. You can also include multiple viewpoints in your story. When publicising a launch, for example, show what a number of people – team and stakeholders – think about what’s happening. Another approach is to use first-person testimony to illuminate the struggles and hopes of communities in your landscape.

Make sure you don’t discount your own perspective either. Often stories are dry because the teller tries to tell a general story rather than getting intimate with their own view of events. When clearly stated, your own view on what is happening brings people closer to the action. Statements like “I feel…” “To me this seems…” are excellent ways to declare your own subject view on things that are happening. It may feel like drawing too much attention to yourself, but it also helps make your experiences and dilemmas real to an audience – and that means your work lasts in their memory. This aspect, as we will see, is particularly important for Theory U.

Storytelling for insight

Stories are such a rich conveyor of information they are prominent tools for sensemaking and monitoring, evaluation and learning. This kind of storytelling – better named storylistening – increases awareness by evoking different perspectives, helping discover social and cultural forces play in your landscape.

Storytelling and Theory U

Theory U is a framework developed by Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, for leading profound change in organisations and society. Theory U is a key element of the 4 Returns Framework, because it emphasises a shift in the way we think and act, moving from old patterns of behaviour to new possibilities. Storytelling plays a crucial role in Theory U as it helps to facilitate this transformative process and explore the experiences of a diversity of stakeholders.

Presencing. One of the core concepts in Theory U is “presencing” – a combination of presence and sensing. Storytelling helps individuals access a deeper level of presence and sensing by connecting with their personal and collective stories. This heightened awareness enables us to tap into out intuition, explore emerging future possibilities, and make decisions that align with our highest future potential.

Generative Dialogue. Storytelling is also a powerful tool for fostering generative dialogue – a type of conversation that goes beyond debate or discussion and generates new insights and possibilities. By sharing stories, individuals engage in a dialogue that encourages collective sensemaking, creativity, and the co-creation of new ideas.

Amplifying Systemic Change. Through storytelling, individuals can articulate their aspirations, visions, and the transformative changes they want to see in their organisations, their landscape, or communities. These stories serve as a catalyst for systemic change by inspiring others, building momentum, and creating a shared narrative that guides collective action.

Stories for reflection

Here are some valuable tricks on guided journaling and reflective storytelling to help you reflect on your landscape. The following tips can help you structure your process, as well as writing up the insights that you harvest for wider dissemination.

  • Outline the landscape story: provide an overview of the landscape and its current state. Describe the challenges, opportunities, or conflicts that exist within the landscape context.
  • Reflective Narration: infuse your storytelling with reflective narration. Share your own reflections on the landscape journey, the insights gained, and the personal transformation experienced through the process. Discuss the challenges, breakthroughs and lessons learned.
  • Personal Stories: include personal stories from individuals who were involved in the landscape change process. Share their reflections on their own experiences.
  • Emphasise Sensing: Describe the methods used to observe, listen, and gain a holistic understanding of the landscape’s dynamics, needs, and potential.
  • Showcase Collaboration Efforts: Highlight the collaboration efforts and co-creation that occurred during a process of change. Describe how diverse stakeholders came together, shared their perspectives, and worked collectively to design and implement innovative solutions.
  • Reflect on Emergent Insights: Share emergent insights that surfaced in the story. Discuss the paradigm shifts, breakthroughs, or transformative ideas that emerged.
  • Address Resistance and Challenges: Acknowledge the resistance, barriers or challenges faced in the story.
  • Impact and Ripple Effects: Reflect on the impact and ripple effects of the story. Discuss the positive changes witnessed within the landscape, the communities and the individual involved. Share stories of how these changes have influenced and inspired others.
  • Encourage Audience Reflection: Engage the audience in reflection by inviting them to consider their own role in landscape restoration. Encourage them to reflect on how the landscape story relates to their own lives, communities, or spheres of influence.
  • Conclude with Lessons Learned: Summarise the key lessons learned from the story. Reflect on the power of deep listening, open-mindedness, and collaboration in fostering transformative change. Discuss the ongoing potential for further development and improvement.

Stories for communication

This section deals with stories you want to tell to get the message of your landscape out to stakeholders within or outside the landscape, for funding, raising awareness and community building.

