“Hmm. I didn’t have you pegged as a You’ve Got Mail fan,” a new friend mentioned as he looked at the photo of Nora Ephron I’ve had on my refrigerator for the past few years. “I absolutely love her! My goal is to be the Nora Ephron of sustainability,” I gushed. He answered that every movement needs someone to communicate as well as Ephron did–to bring in their audience and make esoteric things approachable.
Snuggled in my bookshelf between Confessions of a Radical Industrialist and The Green Imperative are Ephron’s Heartburn and I Feel Bad About My Neck. Like many who were moved by her death last week, I felt like I knew Nora Ephron even though I never had the pleasure of meeting her. She was able to turn fodder–like the tendency for stray aspirins to stay at the bottom of your bag no matter how many times you clean it out or how good freshly sharpened pencils smell–into universally accessible prose. In a broader sense, she made her readers feel less lonely and isolated.
Around the time I put Ephron up on my refrigerator, I decided to stop putting apocalyptic images in my presentation decks and try and make my pitches more fun. I’ve found that this approach works well at different levels. Since my group at Autodesk focuses on sustainability solutions across all industries–we look at large-scale issues in infrastructure as well as those that require attention to minute details, such as industrial machines–I sometimes have to get deep into the weeds.
I’ve learned that when pushing new initiatives, success often lies in how well the entrepreneur, or in my case, the intrapreneur, can tell a story. I’ve seen countless corporate sustainability pitches begin with melting glaciers, sad polar bears, and the ever-present hockey stick curve with the words “IF WE ACT …” When these images come up, the audience’s eyes almost always glaze over. They’re gone and they’re not coming back. I imagine that they’re thinking: “How is this relevant for me?” “When are they going to bring lunch in?” or “Even if we implement this idea, how could we possibly make a dent in such an epic problem?”
So my project code names never even allude to the color green (nary a Project Kermit, Project Leaf, or Project Peapod will you find in my files). Instead I use metaphors that everyone can relate to as ways to bring my audience in. Yes, my pitches happen to all be about sustainability–but the larger metaphor is about business transformation and having fun while exploring and actualizing it.
For example, when a machine inside a factory doesn’t perform at its best, it wastes a lot of energy and increases the possibility of workers getting hurt. While this might seem insignificant, it’s a big deal. I presented some research on this a few weeks ago, and instead of delving into overall equipment effectiveness with audiences who do not interact with industrial machines often, I drew the metaphor of trying to cut a tomato with a dull knife–it takes a lot more muscle to cut through the tomato skin and increases the chances that you will cut your finger in the process.
While Buckminster Fuller certainly had a different writing style than Ephron’s, he is another great example of how to make people understand our responsibilities to improve resource allocation with his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Perhaps Michele Obama may have Nora Ephron on her refrigerator, too. I admire the way she’s made fitness and nutrition accessible in her Let’s Move programs. You can also draw inspiration from The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios. This video is the most cited sustainable product design awareness piece by people outside my field. Free Range Studios consists of an expert group of storytellers and is a great place to look if you want to hone your skills. While these examples are all public awareness campaigns and have a harder job to do than pitching a business plan internally for funding, we can apply parts of their formula to the pitch process. In all of these approaches there is a beautiful humanism and a fun metaphor that’s easy to understand, punctuated with a “We can do it!” call to action.
And maybe that’s the formula that makes us indulge in a good Nora Ephron romantic comedy. The glider plane shots of a large metropolitan area, characters we can identify with on some level, and the happy ending that makes us believe that we too can fall in love and live happily ever after.