Within the natural capital community, we tend to expect rational statements about nature — forests, watersheds, mangroves, reefs — to have deep impact. Once other people hear how nature is helping them, won’t they decide to invest in protecting it?

But people are busy, and if we just throw facts at them before we have their attention, they may tune us out, or forget what we said as soon as we’ve said it. We have worked hard to build the science of ecosystem services. How can we get more people to pay attention to that science?

Stories and Story-telling

“Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.”

says world-famous screenwriting guru Robert McKee in a Harvard Business School Review interview.

Another filmmaker, Peter Guber, the producer behind Rain Man, Batman, and The Kids are Alright, shares this insight about stories in an essay in Psychology Today:

[Stories] provoke our memory and give us the framework for much of our understanding. They also reflect the way the brain works. While we think of stories as fluff, accessories to information, something extraneous to real work, they turn out to be the cornerstone of consciousness.


New brain imaging techniques show that when we convey facts, it engages two areas of the brain. But when we hear someone telling a story, we can engage up to 7 parts of the brain. If you describe the way something smells, the part of the brain that processes scent lights up. If you describe the way something looks, the part of the brain that processes sight lights up.

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Engaging the whole brain in a story, and embedding the important facts in the story—makes the information memorable.

During my tenure hearing ecosystem service stories while at The Natural Capital Project, I’ve found this to be anecdotally true. Below are a few examples.

7. The Urban Water Blueprint and the man behind one city’s attempt to solve Rio’s water shortages by growing and planting native trees

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This report is full of thorough and thoughtful analyses, clear messages and easy-to-read graphics. However, the part that stayed with me, and which I have described to other people, begins on page 44. It’s one of the few portions of the report that revolves around a particular human being. The author uses a scene-setting technique:

“Paulo Henrique Pereira’s office is full of awards. As Secretary of Environment for Brazil’s Extrema municipality, about 100 kilometers from São Paolo, the energetic Pereira is a key figure in Extrema’s history of proactive watershed management, which has been recognized around the world and accounts for the overflowing international recognition.

Perhaps the most telling feature of Extrema’s approach to water management lies just past the office walls, not in the plaques and proclamations that adorn them. Right next to the building where Pereira works is a tree nursery containing more than a hundred different species. The trees are destined to be replanted in hydrologically sensitive areas—along rivers and on steep slopes north of the city. The investment in reforestation is part of Brazil’s first Water Producer Program, an innovative program to protect the water supply of Extrema’s 25,000 residents along with the larger Cantareira water system that supplies São Paulo.”

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The analysis laid out in the rest of the report is necessary for credibility, and to act as a blueprint for taking action. But the personal story is just as necessary as a hook to hang it on in the brain. The Extrema story is one of my go-to stories when I describe water funds and how they work, and I think it’s because I have a grasp of the human element.




6. Melinda Gates at the Gates Foundation tells the story of how a Maasai woman  transformed her whole community by asking hard questions

The Gates Foundation is known for its methodical approach to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. And the foundations’ co-founder Melinda Gates is a wonderful story-teller. One reason her stories are so powerful is that she spends time in the places, with the people whom she wants to help, getting to know them and understanding their problems. Which means: she knows their stories.

I came across this story  in Elle magazine  over a year ago, and it moved me. It is not a story that’s directly about natural capital, per se, but it is about how people are affected by lack of access to water – an ecosystem service – and it’s a story of how to transform decision-making.

