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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.

In this chapter

  • Why storytelling is essential in holistic landscape restoration.
  • Storytelling reveals the emotions and experiences in your project to leave a lasting impression.
  • Stories can provide insight into landscape stakeholders and partners.
  • Four essential elements of stories.
  • Storytelling for insight.
  • Using stories to communicate.

"Change happens only when you replace one story with another"

George Monbiot, environmental campaigner, journalist, writer, and film maker

Throughout human history, storytelling has been an integral part of our existence, serving as a means of communication, education, entertainment, and cultural preservation. Stories have shaped history and the world as we know it. As George Monbiot explains in this article in The Guardian, stories are how we navigate the world. Dominant narratives have shaped the degradation that we see today, but new stories have the power to ignite the change we need for regenerating our planet.

This is why storytelling is a powerful tool in holistic landscape restoration. It is through stories that we foster understanding, forge connection, bridge the gap between inspiration and action, and learn to amplify our impact. Storytelling is an asset in each of the 5 elements. We placed it at the end of this guidebook, to emphasise its role in learning and amplifying the impact you’re making in your landscape initiative.

In one sense, storytelling means anything you communicate. But good storytelling also allows you to change a narrative by choosing to emphasise one thing over another. It focuses not just on information but emotions and experiences. Personal stories can play a massive role in bringing alive the reality of people in a 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 more powerful than your average PowerPoint presentation. 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 storytelling is much easier than you think – you are probably already doing it.

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

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

Four story elements

What distinguishes a story from anything else that’s spoken or written? These four elements – supplied by Storyourself – make the distinction clearer. Rather than definitions, however, you can see them as recommendations for what makes a good story.

1.Experiences take the audience with you into the landscape. In their imaginations, 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 help implant your actions 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 people have contextual experiences to absorb any data or news you share.

2. 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 feelings into your communication makes what you’re doing feel more real to your audience. Emotions often unlock a lot in the story and are usually the key to opening creative blocks.

3. Tests and trials. Hercules, Odysseus and the gold-medal sprinters didn’t just win but overcame. It might feel uncomfortable to talk about what’s not going well, but it adds to your credibility and ability to draw people in. Turn the 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 hole. Grounded’s account[1] of its challenges in its first years of setting up a regenerative agriculture business helps build a picture of the organisation’s integrity and dedication to keep going despite setbacks, for example. Sharing challenges changes your narrative from one of successes and failures to one of resilience – the way you change and evolve just as your landscape does.

4. Perspectives. When reporting on a big event, you can include multiple viewpoints in your story. While publicising a launch, for example, show what multiple people – team and stakeholders – think about what’s happening. Another approach is to use first-person testimonies 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 tale 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 view on what’s are happening. It might 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 and helping discover social and cultural forces that play in your landscape.

Storytelling and Theory U

Theory U is a framework developed by Otto Scharmer, co-founder of the Presencing Institute 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 because it helps to facilitate this transformative process and explore the experiences of a diversity of stakeholders. Here are a few important concepts used in Theory U that are enriched by storytelling.

Presencing

One of the core concepts in Theory U, “presencing” is 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 our 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 transformation they want to see in their organisations, their landscapes, 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.

Reflection practice

A reflection practice is invaluable for your own and your project’s learning and growth. Making space for reflection on a regular basis can be done through personal journaling (try the Presencing Institute’s guided journaling exercise) or in a group session. Reflecting can also serve as inspiration for capturing your project’s story, and sharing this will allow others to learn from your journey. The following tips can help you structure your reflection practice, as well as write up any insights for sharing.

  • 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.
  • 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 emerging insights. Share 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 individuals involved. Share stories of how these changes have influenced and inspired others.
  • Encourage audience reflection. Ask the audience to reflect on their own roles in landscape restoration and 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 and discuss the ongoing potential for further development and improvement.

Stories for communication

This section is about sharing stories with stakeholders 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.

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 return of inspiration and the social, natural and financial returns, we combine our efforts to heal our relationship with the land and provide a long-lasting legacy for future generations.

