Recap of GEI Storytelling Workshop at Duke Kunshan University | Duke Kunshan University

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Recap of GEI Storytelling Workshop at Duke Kunshan University


Right now, in conference rooms around the world, environmental solutions are being drowned out by monotone powerpoint presentations. Meanwhile, the climate changes, the global temperature warms, and more CO2 is pumped into the air… The planet needs better environmental communications as soon as possible. 

From March 9-10 GEI External Relations traveled to Kunshan in Jiangsu Province to help the newest generation of environmentalists get their message heard.

The storytelling participants at DKU Campus. Photo: GEI 2018

GEI’s Kendall Bitonte and Maddie Rawding led this special 2-day Storytelling Workshop for Duke Kunshan University’s Master of Environmental Policy program, at the invitation of Dr. Kathinka Furst. Ying Fu and Denise Hruby also gave guest speeches about storytelling through photography and writing environmental news, respectively, and Stone Yu helped us prepare material about storytelling through video. 

A group of 30 students, professors, NGO workers and entrepreneurs attended our workshop. 

We love storytelling! Photo: GEI 2018

At the end of the two-days, the participants gave presentations that advocated how Duke Kunshan University could take more actions on an environmental topic of their choosing. This was a challenging task as the beautiful DKU campus is already quite green & blue, and all of the buildings have been LEED certified!

However, there’s always extra green steps we can make and these groups had great ideas for DKU. Incorporating at least two multi-media and building upon lessons learned over the past two days, the presentation topics ranged from bike paths to ivory trade, the participants not only showed off the participant’s expertise but also made compelling cases for their topics.

 GEI's Kendall Bitonte works with a group to prepare their presentation. Photo: GEI 2018

Here are 3 stand-out stories from the workshop:

The Hero’s Journey – Meet Mr. Battery

Look at any traditional epic and you’ll find the ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ This narrative frame structures age-old epics like The Odyssey or The Monkey King, and even modern sagas like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. 

The Hero’s Journey is a great narrative tool for environmental storytelling because the audience can travel with one character to experience the complexities of a situation. In a ‘Hero’s Journey’ story, the audience and the ‘Hero’ can learn, grow and change together. 

Photo Credit: Yeah Write!


During our workshop, one brilliant group used ‘The Hero’s Journey’ framework to communicate the importance of recycling batteries on DKU Campus. In their photo-essay style presentation, the group told us the story of “Mr. Battery” who has lived a very difficult – but unfulfilling life – as he is constantly discarded and left to fade away. 

The group concretely explained the environmental dangers that Mr. Battery poses to the environment and made emotional arguments for why we should take better care to recycle Mr. Battery and treat him well. 

DKU's Dr. Kathinka Furst works with the Mr. Battery Group to prepare their presentation. Photo: GEI 2018

S.U.C.C.E.S.sful Stories about Vegan Life

Chip and Dan Heath shared the S.U.C.C.E.S.s acronym in their book “Made to Stick” as a way to ticks all the boxes for an engaging narrative. Specifically, successful messages are Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional and Story-like.

GEI adds that you should try to make your audience Smile or have hope because optimism is a stronger call to action than pessimism. 

GEI's Kendall Bitonte keeps a list of story-telling tips handy! Photo: GEI 2018

It’s common in today’s culture to hear sermons about why someone decided to become a vegetarian or vegan. Too often, these stories become antagonistic and make the audience feel guilty for eating the occasional chicken wing or t-bone steak. 

Personalizing is tricky storytelling tactic, but this group succeeded! Photo: GEI 2018

During our training, two separate groups made presentations about the environmental aspects of vegetarian life and, specifically, why DKU should include more vegetarian-friendly options in the dining hall. 

Giving and receiving feedback is a crucial part of storytelling. Photo: GEI 2018

The presentations were a success because the presenters shared emotional and personal video stories and gave very simple and concrete steps for the campus to be more green. 

They also kept the positive spin by saying, it’s ok to not become a vegetarian or vegan. The group emphasized anyone can try vegetarian food every so often and can make the effort to at least accommodate those that have chosen that lifestyle. They added a fun video of one vegan girl eating a lot of lettuce like a rabbit!

Sixth Tone Senior Editor, Denise Hruby, explains how to effectively incorporate multi-media throughout a story. Photo: GEI 2018

Concrete and Persuasive Pleas for Sustainable Food Sourcing

A classic journalistic tool is including a strong “lede” – which comprises the Who What Where Why When and How of an issue. 

Unlike news releases, stories shouldn’t give everything away at the top. However, stories should incorporate these 5 W’s + H throughout the narrative. 

 Ying Fu emphasized 'Why' photos can be helpful in storytelling. Credit: Seth Powers

Plus, the story must also emphasize Why it Matters - stories need to have context and a call to action in order to pull the audience in and inspire them to get involved. 

Workshop participants practice interviewing each other - it's important to be quotable! Photo: GEI 2018

One group managed to interview DKU kitchen staff and research the university’s food sourcing supply chain. They found out that a typical lunch had quite a large carbon footprint. Using photos and their own infographics, the group explained how the environmental impact of campus food could be reduced. They also prepared simple recommendations for how the DKU green group can do more to support sustainable food sourcing. 

That one cup of coffee has a high carbon footprint! Photo: GEI 2018


We’re so grateful to DKU for hosting GEI last weekend and are incredibly impressed with the participants of the workshop. Together we will work on improving environmental storytelling – the world is counting on us!

To inquire about having GEI host a storytelling workshop at your school or place of work, please get in touch with Kendall Bitonte, GEI External Relations Coordinator,

Team members critique a story for its 'S.U.C.C.E.S.s' elements. Photo: GEI 2018

GEI's Maddie Rawding helps a group prepare their story on ivory trade and adopting baby elephants. Photo: GEI 2018 

DKU's Dr. LI Binbin shares her perspective on storytelling in the environmental sector. Photo: GEI 2018


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