Storytelling’s power to inspire water conservation explored

Candace Krebs
Ag Journal

In 1888, a one-armed explorer with a fascination for the rugged intermountain West — and a keen insight into how contentious water would become — co-founded a new organization for the purpose of expanding education and knowledge about the natural world.

That is how John Wesley Powell, the namesake for one of the West’s most important — and increasingly threatened —reservoirs, is tied to one of the world’s most influential magazines on nature and culture, the National Geographic.

Powell’s foremost obsession was water. Not only did he create the first comprehensive watershed map, but at a national irrigation congress in 1893 he declared the West was over-appropriating its water, telling the assembly “you are setting up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights” that would loom over future generations.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, left, conducts a virtual interview with Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners, during the third annual Water in the West Symposium hosted by Colorado State University’s new SPUR campus in Denver.

Highlighting Powell’s devotion to science, his foresightedness and his willingness to speak up was the starting point for the recent annual Water in the West Symposium, hosted by Colorado State University’s new SPUR campus in Denver. Keynote speaker Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners and former president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, related Powell’s story as he sketched out a history of how early exploration of the West led to formation of the National Park Service and an ethic of conservation that was soon interwoven into the American mindset.

“Facts belong in the domain of science, but the best stories make the facts relevant in ways people can visualize and identify with,” he said. “Embrace the power in your own story to change hearts and minds, and together we can change the world.”

Knell’s interest in storytelling was a consequence of growing up in Southern California in the shadow of Hollywood. From a young age, he was awed by the power of movies to expand the mind and move the spirit and emotions.

“Policy has an important role to play (in water issues) as do technology and innovations. But I believe one of the must powerful tools we have is storytelling,” he said during his opening remarks. “We can transform how people understand the world and their role in it, and what we’ve learned is, when people understand the world, they care more deeply.”

Knell was interviewed on the virtual stage by former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, now a senior adviser to CSU, who also has a unique backstory of his own.

When Vilsack ran for governor of Iowa in the late 1990s, he was seized with a simple but powerful idea: food production is the basis of everything else. He wanted to make that the centerpiece of his campaign despite the advice of one of his campaign advisers, well-known political commentator David Axelrod.

Axelrod, another speaker whom Vilsack interviewed live during the symposium, couldn’t convince Vilsack to drop the idea entirely, although he did produce data showing it just wasn’t the top priority on most voters’ minds.

But Axelrod had his own reasoning for why reason often trumps passion when it comes to telling a story.

“Don’t mistake what makes you passionate for what makes other people passionate,” he said. “As a grassroots activist, my job is to convey a winning message and how to get from here to there. The goal (as a candidate) is not to indulge your passion but to make possible the progress you’re looking for.”

“It’s about discipline,” he continued. “Saving the region from a water disaster: that is good work, that is fundamental. Do not risk being able to achieve those results by focusing on what motivates you but does not motivate those folks who make the decisions.”

Stories nestled within other stories is how this year’s symposium served to illustrate many of the ideas the speakers shared as they reflected on the role of storytelling to motivate change, address challenges and produce lasting results.

Water issues are complex, and perspectives are wide-ranging, which means listening and respecting is as important as speaking, for writers and photographers as well as influencers and advocates, Knell said.

“Reach people rather than preach at people, then you can teach people,” he said.

In a follow-up panel on how to “move minds,” an entrepreneur, a journalist and an academic researcher each shared what they’ve learned about using communication to build brands, ignite conversations and propel effective social movements.

Gary Hirshfield, co-founder and now “Chief Creative Officer” of Stonyfield Yogurt, emphasized repeatedly the importance of making the message “visceral,” by relying on ingenuity and originality.

“We launched an organic yogurt company in 1983 at a time when nobody was eating yogurt and no one knew what organic was,” he recalled.

Hirshfield had to come up with creative ways to persuade consumers to buy an unfamiliar product at a steep price premium to conventional brands.

“We had no money, but we had cows. So we came up this very simple idea that if you sent in five yogurt labels, you would get to adopt a cow,” he recalled.

He also used “moos-letters,” farm cams and Yo-Tube, his original version of a You-Tube message channel, to sell a fun hip image, while reaching out to bloggers and influencers to spread brand recognition and enthusiasm to millions of followers.

“We had fun. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously but focused on keeping it upbeat, positive and funny,” he said.

Social media “is an artform now,” he added. “It’s highly refined and oversaturated, so how you cut through that is critical.”

Keep the message simple, don’t overwhelm with facts, be positive and solution-oriented, and listen instead of doing all the talking, he advised.

Justin Worland, a journalist covering energy, environment and climate for Time Magazine, talked about choosing to pursue articles that educate and move a larger conversation forward.

“Journalists want to say something new and write something that hasn’t been written before,” he said. “Or take facts that are already known but reframe and present them in a different way.”

That often involves localizing a national or global story or focusing on one angle of an issue to create “little building blocks in a bigger arc of narrative.”

Sarah Soule is an academic researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and has written extensively on corporate responsibility and social movements.

“Why are some social movements successful when others are not? That’s one of the big research questions we study,” she said.

Key factors include how the issues are framed, the overall political environment, available resources and the role of media.

Movements are built on a series of questions she summarized as what-so what-now what? Within that progression, stories can often be used to mobilize emotions, she said.

Some movements fizzle out because they succeed. But others run out of steam due to lack of commitment or break apart from internal division, often caused by “mission creep” and loss of focus.

“Successful movements know how to build and sustain energy,” she said. “Think in terms of ‘small wins,’ especially in the face of adversity, to energize your members.”