The 4 Returns in stories

The 4 Returns supplies an ideal framework for telling great stories. Each of the returns is a theme along which to organise the stories you tell. You will likely compile these stories for monitoring, evaluation and learning, so make sure you use them in your wider communications as well.

Go through each return and make a point of telling a story about each one, perhaps on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Social

Natural

Financial

Inspiration

Pack each story with experiences, emotions, trials and perspectives and see how they make your audience intimately familiar with the realities at play in your landscape.

4 Returns narrative

The 4 Returns also implies a wider narrative that you can adopt – a global landscape restoration movement linked by a practical, holistic approach and language that everyone understands. It delivers returns to all landscape stakeholders: people, nature, communities and businesses. By working with the Social, Natural and Financial Returns and the Return of Inspiration, we combine our efforts to heal our relationship with the land and provide a long-lasting legacy for future generations.

Check back to our introduction to 4 Returns thinkingIts principles are handrails that help you communicate about your landscape.

The power of hope

The project you are working on is a story of hope. Through what you’re doing centuries of degradation is being reversed. In an era of multiple, inter-related crises, your project is credible evidence of hope.

By telling stories of your project and of the 4 Returns, you give people more reasons to believe that change is possible. While you will need to remain clear-eyed about the realities on the ground, make sure you keep sharing your vision of hope for the landscape. In doing so, you will motivate action elsewhere.

Platforms like Explorer.land or Restor have a great library of stories that show the global land restoration movement in action – it brings inspiration for your work and your storytelling.

How to use different media

Now let’s get practical. Your understanding of different media shapes the kinds of stories you tell. Here are some techniques to consider when sharing a landscape story.

Interviewing

Telling a landscape story through interviews can provide valuable insights and personal perspectives. Here is an example and some techniques to consider when using interviews to narrate a landscape story (ref):

  • Identify Diverse Voices: Seek out a variety of interviewees with different roles, expertise, and connections to the landscape. This can include landscape developers, environmentalists, local community members, scientists, or policymakers. Ensure that their perspectives contribute to a comprehensive and well-rounded narrative.
  • Prepare Thoughtful Questions: Develop a set of thought-provoking questions tailored to each interviewee’s expertise and experience. These questions should elicit detailed responses that provide unique insights into the landscape, its history, significance, challenges, or restoration efforts.
  • Active Listening: Be an attentive listener during the interview. Allow the interviewees to express themselves fully and provide space for them to share personal stories, anecdotes, or emotions related to the landscape. Actively engage with their responses to build a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
  • Follow-up Questions: Ask follow-up questions to delve deeper into specific aspects of the interviewees’ responses. This can help clarify information, uncover additional details, or explore different angles of the landscape story. Be flexible and adaptable during the interview process.
  • Authenticity and Empathy: Foster a comfortable and supportive environment for the interviewees to share their stories authentically. Show empathy and respect for their perspectives and experiences, as this will encourage them to open up and provide more meaningful insights.
  • Structuring the Narrative: Organise the interview content into a coherent and engaging narrative structure. Identify common themes, connections, or contrasting viewpoints that emerge from the interviews. Arrange the interviews in a way that builds a compelling and comprehensive landscape story.
  • Integrate Quotes: Incorporate direct quotes from the interviewees throughout the narrative. These quotes should be impactful, descriptive, and highlight the interviewees’ unique perspectives. They add authenticity and bring the story to life.
  • Descriptive Language: Use vivid and descriptive language to set the scene and provide context when introducing or summarising interview segments. Paint a visual picture of the landscape, its features, or its transformation, drawing from the interviewees’ descriptions.
  • Emotional Connection: Emphasise the emotional connections that interviewees have with the landscape. Allow them to share their personal experiences, memories, or feelings associated with the landscape. This can help create an emotional connection between the audience and the story.
  • Supporting Narration: Complement the interview segments with your own narration or commentary. This can provide additional context, background information, or bridge the gaps between different interviewees’ perspectives. Maintain a balance between the interviewees’ voices and your own narration.
  • Sound Design: If you are using audio, pay attention to the audio quality of the interviews, ensuring clear and audible recordings. Consider adding subtle background sound effects related to the landscape (e.g., birds chirping, wind rustling) to enhance the listening experience and create an immersive atmosphere. Read more about recording soundscapes.
  • Editing and Structure: Carefully edit the interview content to remove any redundancies, pauses, or irrelevant segments while maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the interviewees’ voices. Structure the interviews in a way that creates a cohesive and engaging narrative flow. By incorporating these techniques, interviews can serve as powerful tools to convey a landscape story, offering diverse perspectives, personal insights, and emotional connections that engage and resonate with the audience.

