What is narrative?

A 101 explanation of the importance of narrative and how to think about it for your business

  • Overview
  • From ancient history to the current zeitgeist
  • What's the deal with stories?
  • So what about narrative?
  • The power of the master narrative
  • Digging into the details with sub and micro narratives
  • Revisiting stories
  • Applying this to your business


Today I'm going to take you beyond the simple definition of narrative ("the art, technique, or process of telling a story") and show it's hierarchy and how it can be used as a powerful, world changing tool. We'll dip into some historical and very current examples. This blog will run the gamut from master-narrative, through sub and micro narratives all the way down into the depths of storytelling itself.

But first. Let's talk about feelings.

OK, well emotions… Human beings make decisions based on emotions and justify based on data (it's neuroscience) and what that means is people will make decisions in their own best interests - data be dammed, we can always find some data to excuse our choices. The power of stories has always been that it puts people at the center of a challenge and demonstrates how they overcame it (or didn't, tragedy) and were changed because of it. We identify with the protagonist and thus we too can be changed and moved to act by how we feel about the story and it's resolution.

From ancient history to the current zeitgeist

The story of Robin Hood was told in song and spoken word long before it was ever written down (this is covered elegantly in the Louis Rhead edition). Why was it so popular long before it was written? Because stories have the power to convey important information: they can inspire hope, warn of danger, and much more.

More recently there is the story of a very rich reality TV start who became President of the United States which, amongst other things serves to show that anyone can be president of the USA. Did I manage to use that example without being political?

What's the deal with stories?

Stories are what happened, the people, places, things, and events of something real or imagined. They include challenges and transformation. We all know and enjoy a good telling of a story. We can all express when we experienced (heard, saw, watched) a story that wasn't particularly good (I'm going to cite Independence Day: Resurgence, again, terrible movie).

We project ourselves into stories. When you watch a James Bond movie you are James Bond for two hours. We do this because stories have been around as long as we could grunt and make rudimentary paint to adorn cave walls with tales of our exploits hunting bison. We enjoy entertaining, and being entertained. That sets us up to tell or listen to a story. Then when we hear about how the bison was trapped because of a certain formation of hunters we can move forward with that information and apply it in the real world. And get better at hunting bison.

What's your bison?

We spend our life either making stories, telling stories or listening to stories. Stories are at the core of what we are as human beings.

So what about narrative?

In its simplest most refined form narrative means the telling or relating of an account. So, storytelling, right? Yes, if we are going to stick with the simple.

But it is much more. You see, the thing is we have a word for that. Storytelling. What's the difference?

A story is the be all and end all of what happened. The narrative is how we convey that. A narrative doesn't need to include all of the story, or stories. The narrative is above and beyond any given specifics. A narrative can even be a collective of stories. The invasion of Aleppo had accounts from many different parties, many different stories. But depending on how those stories were told, and what was told, or left out, affected the narrative. As such the Libyan government had one narrative, the rebels another. The foreign governments involved also had their own narratives - Russia more aligned to the Libyan government narrative. The US one more aligned to the rebels.

Narratives can change in different situations, across different media, and when told by or to different people. A more lighthearted way of putting it (and to get out of the Libyan quagmire) would be to state that it's possible to take the story of Independence Day: Resurgence an tell it in a way that doesn't suck. Shame they didn't.

It's safe to say that narrative choices are very important. They are how you deliver your story and how your objectives are communicated in the stories you tell. The also affect what stories you chose to tell and critically… why you do so.

Narrative goes much further than the simple recounting of a story.

Narratives are a strategic communication tool.

The power of the Master Narrative

As a strategic tool narratives can shape and guide decisions from the very big to the very small. A Master Narrative can be so powerful that it conveys a whole set of cultural ideals. The concept of Master Narrative is used to understand and combat terrorism. The Center for Strategic Communication discusses as such in this article.

When the narrative shows great resilience, we have “master narratives,” meaning narratives that have endured the test of time and become deeply embedded in culture. These are the most important narratives in strategic communication. People make use of them all the time. The American Revolution is a master narrative that we learn in grade school civics class, and it’s composed of a lot of stories like Paul Revere’s ride, Washington crossing the Delaware, the Boston Tea Party, and so on.  A modern political group calls itself the “Tea Party,” using revolutionary slogans, dressing up in period costumes, and so on.  They don’t do that for nothing:  Their aim is to invoke the values, thinking, and grievances of the American Revolution in the minds of people they hope to persuade.

Just invoking "Tea Party" or "American Revolution" for that matter brings with it a whole set of values, beliefs, aspirations, fears and more. Nike's "Just Do It" is another example.

You don't need to be telling stories all the time to leverage the power of Narrative.

Master Narrative is so important you can hijack one with another and instantly transfer meaning into the minds of others.

Take the pink hats, for example, on the recent women's march on Washington D.C. They hijacked the concept of Trump's red-hats, mashed it up with pink, which people associate with female, and voila. We all got it.


Digging into the details with sub-narratives and micro-narratives

At each level there is more detail, and there is a redline of narrative through it all.

A sub-narrative isn't quite as distilled and resonant as the one, two or three word evocation of a movement or a brand "Just do it", "Yes we can", "Make America Great Again" but a sub-narrative could be what "Affordable Health Care" was to the Obama narrative or boarder walls are to the Trump narrative.

Micro-narratives are, yet again, more detailed and bump up against storytelling. A micro-narrative would be, to riff on the above healthcare example "coverage despite existing pre-conditions".

Depending on the complexity of what you are trying to convey you can collapse sub/micro narrative levels into one. Most branding exercises will do this.

Revisiting stories

Narrative at a storytelling level will have characters, events, struggles, transformation. It may be any one of the seven types of story.

To take this to its logical conclusion I'll continue with pre-existing condition micro-narrative.

"After Martha Monsson was diagnosed with cancer, her husband lost his job and their health care"

Full story is over here on PBS.

That's it. "Wait, what? That's all you're going to say about storytelling." I hear you cry. Yes. The point I'm making here is the importance of the hierarchy of narrative.

Applying this to your business

Branding. Product Marketing. Value Propositions. Positioning Statements. Messaging. Marketing Communications (MarCom). PR. Pick your poison. Each of them relies on narrative to fuel it. You are either approaching narrative intentionally or you are being haphazard. If you are doing the latter you may get lucky but you are making your life more difficult than it needs to be.

For evidence of the weight of this in our lives look to politics, terrorism, and activism to see the world changing power that intentional narratives can have.

In today's world understanding what you stand for, what you are trying to affect in the world and what stories support these goals are key to rising above the fray, being heard, and ultimately being successful in the overcrowded business landscape.

The art and science of narrative is also something that can't be automated by AI and won't be for some time. So in a world where more and more is handled by automation it's time to up your game and rise like cream to the top on a frothy head of awesome narrative.