Moving from Story to Narrative

Summary of SXSW session presented by John Hagel, Chairman of Deloitte @jhagel

Synopsis: In an attention economy where more and more options compete for scarce attention, the ability to attract and retain attention will increasingly determine who creates and captures value. Stories are a powerful way to engage audiences, but have limitations that make it difficult to retain attention, build relationships and mobilize action. Narratives offer a more powerful vehicle to amplify impact, but are much less well understood.

Storytelling is overrated and ripe for challenge. Look at the SXSW conference session list. There are 112 storytelling sessions at SXSW.

Exploring the narrative is what’s next.

Storytelling v Narrative:
Storytelling has a beginning, middle and end. It’s about me or people over there, not you. Stories are powerful in creating emotion.

Narratives are open ended. The end has yet to be determined. There is participation. Narratives have caused people to give their lives such as the Narrative of Christianity or The American narrative – the land of opportunity.

Institutional example of narrative is Apple’s Think different campaign. This is more than just a slogan. It’s not about Apple, it’s about us!

Narratives lead to the development of Florence and Silicon Valley. “We can change the world by working together.”

Any powerful narrative answers 3 questions:
1. Why are we here?
2. What can we accomplish?
3. How should we connect with each other?

Two types of narratives:
1. Opportunity based. Emphasis reward. Will take some time but it’s worth it.
2. Threat based. US politics examples. Republicans use threat of terrorist attacks and traditional way of life while democrats use the threat of environmental collapse or wall street greed. Mounting pressure is a tactic with this type.

Narratives help develop trust and takes you to the edge where the excitement is. You don’t have to have all the answers, just questions. That’s the interesting and exciting part.

Why are narratives so important?
Participants are more likely to act boldly and take risk. More long term. More collaborative.
Provides stability. Like a compass. Helps with focus during periods of attention overload.

Narrative approach:
Narrative of True Believer: Like religion. There is a specific destination and path. You have to believe.
Narrative of the Explorer: An opportunity with undefined path. Highlights collaboration. Encourages passion. Am I increasing my impact over time?

Narrative orientation: What is your reaction when faced with an unexpected hurdle?
Do you have a connecting disposition? Connect with others to help. They have experience or passion. Passionate workers are twice as connected.

If narratives are so powerful, what do we do?
Make existing narratives explicit. We all have narratives. They are manifested through our actions.

There are narratives for personal, institution and societal and the power of narrative increase when you align them all.

Is your narrative causing stress or opportunity? What are some alternative narratives that can amplify your existing narrative?

Narratives can’t be handed to a PR firm. One person can’t sit down and write a narrative. They evolve over cumulative actions over time. Be reflective about your daily practice. You have to live it.

Celebrate the accomplishments of others. Find and curate those who are helping the narrative.

Tech can amplify narrative and stimulate action.

Transmedia platforms. Christians have The Bible, sermons, music, theater, video. Look at top evangelical preachers today and you will see a sophisticated transmedia strategy. But the real power is the small group meetings outside of transmedia.

Social media so far has been great for conversation but how can it bring us together to help us take action?

The “Power of Pull” is John’s book

Watch for 2014 SXSW session from John and myself on “Developing your Narrative by Analyzing Your Actions on Social Media.”


7 thoughts on “Moving from Story to Narrative

  1. Pingback: SXSW: Forget Stories. Your Brand Needs a Narrative. | Beyond PR

  2. I applaud John Hagel for differentiating between story and narrative, but he should maybe attribute his sources, or at least acknowledge that this concept didn’t originate with him and Deloitte

    This all flows from (and has been inspired by) Viola Spolin’s work with community and theater using improvisation, and her personal connection with Frijtof Capra’s book, The Dao of Physics. The most compelling work being done in this area today, where organizations and brands are concerned, is called “The Quantum Physics of Storytelling,” and it’s being done by Dr. David Boje at New Mexico State University’s School of Business.

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  4. Looking back at this, I acknowledge that I was awfully harsh on John Hagel’s position, which I’m actually in full agreement with. I can get trolly on comment threads. But then: Hagel wrote to me and said his SXSW presentation “really did come to me out of thin air.” Now I respect the idea of a blank mind as the perfect artist’s canvas. (The kid who made the winning hit for Japan in this year’s Little League World Series said something to the effect that “When I was trying to bunt, my mind was full. When I got the hit, my mind was empty.” I respect that. That kid is amazing. Note to self: follow him.) Except there’s this: Hagel’s mentor and collaborator, John Seely Brown, is on the board of advisors for my company ( I have been talking to JSB about story models, and how narratives live differently in networks than they do in traditional media channels, since 2008. I have done workshops JSB attended at UC-Irvine’s MBA program, and at USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab. Discussions I’ve had with JSB correlate strongly to the content of Hagel’s SXSW presentation. Do I know that Hagel ever discussed story/narrative with JSB? Read my blog posts on the subject? For sure I do not. Nor do I care if he attributes anything to me personally, or to whom he attributes anything. What I care about is that John acknowledge his adjacency–to something or someone– when it comes to the matter of story vs, narrative. If it’s not adjacency to JSB or me, then to whom? Or to what? In the new science of narrative, stories do not pop up out of thin air untethered to anything. That’s the old IP ownership model. Rather, stories are seen as wave and particle, depending on the instrument used to observe them. They are part of flow. In this flow, let’s call it narrative flow (the more scientific phrase is “antenarrative”) history and future are entangled in in a chaotic present, in what one of my colleagues, Anete Strand, calls The Between. In this space “intra-action” between meaning and materiality. Stories do not begin at SXSW any more than they begin when a kid gets a hit in a baseball game. They arrive. They are revealed. I always ask: Where have they been? And where do they intend to go? Neither of these questions were, imho, sufficiently explored in Hagel’s SXSW talk.

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