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4 Tips for Telling a Great Sustainability Story– Documentary Style

by Dfleischer on April 4, 2013

By Catherine Lynn Butler, Butlerfilms

Green Impact had the pleasured of working with Catherine Lynn Butler, Butlerfilms on our recent County of Ventura sustainability video project.  She agreed to be a guest blogger, sharing her thoughts and lessons learned on how to tell a great sustainability story building on her years as a documentary film maker.

What’s the best way to create compelling content that raises awareness, resonates with your audience, and feels authentic? The answer: documentary-style storytelling or VOX populi, the “Voice of the People,” my favorite storytelling technique.

This approach elicits meaningful awareness and engagement around issues impacting our everyday lives. And the unplanned moments of spontaneity can be pure visual magic.

One of the first questions I ask at the outset of any documentary project is “Who is your target audience?” Followed by “What are your big picture goals?” No matter what your topic, you can bring a fresh point of view to your video by keeping in mind four simple storytelling tips that can make the process as fun and rewarding as the outcome:

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Lead with curiosity and collaboration
  3. “Build it and they will come”
  4. Trust spontaneity

Know Your Target Audience

Focus on what’s interesting to your core audience. Green Impact’s “target audience” and “big picture” goals were one in the same – to build sustainability awareness among the County of Ventura’s 8,000 employees.

Working closely together with the County Executive Office, we quickly discovered a collegial work culture, where several key agency members shared a passion for supporting green initiatives, both at work and at home.  Profiling their stories documentary style was a natural, and helped create a sense of “team spirit” with our core audience.

Lead with Curiosity and Collaboration

The magic of documentary-style storytelling starts with building positive relationships before you turn on the camera. Like any good reporter, you’re inviting potential participants to share their stories. Let curiosity lead. Ask emotion-based, and future-oriented questions to reveal professional and personal interests that can help create an overall theme. Finding out that Rosalind Harris (Facilities Manager, GSA), had put her personal passion into spearheading a green campaign responsible for recycling over 218,000 tons of paper each year, and Dennis Scamardo’s (Fleet Services Manager, GSA) dedication to promoting county use of green vehicles spilled over into the weekend when he raced electric vehicles with his son, were just a few of the rich stories we encountered.

Build It and They Will Come

Once we discovered our “Green Stars,” refined our talking points, scouted our locations and hired a great crew, it was time to go into the field and capture the best pictures to tell our story.  In addition to showcasing our heroes in action – recycling, bicycling to work, driving hybrid vehicles and using goat power instead of chainsaws to clear hillside fire hazards – we took advantage of Ventura’s stunning natural beauty and other images of Southern California’s iconic lifestyle to visually drive home the County’s commitment to sustainability.

Trust Spontaneity

Plan for the unexpected and run with it. Documentary-style storytelling may be unscripted, but if your original vision is solid, you’ll wind up with moments of spontaneity that can make your story even better. Follow your instincts, relax into the moment and don’t forget to tap into the enthusiasm of your participants. The great energy generated in the moment can be contagious, and that’s what shows up in the finished product.

Case in point: having the County Sheriff reprise Clint Eastwood’s famous line with a straight line and a green twist: “Make my day. Just unplug it or else…” added an unexpected humorous touch to our final video!

Guided by these four storytelling elements, Green Impact’s video successfully conveyed the essence of Ventura’s goals in a catchy and a lively way – to the happy satisfaction of the client and the County Board of Supervisors.

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