Make Narratives Work for You

Article ImageWhy should you care about narratives? The term comes up constantly in politics and increasingly in marketing. It is, however, important to note the difference between narrative and story. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It describes a series of events. A narrative is a system of beliefs or ideas. It is a way of interpreting events. In other words, a narrative is to a story what an episode is to a situation-comedy. A good narrative supports lots of stories.

Research shows that narratives are more powerful than facts in convincing people to believe things. Once a person has a certain narrative in his or her head (“astronauts are awesome”), it affects how he or she interprets things (“Tang is awesome”). If you grow up on the East Coast and then go hiking in California near the ocean, there’s a good chance you’ll mix up north and south, because in your narrative, the ocean is always east. You “know” that the Pacific Ocean is west, but it takes a while to believe it.

If you want to convince people to do business with your company, a powerful narrative is a good starting point. But how do you get started with a narrative? Can you approach the development of a corporate narrative deliberately? Or is that just marketing fluff?

My team and I explored this question at length last year and came up with a simple, rough narrative assessment that anyone can use. As it is an election year, we used the candidate’s websites to test out our approach. It turns out it is fairly easy to get reasonably wide agreement on these assessments.

We Measured the Strength of Narratives on Five Criteria:

  1. Organization—Do you have a documented narrative that is recognized by the majority of the organization?
  2. Clarity—In your marketing materials, is it easy for me to figure out what you’re trying to tell me?
  3. Presentation—Is it presented in a way that makes it easy and compelling to read, follow, or interact with?
  4. Resonance—Does it make sense to me? Does it make me feel something?
  5. Shareability—Is it easy for me to explain what you do and why it matters to someone else? Do you give me the words to do it? The sharing mechanisms (buttons, links, references, and resources)? Do you ask me to do it?

For fun, go visit your favorite candidate’s website, and ask yourself those questions. Now, review the candidate you don’t like. What did you learn?

Now, look at your own website. On a scale of 1–3 (poor, good, great), how would you score yourself on each of those criteria? What would it take to boost your score? What impact do you think it would have on your bounce rate? On your conversion rate? On how quickly your message spreads and how well it sticks? On your ability to construct a rational and coherent marketing plan?

So What Is a Narrative, Anyway?

For a business or organization, most effective narratives include four key elements:

  1. Why?—This is the aspirational value you hope to achieve, the impact you want to make on the word.
  2. How?—This is your approach, methodology, or point of view that makes your mousetrap a better mousetrap—more likely to eradicate your rodent problem than that other guy’s, now and in the future.
  3. The ask/offer—What, exactly, do you sell?
  4. Proof—What evidence do you have that I should believe you? How can you build my confidence in you? This can be data, testimonials, awards, etc.

It is worth investing the time and energy to refine your answers to each element. It is harder than it looks. How do you know you’ve got it? You know you’ve hit on a fundamental truth when the people around you look at the one-pager it took you 10 weeks to perfect and say, “Oh, yeah. Of course. Why did that take so long?” Frustrating, but true. The second sure sign you’ve done something powerful? A person you’ve never spoken to before repeats your words and argument back at you. That’s a lot more satisfying. So, too, are the metrics. We see bounce rates plummet, conversion rates bubble upward, and teams start to have much more productive conversations. That’s the power of narrative.