If you’re in marketing or corporate communications you’ve been in that strategy meeting where someone inevitably says, “We need to do more storytelling.”
But most leaders, marketers and communicators don’t really know what to say when they’re told to “tell a story.”
“About what? To what end?,” many wonder. Others push back, “Oh, I don’t like telling stories about myself.”
Here’s my take. Before telling useful stories, organizations need a narrative, the reason for being. The uber purpose. The big picture context. Then it becomes much easier for people to share anecdotes and stories that support that narrative. More importantly, it helps the people — citizens, employees, customers — understand what’s important and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
A narrative is like a clothesline, and you hang your policies from it, says David Gergen, communications adviser to four U.S. presidents. Similarly, companies hang its products and services from the clothesline.
Narratives are simple explanations. You shouldn’t need training for people in the organization to “get it.” (A communications executive of a global company told me that his company has a narrative, but I’d have to read the PowerPoint deck to really understand it. Sounds like there’s more work to do.)
Here are a few examples:
- The narrative of the United States has been about exploring. For Israel it’s protecting and defending.
- For Nike it’s about serving and honoring the inner athlete. Patagonia is about doing no harm to the environment.
- Southwest Airlines’ makes it simple and fun to fly. FedEx absolutely, positively delivers the best customer experience.
- My company’s narrative is about creating clarity from complexity. The Rebels at Work movement is helping corporate rebels inside large organizations be more successful in creating positive change. An executive coach friend is about helping strong leaders become better people.
These narratives can be like North Stars — a fixed point in the sky that can be used to guide decisions, serve as a organizing prompt for telling relevant stories, open up thinking about new products or ways to work.
Narratives can also be a quest. I like John Hagel’s view in this Forbes article:
Story chronicles the path and progress of a limited set of protagonists – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story arc. Narratives, in contrast, are designed for a growing number of protagonists — many of whom are yet to be defined — who share a common quest or journey that is yet to be fully resolved or completed.
How do we find our narrative?
To help companies find their narrative, I invite people to think of their organization as a cause or movement and speed write a rallying cry, starting with a verb. Or quickly write many responses to the “I believe that ….” prompt about their organization or company. No over-thinking, self-editing or corporate speak. Just ideas, beliefs and aspiration, from the gut.
I’ve also been suggesting to marketing and corporate communications executives that they NOT make this a formal process. Take some narrative possibilities and insert them into casual business conversations. Then into some presentations as a way of setting context to your ideas. See how people react. Ask them, “Does this help you better understand our strategy? Do you see how this new product line fits with our overall business? Can you imagine how this policy falls outside of our focus? Is this something you’d like to be part of?”
See how well the narrative serves you. If it works, quietly seed it so it can grow and serve others without bringing in committees, copywriters, lawyers or naysayers. Insert it into the CEO’s talking points. Use it to frame the next acquisition or product launch. If it helps, then make it better known and part of the company’s leadership strategy.
And if it doesn’t resonate? Keep experimenting.
Finding a narrative gives your organization meaning.
And meaning changes everything.
“Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief: Why the president lost his ability to tell a story,” by Matt Bai, New York Times Sunday Magazine, 11/4/2012.
“The Pull Narrative: In Search of Persistent Context” by John Hagel