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Bearsmart Blog

What’s your bear story?

Marketing experts hypothesize that value comes from the story behind a product, and not the product itself. The same holds true for anything you are trying to promote including bear smart initiatives. With so much tragedy and bad news stories permeating our hearts and souls every day, getting your issue to stand out is becoming increasingly difficult.

How to do this became crystal clear to me during a recent conference held by the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA) in Ottawa. The conference participants consisted of a diverse group ranging from purist, old-school scientists as well as new-school, more open-minded and forward-thinking scientists to animal welfare advocates and educators. For the first time at any IBA gathering, the controversial management option: supplemental/diversionary feeding was presented and a discussion panel answered questions from the audience. A long standing argument had been brewing for decades between a top biologist and a Ministry official. The topic is not what’s relevant here; and it wasn’t even the difference of opinions that struck me; what resonated very clearly with me was the lesson to be learned in the way their individual stories were told.

You see, this particular biologist along with animal welfare advocates have long been criticized for “anthropomorphizing” individual animals by naming them, and according to hard-core pure scientists, attributing “human-like” characteristics to them. Old-school scientists think in terms of population numbers, habitat use and species conservation. They worry about threatened species in general; and rightly so (please don’t get me wrong). What they don’t seem to understand is that the rest of the world, the non-scientists, care about individual animals. Our hearts go out to a particular bear that might be having a difficult time or facing a tough challenge. It’s hard for us to think in such broad and generic terms. We listen, with eyes glazed over, but just can’t relate to p-values, scatter plots and confidence intervals (lay translation: stats in general).

However, if you tell us a story about a bear named Jeanie who emerged from the den in spring with her new family; we learn that “the cubs, no bigger than house cats, are skittish; even the wind rustling the branches can send the three scampering up a tree. They play with whatever they can find – sticks, rocks, pinecones, and of course, mom. They climb all over her, bouncing off her head, jumping on her back, rolling under her legs. She occasionally grunts, telling them to stay close. Her patience seems infinite.” Now that’s something we can picture in our imagination. In fact, we may have had a similar experience with our own pets or children. We can relate. So when we hear that one of the cubs has disappeared and that Jeanie is frantic, our hearts bleed for our dear friend.

It’s just not the same as hearing on the evening news that Sun bears may be at risk in a remote part of China. It’s not that we don’t care, we just can’t relate. It’s difficult to empathize with the challenges that biologists face in maintaining healthy populations of species in a stable ecosystem. What? Is Jeanie ok? Why did the cub disappear? What could have happened? What can we do to help?

World Vision figured this out 50 years ago. They ask for donations to sponsor one child; they will send you a photo with the child’s name and personal story. They’re not asking you for donations to build schools or infrastructure in third world communities. They’re asking you to make a personal connection to one child. They are now the largest organization of their kind in the world, raising almost 200 million dollars a year.

Don’t underestimate the power of your story. And remember…. the public responds to individuals; they have trouble relating to populations. Even broad and generic terms are difficult to relate to. It’s better to promote your cause through the life and challenges of one bear, who has a name, a family, friends, alliances, rivals and things to do each day. Because bears are actually not that unlike us. Find the similarities and invite people to become a part of their lives.

Word of mouth spreads an interesting story across town and to friends and relatives. The story people tell their friends is very important in synthesizing your message. A person’s belief system is heavily influenced by their trust in the source; and people generally trust their friends and relatives.

So… not only has your “story” interested the general public, but you now have buy-in to run your bear smart programs. People will want to know how they can help keep Jeanie and her bear friends safe. Some will donate their money, and some their time, whether it’s doing their part at home or volunteering for your organization.


Here are some tips on creating effective stories. They have been adapted from “Deliver Your Value Proposition to Your Audience by Telling a Good Story” by blogger Michelle Hamilton of Results-Focused Marketing Solutions, July 4th, 2011. michellehamiltonmarketing.com

Stories are effective because they:

  • Engage. Engaging stories catch the reader’s attention and provide the hook needed to tell the rest of the story.
  • Appeal. Stories can appeal to the reader’s own emotions and feelings.
  • Resonate. Stories that relate to a reader’s own experiences can leave them with a lasting impression.
  • Inspire. Inspiring stories can motivate the reader to take action.
  • Reveal. Stories that reveal an inner truth are more credible and help build trust with the audience.

Tell a great story and connect with your audience. This doesn’t mean spin a tale of wonder and fantasy that isn’t true, just to grab attention. We’re not the media. LOL! This does mean; however, revealing your truth in a way that engages, appeals, resonates and inspires people to be motivated enough to take action.

Identify your core values. What is at the heart and soul of your programs and initiatives? What do you stand for? What do you bring to the table? What are your group’s personality traits?

Uncover your inner truth by translating values into behaviours. When your core values translate into behaviours, your story can be told more authentically because you speak your truth. Tell stories of how your organization helped a particular bear out of trouble.

Good stories go beyond stats and facts to appeal to feelings and emotions, allowing you to reach out and touch the reader on a much more personal level than facts ever can. The power of a good story can convince and motivate your audience to take action more so than by simply describing your program and telling them why they should participate.

What’s your bear story?

We’d love to hear it. Submit it and be published in our blog section.