MG: One thing I did this year that I’ve never done before is my oldest daughter—she was 17 at the time—we actually lived with a family for a few days, a Maasai family in Tanzania. It was incredibly instructive on lots of issues, but particularly on women and girls. The neat thing about this couple—Ana and Sinari were their names—was they had a loving relationship. She had the choice to marry him, and she chose to marry him. When she decided to do it, she had to move to his area of Tanzania. She grew up in a very lush part of Tanzania; where he lived was very, very dry. Water was scarce. So they were eking out a living on his farm—until their first son was born. She was walking 21 kilometers to get water, and here she has this infant and she can’t do it anymore, she can’t make it work. And so they tell this poignant story that he came home one day, and she was waiting for him with her two suitcases and her baby. And he said, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘I’m going to move back home. I can’t do it anymore, and we have this child now.’ He asked, ‘Well, what would it take for you to stay?’ And she said, ‘Well, you would have to carry the water.’ The Maasai men, the last thing you do is carry the water, but he started carrying water. And the other men were making fun of him, lots of them. But eventually some would walk alongside of him for a kilometer and ask, ‘Why are you doing this? You must be smitten!’ And he said, ‘My son is healthier because my wife can nurse him while I carry the water. And your son and your daughters would be healthier if you carried the water, too.’ So eventually some of the men started walking with him, and they realized how unsafe this was, what they were asking these women to do all these years. Eventually they figured out they could do it on bicycles; and they figured out that they could build a waterpan closer to the village. And over time they’ve built four waterpans. Huge waterpans. So now the women are going less than a mile and a half to get water. And the men will sometimes go too. So it’s that walking in a woman’s shoes.

This story displays Gates’ eye and ear for detail. She relays people’s names. She remembers what they said. She quotes them. She describes the conditions in which they live. She recreates a visual of a pivotal moment

“she was waiting for him with two suitcases and her baby”

almost as if she were there when it happened, and in doing so, she helps us be there too. In her use of quotes, she passes along the language and the logic that locals used to change their peers’ minds and behaviors.

But beware relaying details just for the sake of creating a sensory impression. The details you choose to tell matter, as evidenced in this more recent profile of Gates in Vanity Fair.  I usually admire the writing in Vanity Fair, but in this case, was disappointed.  To get us into the moment, the author quotes Gates talking about their lunch:

“It looks like wheat toast with squash on top and a bit of caramelized onion,” she added, explaining the mystery dish for me. (She was correct.)”

Even though the article went on to cover some of the same topics as the Elle interview, that opening image is what stayed with me after I closed the tab.

5. Spoken word story-telling. Neil de Grasse Tyson blows other superstar story-tellers out of the water with his talk at the ASU Origins Project: Storytelling Of Science.

We can also appeal to people’s senses through our voices and how we move when telling a story.

Tyson both entertains and commands attention with the booming timbre of his voice. He walks the stage with confidence and has an amused expression on his face. Watching him perform, I can feel an energy exchange between him and the audience.



SPOILER ALERT [watch the video, if you’re going to, before continuing to read]: It was the costume change that took this from being a great talk to fantastic. It quite beautifully reflects his theme, of the relationship between science and art, and it made my heart sing.

4. Losing Ground, Louisiana is Drowning, Quickly, by ProPublica and The Lens.

In the GIS community, we often think of “biogeophysical” maps as the end-all, be all. But what if we started adding more personal, human elements into our landscape maps? If our intended audience is government, well, government officials are ultimately beholden to their constituents. What if we explicitly told the stories of how their constituents were being affected by the loss of natural capital? Would that help get their attention? Would that make something abstract more real to … everyone?

One great example of the power of combining maps and people’s stories is the “Losing Ground” project, by Pro-Publica and The Lens.

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By mapping levees, oil and gas industry canals, and by including photos and interviews with people, this interactive site shows what’s at stake, and exactly who will suffer, if Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Master Plan is not implemented.

“Today, residents of Southeast Louisiana face a losing equation: They live on narrow slices of high ground that are sinking as the Gulf rises. The state has an ambitious plan that could balance that equation by 2060, but it doesn’t have the $50 billion to pay for it.”

My favorite part is the story of Earl Armstrong, a cattle rancher and wetlands advocate who solves a problem for the US Army Corp of Engineers just by looking at it, with his eyes. He suggested they build an island to slow the flow of diverted water so that sediment could fall out, and replenish the land. And it worked.

What could be better: I wish all of the photographs were bigger, with more close-ups, or linked to photo galleries — I want to see more peoples’ faces. My other criticism of this otherwise fantastic effort is that in choosing to only interview adult males, it renders the impacts on Louisiana women and children invisible.