Check back to the chapter, How to get started; these are handrails that help you communicate about your landscape.

The power of hope

The project you are working on is a story of hope. Centuries of degradation is being reversed through your work. In an era of multiple, inter-related crises, your project is 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. You need to remain clear-eyed about the realities on the ground but keep sharing your vision of hope for the landscape. In doing so, you will motivate action elsewhere. The Book of Hope, by Jane Goodall is a great resource to better understand the power of hope in restoring nature.

Platforms such as Explorer.land and Restor have libraries of inspirational stories that show the global land restoration movement in action. One example is a story on how regenerative agriculture is used to restore the Spanish Altiplano landscape.

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.

  • Find 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, and 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, and restoration efforts.
  • Active listening. Allow the interviewees to express themselves fully and provide space for them to share personal stories, anecdotes, and 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, and 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.
  • Structuring the narrative. Organise the interview content into a coherent and engaging narrative structure. Identify common themes, connections, and contrasting viewpoints that emerge from the interviews.
  • Use 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.
  • Emotional connection. Emphasise the emotional connections that interviewees have with the landscape. Allow them to share their personal experiences, memories, and 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, and 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, such as birds chirping or 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.

Social media

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 suited to a particular audience 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 emphasises 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). Find inspiration in Commonland’s Instagram channel here.
  • LinkedIn: This professional networking platform is used primarily for business and career-related purposes. It focuses on connecting professionals, sharing industry news and industry-specific discussions. Only about 1% of LinkedIn’s 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. As Facebook and Instagram both come from Meta, you can post simultaneously across platforms.
  • X (formerly Twitter):X focuses on short text updates. It is mostly used to share news and opinions, engage in public conversation and follow trending topics. It can be an excellent place to get noticed by journalists, who often use the platform to find stories.
  • TikTok: A 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 young audiences or going viral.
  • YouTube: Alongside Facebook, YouTube is one of the largest social media platforms out there, with an audience of more than 2 billion people. It’s a great place to share longer-form video content – 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 share your story on social media.

  • Visual storytelling: Use captivating and high-quality visuals, such as photos, videos, and infographics to conveythe 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 to accompany your visuals.
  • 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, and organisations. 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, and restoration initiatives. Share interesting facts, historical context, and 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, and success stories to keep the audience engaged and connected to the ongoing work.
  • Interactive stories: Create interactive content, such as polls, puzzles, quizzes, and challenges to 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, and takeovers can help amplify the story, reach, and credibility.
  • Calls to action: Inspire the audience to get involved by encouraging them to take a specific step.
  • 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 or monthly basis through data analytics within your social media accounts. Checking how many people see your posts (metrics: impressions, reach) and how engaged your audience is (metrics: reactions, engagement rate) can help you to optimise your content to better suit your audience.

Filming a story

Video is a great way to engage people in the stories from your landscape. And it’s easier to do than you might think. Most of us already carry a video camera 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 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: Position your characters using the rule of thirds[1] Turn on the grid or guidelines on your phone camera to align main subjects and points of interest along gridlines or at intersections. This creates visually pleasing compositions.
  • Beginning and closing shots: 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 clearer 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, do it from multiple perspectives.
  • Never zoom: If you want to zoom into a situation, don’t click zoom, but instead walk slowly towards the subject. It will feel more natural.
  • Narration: If you are creating a documentary video, you can use interviews and 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

Do you have a blog or website? Written articles are a great way of sharing stories about your landscapes (see an example here) 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 summarises the essence of the article and captures the readers’ 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 language to ensure that your article is accessible to a wide audience. Avoid jargon or niche technical terms unless necessary and explain the specialised vocabulary that 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 organisations, research institutions, local communities, and 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, and 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 and business owners. Personal stories add an emotional connection to the article.
  • Supportive evidence: Use facts, data, and research to back up your statements and emphasise 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 start your storytelling. The best first step is to be inspired by the stories you hear around you. Who is telling the best stories either within or outside your area? Follow them on social media, and watch their videos: what aspects of their storytelling could you adopt?

Here are a few favourites we recommend:

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

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