Sustainability Stories as a Three Act Play

Simon Cooper | 5th June 2018

A beginning, a middle and an end
Communicating sustainability issues is something every sustainability initiative cares about, but how often do our messages fall on deaf ears? Every so often something really cuts through into the public consciousness, most recently the problem of plastic waste in our oceans and the deadly effects of this on marine life. For many, their first contact with this issue was through David Attenborough’s BBC TV programme Blue Planet II, where images such as a young albatross killed by swallowing a single plastic toothpick moved people in the programme’s worldwide audience to ask what could be done to clean up our oceans.

Now the ocean plastic issue is a global concern, with many organisations moving to ban single-use plastics from their shelves. Generation X author Douglas Coupland has filled Vancouver Aquarium with plastics recovered from the Canadian shore in a shocking exhibition, Vortex. Viewing it on its opening weekend, I saw visitors moved by the sheer quantity of waste and its mundane nature – who knew that so many toothbrushes and marker pens are thrown away, to float in the Pacific sun until they bleach white?

The question that ran through my mind as I took in the exhibition (and its visitors) was – why has this issue gained so much traction now? Campaigning groups have been trying to raise awareness of the issue for years. Why did most people not notice until Blue Planet II aired?

I think the problem may be not our attempts to raise awareness of these problems – it’s what comes before and goes after that activity. We need a Three Act Play approach.

Think back to when you’ve seen a film or play that seemed unsatisfying. When I revisit such experiences in my mind I usually find that they were missing a vital component of the narrative structure – the beginning, the middle (rarely), or the end. The earliest storytellers knew that they had to have those three elements if their fellow cave-dwellers weren’t to lose interest, and over the centuries the form has evolved into what we now understand as the Three Act Play. Looking at those sustainability campaigns that lacked impact, how many of them are guilty of being a story badly told? However bright the idea, if colleagues and external audiences aren’t engaged by it, they won’t believe in it and it will go nowhere. Innovation has been defined as a good idea multiplied by the number of friends it has, and sustainability communication is just the same.

The beginning
The beginning – or Act One – is where we get to know the characters in a movie or play. It’s the same with a sustainability issue – at the beginning, you get to know who’s who and what’s what, the history and the backstory of the problem you’re grappling with. But in the annals of unsatisfying movies, there are many which had an Act One but still failed – because they failed to build your compassion for the characters. It’s the same in communicating sustainability, we need to know what people care about, what motivates them, as well as the bare facts, statistics and trends.

Some organisations try to work this out by asking people – through surveys, interviews and other methods. They sometimes don’t succeed because people won’t tell them the truth – they give a skewed version of the truth. If they like the organisation, their comments will be through rose-tinted spectacles, if they’ve had a bad experience – or if the organisation wants them to give up something they love, such as driving their car – the account will be scathing. You might think that each would cancel the other out, but of course we never know how many there are of each. The great thing about communicating in the world of social media is that you can get constant feedback on how your Act One is being received. Being sensitive to what is being said about you and your storytelling is a vital skill nowadays.

The middle
Act Two of the story is where most sustainability campaigns concentrate their firepower – the threat to our planet and our way of life, the call to action to solve the problem. I don’t disagree that Act Two is important – it’s just that we should place equal emphasis on what goes before and what comes after.
In plays and films, Act Two is where the drama or crisis happens, leading to resolution in Act Three.

This is where we should bring our characters together to deal with what we and they have learned through Act One. If the prince is a ditherer and his girlfriend in urgent need of psychiatric help, it’s good for everyone to know that before making any irrevocable decisions on the government of the kingdom over the next decade.

Good, purpose-driven storytelling is based on good information and a sound understanding of the behaviours and motivations of the characters who are going to be responsible not only for moving though Act Two but carrying the action forward into Act Three. It worked for Shakespeare but most sustainability initiatives want to avoid a dénouement that results in all the leading personalities coming to a messy and untimely end.
The essential is to be crystal clear about what you are trying to implant in the audience’s mind. Is it a lifetime of happiness for the prince, revenge to right past wrongs or imperial ambition to acquire neighbouring territory?

Make sure you know in Act Two what you want the audience to feel, think and do at the end of the story. No matter what the time pressure, no matter how restless the audience is becoming, there has to be firm understanding of the end point you’re trying to get to.
Great theatre depends not only on the author, director and star performers but on bringing out the best in the set designer, the technicians, the stage crew, the choreographer, the make-up artist and the rest of the cast. You wouldn’t launch a West End show or a blockbuster movie without ensuring everyone was confident and comfortable in their role and had a clear impression of the big picture. It’s the same in sustainability stories – the entire organisation must move in step with the storyline.

Act 2 has to have a neat conclusion to make Act 3 start well. I see it as a precise, concise and specific central proposition around which the rest of the detail can be played out.

The ending
Act Three is where everything gets resolved in the dramatic plot – the baddie gets slammed into jail, the couple in the will-they-or-won’t-they storyline walk hand in hand into the sunset, and so on. The typical film language is to have a long, slow zoom out to a very wide (often overhead) shot while the orchestra wells up into a rousing finale. All very satisfying for the human need to see everything concluded nice and tidily.

How often have you experienced that satisfaction in a sustainability story? I’m willing to bet the answer is seldom, or even never. Act Three in sustainability stories is, in my experience, the most difficult part to get right because we can’t achieve the happy, tidy ending that the human mind yearns for. Almost always, there’s unfinished business – we need to change our lifestyles to reduce harm to the planet, businesses need to rethink their processes, governments need to act differently, a whole variety of story threads must be left hanging in mid air. Not the ideal Hollywood ending.

So, in Act Three, plan to listen carefully and sense the reaction of the audience to the point the story has reached. Moviemakers commonly stage test screenings and will change or even reshoot scenes based on the audience reaction. In the world of unfinished sustainability business described above, does the audience feel unsettled? That may be a good thing, as they will be moved to action. Do they feel something worse, despair perhaps? That is a bad thing, because if things look too serious to resolve, people may give up and simply wait for the worst to happen. The most effective feeling we can leave our audience with is one of hope linked to action – that the issue can be resolved if enough people do the right thing. Gauging audience reaction and finessing the end of your story can lead to much more impact than your first attempt at a conclusion.

The credits roll…
In his Artist’s Statement at the Vancouver Aquarium Vortex exhibition, Douglas Coupland says:

“Everyone talks about oceanic trash gyres, but there are few actual images… In a way, this project has been about putting a face on something faceless and to crystallise emotion into a solid form”

The reactions I saw in visitors’ faces on the opening weekend showed that Coupland had succeeded in his storytelling objective, making something unseen so tangible that it felt like being punched in the chest.

And Blue Planet II? Surely the reason it had such impact is the quality of the storytelling. We know and trust David Attenborough – his Three Act Play spans 64 years since his first TV programmes, so he is someone we have built our compassion for. Within the Blue Planet II series itself, the story arc offers all the elements of the Three Act Play as I have described them, so we finish watching with hope and a clear agenda for action.

And isn’t that what all sustainability stories should try to achieve? As Douglas Coupland put it in Vancouver, “Crystallise emotion into solid form”.

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