3.  The Nature Conservancy recently produced this fantastic Nature Brought Us Together video.

Too often the visual power of film to tell stories is wasted by pointing a camera at someone’s talking head. It’s especially bad if the person is nervous and goes into a robotic mode (this has happened to me when a camera was pointed at my head. It usually takes practice to come off well in interviews. These types of talking-head interviews tend to have 12 views on YouTube, whereas Nature Brought Us Together has over 200,000).

“The Bayview community dates back some 300 years, and most of the people here were descendants of slaves. We didn’t think the American Dream was for us.”


The story begins with the voice of Alice Coles, a Bayview hero. She’s a natural story-teller, but the 4-minute video uses imagery to complement her words. This is one of the coolest conservation stories I’ve heard, and shows how conserving nature can benefit people.

2. Pictures really ARE worth 1000 words and maybe thousands of dollars. 

Photo journalism is both an art and a craft, and it’s also dying! Getting great shots of people AND the landscapes in which they live, with terrific lighting, high resolution, perfect focus and great color – is not as easy as it may seem. I’ve combed through thousands of non-professional photos looking for pics to illustrate stories, and I often end up using generic, forgettable stock photography. I’m grateful for stock photography, but by using it, we miss opportunities to tell memorable, visual stories.

One of my favorite staff-created photo essays was a series by Leah Bremer, who captured the people in an Ecuadorian highland community who are investing in restoring ancient channels as a solution to their water woes. Through their engagement in a water fund, they are voluntarily changing some of their agricultural practices, like removing cattle from over-grazed land.

Leah is the kind of ecosystem scientist who makes a point of talking to people, and she has a great eye (I love this photo below, of Don Pedro, with his walking cane and his hat, showing the water running through the restored channel). Still, as a scientist, you can only go out in the field before and after your meetings. It’s hard to get the right lighting that will capture both faces and landscapes — which is what we need for natural capital stories.

Don Pedro, water manager for Huamantango, overlooks a restored mamanteo. These ancient channels increase water availability during the dry season.

Don Pedro, water manager for Huamantango, overlooks a restored mamanteo. These ancient channels increase water availability during the dry season.

Recently, WWF invested in their science stories by hiring professional photojournalist James Morgan to accompany their scientists in the field, while they measure the impact of marine protected areas. The investment paid off when the (fantastic) series recently got picked up in the Guardian.  In this interview on Scuttlefish, Morgan talks about how he come to learn that the Bajau– a people who live their whole lives at sea — make love potions out of manatees’ tears. That’s a story that doesn’t even need a photo. Here’s more of the series, in which he uncovers the link between people, mangroves, ocean currents, and spirituality.

There are few frontiers left in this well-trodden world of ours, but great photojournalism highlighting people’s explicit connection to natural capital, is one of them.


1. This “Put a value on nature!” TED talk by Pavan Sukhdev, the founder of TEEB, has over 555,000 views on YouTube. He uses story-telling, metaphor and graphics to make his points stick.

The natural capital community is often attacked by old-school conservationists who are offended by the idea of assigning monetary value to priceless, irreplaceable aspects of our environment. But Sukhdev creates a great counter-point, by showing how ignoring the economic aspect of what nature provides hurts poor people the most.

I like how he begins with two metaphors – which are linguistic ways to excite different parts of the brain and which take abstract ideas and make them more relatable: the idea of nature’s “invisibility” in the banking and investment world, and how Mother Nature can’t send invoices.

At 7:37, he uses a powerful story about mangroves in Thailand being converted to shrimp farms, with some simple graphics that tell a powerful story about how the public benefits of natural capital — once calculated– far outweigh private profits.

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There are lots of ways to help people remember our facts. Descriptions, quotes, talking to people and telling their stories, metaphor, photos, graphics, tone of voice, body language. Experiment with these techniques, but most of all, use them to channel your own personal passion.