Social Media (see what we have done)

Social Media is the easiest way to start sharing stories from your landscape to a global audience. Social Media platforms are convenient and accessible, with billions of active users worldwide and great tools to support you in your storytelling. The various social media platforms tend to overlap, but each is more specialised to a to particular audiences and content:

  • Instagram: Ready to share visual storytelling? Then Instagram is the platform for you. Instagram is a visual-focused platform primarily targeting millennials and Gen Z (18–40-year-olds). Instagram emphasizes photo and video sharing and is a platform where aesthetics and visual appeal are key. Instagram is made for mobile phones, so any videos you want to upload should be portrait (vertical).
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a professional networking platform primarily used for business and career-related purposes. The platform focuses on connecting professionals, sharing industry news and industry-specific discussions. Only about 1% of LinkedIn 260 million monthly users share posts – so it is a great platform to stick out from the crowd.
  • Facebook: If you want to focus on a general-purpose social media platform with a broad audience, then Facebook is for you. It provides a space for people to connect, share personal updates, photos, videos, and engage in discussions. As Facebook and Instagram both come from Meta, you can post simultaneously across platforms.
  • Twitter: The most fast-paced, real-time platform, Twitter focuses on short text updates. Twitter is mostly used to share news, opinions, engaging in public conversation and following trending topics. It can be an excellent place to get noticed by journalists, who often use the platform to find stories.
  • TikTok: A very popular platform among younger audiences, TikTok is a video-sharing app that allows users to create and share short-form videos on any topic. It’s mainly mobile-based and uses powerful algorithms to target users with content. For this reason, TikTok is the best social media platform for reaching huge new audiences or going viral.
  • YouTube: Alongside Facebook, YouTube is one of the largest social media platforms out there with an audience of over 2 billion people. It’s a great place to share longer-form video content with your audience – try to make sure your videos are filmed in landscape and you create a “thumbnail” when uploading.

Here are some more general tips to help you sharing your story to social media:

  • Visual storytelling: Use captivating and high-quality visuals such as photos, videos or infographics to convey the beauty, significance, and challenges of the landscape. Visuals are key to grabbing attention and eliciting an emotional response from the audience.
  • Short and Engaging Captions: Craft concise and compelling captions that accompany your visuals. Capture the essence of the landscape, its story, or its impact in a way that sparks curiosity and encourages further explorations.
  • Hashtags and Keywords: Use relevant hashtags and keywords in your posts to increase discoverability. Research popular hashtags related to landscape restoration to reach a wider audience and engage with audiences interested in these topics.
  • Personal Narratives: Share personal stories or testimonials related to the landscape. Highlight how the landscape has impacted individuals, communities, or organizations. Personal narratives create an emotional connection and make the story relatable.
  • Infuse Education and Awareness: Use social media as a platform to educate and raise awareness about the landscape’s importance, conservation efforts, or restoration initiatives. Share interesting facts, historical context, cultural or scientific insights to enrich the audience’s understanding.
  • Behind-the Scenes Content: Offer a glimpse behind the scenes of a landscape restoration project. Share updates, progress, challenges, or success stories to keep the audience engaged and connected to the ongoing work.
  • Interactive stories: Create interactive content such as polls, puzzles, quizzes, or challenges to actively engage the audience. This encourages participation and enhances the overall experience of the story.
  • Collaborate with influencers or experts in the field: Partner with influencers or experts in the field of landscape restoration or environmental advocacy. Collaborative posts, interviews, or takeovers can help amplify the story, reach, and credibility.
  • Calls to Action: Include calls to action in your posts to inspire the audience to take tangible steps.
  • Engage with the Community: Respond to comments, questions, and messages from your audience. Building a genuine connection with your audience fosters loyalty and enhances the impact of your story.
  • Monitor and optimise: Assess how your content is “performing” on a daily, weekly and/or monthly basis via data analytics within your social media accounts. Checking how many people see your posts (metrics: impressions, reach) and how engaged your audience are (metrics: reactions, engagement rate) can help you to optimise your content to better suit your audience.

