Jane Goodall on how to get people to hear your message

“With storytelling, you have to get to people’s hearts. It’s not about engaging them intellectually”

Jane Goodall

Conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall. (Portrait by Andrew Burton/Getty)

The legendary primatologist and conservationist has spent her lifetime getting people to pay attention to the issues she cares about—even when those people didn’t want to listen at first. Here’s what she’s learned about making your case:

We often hear the business world referred to as the corporate jungle. What can we learn from chimpanzees about how to get ahead in business?

Actually quite a lot. It is not my personal area of focus, but in both Holland and Australia, [the Jane Goodall Institute] has experts giving seminars to business leaders based on the behaviour of chimpanzees. And they’re popular seminars! In the chimpanzee world, there is a lot of competition between males and they have very good methods of reconciliation. These things translate into the human world quite well.

Your own research has revealed some interesting insight with regards to effective leadership.

Yes. There is the type of leadership where people follow you because they like you and want to follow you, and there’s the type of leader who gets to the top based on brute aggression. He’s not popular—he’s a despot. That kind of leadership doesn’t tend to last very long. The others will eventually gang up.

You have said that you knew what you wanted to do from the time you were a very small child. Do you think young people today are sufficiently encouraged to seek out their passion?

Well that’s what we’re trying to do through Roots & Shoots [the youth organization Goodall founded in 1991]. The big difference between today’s world and when I was young is that young people today have so many choices. When I was 10 years old, I was laughed at and told to dream about something that I could achieve. It was my mother who said, you will have to work really hard, take advantage of every opportunity and never give up. That’s how it happened for me.

You made a name for yourself in a male-dominated field. Did people question your authority based on your gender?

I’m not sure if it was gender. When I started out, I hadn’t even been to college. I was called National Geographic cover girl and all that, but I wasn’t particularly bothered because I had never wanted to be a scientist. I only went to school because Dr. Louis Leakey thought it was a good idea. He wanted me to have that education background. When scientists criticized my methods, I always thought, well let them do it their way and I’ll do it mine.

You now spend most of your time engaged in activism. How do you motivate people to care?

By stories and by helping people see that if they care about their children or their grandchildren, then it’s necessary for them to also care about the environment. Fortunately, chimps are so like us that stories about them help people to understand that we’re not so separated from the animal kingdom. With storytelling, you have to get to people’s hearts. It’s not about engaging them intellectually. When you start doing that, you’ll notice that people aren’t really listening because they’re already thinking to themselves—how can I refute that?

How do you convince people that giant life and death issues can be tackled in manageable gulps?

I try to help people understand the value of even small ethical choices in their daily lives—what they buy, what they wear. They might seem insignificant, but when you multiply them by thousands or millions then suddenly people get it. When you add to that the power of social media to bring hundreds of thousands of people around a cause, it’s really quite amazing.

I wonder, in particular, how do you appeal to the bottom-line obsessed corporate world when it comes to green priorities?

Having talked about similarities between chimpanzees and humans, we come to the fact that we truly are different. Chimps are way more intelligent than we once thought, but it doesn’t make sense to compare even the brightest chimp brain with the brain of somebody who creates a rocket that goes up to Mars from which out crawls a little robot that creeps around taking photographs and sends them back. The question then becomes how is it possible that the most intellectual species that ever lived on planet Earth is destroying its only home? We all know why: It’s the bottom line. It’s all about making profits. We are beginning to see some change and an embracing of social responsibility.

Is there a big company that you think has set a strong, positive example?

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, has made enormous positive changes. I can’t go into all of it now, but really wonderful.

You did a great interview with John Oliver recently where you joked that you would like to “poo-throw at people who I think need poo thrown at them.” Who would you like to throw poo at these days?

I would like to throw poo at the people who are proponents of genetically modified foods. I’ll tell you a funny story about the time that I was on the Colbert Report, promoting my book Seeds of Hope that has an entire chapter on GMOs. [Colbert] was fooling around saying he was a chimpanzee that had jumped down from the tree: ‘I’m in a dinner jacket and a bow tie,’ he said, ‘and I’m going to take you to dinner and the cinema and I’m going to get you popcorn—will you come?’ I said back—just as a throwaway line—that the popcorn is probably genetically modified. The audience roared with laughter, but then I had two letters from Monsanto. I guess the kind of people who read my book are already interested in these issues, but the audience of the Colbert Report is different.

What do you miss most about life among the chimps?

I miss being on my own and in nature.

Do you believe thinking about one’s legacy is a worthwhile preoccupation?

What I think about is creating an endowment, so that I know that everything I’ve been working on will be carried on. That’s the legacy I want.

Jane Goodall will be speaking at Ten Shots, Ten Chefs: An Evening of Photography & Food in Toronto, a benefit for the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, on Oct. 22.