Filming a story (with your smartphone)

Video is a great way to engage people in the stories from your landscape. And it’s easier to do than you think. Most of us already carry a video camara with us every day – our smartphones! Modern smartphones record high-quality video and free editing tools make it easy to create great videos to share your stories.

  • Clear concept: Before you start filming, write out your video script, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Think about the transitions between shots. Having a clear plan of what you want to capture before you hit record makes the finished product more professional.
  • Frame your shots: Use the “rule of thirds” to position your characters. Turn on grid or guidelines on your phone camera to align main subjects and points of interest along gridlines or at the intersections. This creates visually pleasing compositions.
  • Beginning/Closing shot: Make sure you have a beginning and an ending shot that indicates where the story is taking place- that sets the scene. If you don’t have footage that can indicate where the story is taking place, you can add titles to make it more clear for viewers.
  • Think about the sound: Clear audio enhances the quality of your video. Try to minimise background noise by filming in a quiet environment or by using an external microphone.
  • Same scene, multiple perspectives: When you film a scene, film this scene from multiple perspectives.
  • Never zoom: If you want to zoom into a situation, never click zoom, but instead zoom in naturally by walking slowly towards the subject. That makes it feel more natural.
  • Narration: If you are creating a documentary video, you can use interviews, voice overs to provide insights thoughts or commentary.
  • Edit: After you’ve collected all your video footage, use a video editing tool to trim footage, add effects, incorporate music, add narration and enhance your video.

Writing articles for your site or for publications (see an example here)

Do you have a blog or a website? Then written articles are a great way of sharing stories about your landscapes. Follow these tips to start writing up the stories in your landscape and engage a wide audience.

  • Strong Headlines: Craft a concise and attention-grabbing headline that summarizes the essence of the article and captures the reader’s interest. Use keywords related to landscape restoration to ensure relevance and searchability.
  • Inverted Pyramid Structure: Follow the inverted pyramid structure, placing the most important information at the beginning of the article. Start with the key details, such as the location, scale, and significance of the restoration project.
  • Lead with Impact: In the opening paragraph, present a compelling statement or statistic that highlights the importance of landscape restoration. Engage the reader immediately by conveying the broader implications and benefits of the restoration efforts.
  • Clear and Concise Writing: Use simple and straightforward language to ensure that your article is accessible to a wide audience. Avoid jargon or niche technical terms unless necessary and explain the specialized vocabulary you do use.
  • Provide Context: Briefly introduce the broader context of landscape restoration. Provide background information about the area, its ecological and cultural importance, and the impact of its degradation.
  • Key Stakeholders: Identify the key stakeholders involved in the restoration project, such as government agencies, environmental organizations, research institutions, local communities, or private investors. Discuss their roles, motivations, and collaborative efforts to highlight the project’s collaborative nature.
  • Project Details: Provide specific details about the restoration project, including its objectives, methods, and timeline. Highlight innovative or unique approaches being employed, such as the reintroduction of native species, erosion control measures, or sustainable land management practices.
  • Human interest stories: incorporate human interest stories or quotes from individuals involved in the restoration project. This can include project leaders, scientists, local community members, business owners etc. These personal stories add an emotional connection to the article.
  • Supportive Evidence: Use facts, data, and research to back up your statements and emphasize the credibility of the article. Include statistics and personal accounts of local communities that illustrate the positive impact of landscape restoration on inspired action, social cohesion, biodiversity, ecosystem services and financial opportunity.
  • Relevant Images: Include high-quality photographs or visuals that showcase the restored landscapes, depict the restoration process, or feature key individuals involved. Images can significantly enhance the readers understanding and engagement.

Get inspired!

This chapter shares a myriad of ways to get up and running with your storytelling to use and apply as you see fit. The best way to get storytelling is to get inspired by the stories you see around you. Who is telling the best stories either within or outside your domain? Follow them on social media, watch through their videos – what in their storytelling do you think you could plausibly adopt?

Here are a few favourites we recommend:

Want to collaborate with Commonland on a story or storytelling project, or have further questions? Get in touch with communications@commonland.com

This chapter was written by Milena Engel, Tom Lovett and Simon Hodges (Storyourself).

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