Whether you like it or not, your organisation has a narrative, made up of many strands of stories. The question is – are you shaping this narrative, or are you letting a set of home-grown beliefs define and potentially limit your company’s success?
What is a narrative?
A narrative is strand of a story that resonates with you and that you’ll repeat. So when the narrative is about your workplace, it’s how you respond when a cabbie asks what your company does. It’s what you tell your friends and family about your organisation. It’s also what your customers tell each other about it – and what job candidates might associate with your company.
They’re good people.
It’s a decent company.
They’re totally dodgy.
They really look after their teams/customers.
They make really interesting stuff.
They have completely changed the way people bank/shop/eat out.
They’re out of touch.
Once they’ve got your money, they don’t care.
All of these beliefs, statements and sentiments are narrative. And because they’re narrative, they help others to form beliefs and make judgements about you.
How does narrative work?
Every human being sees the world through the framework of a belief system. Your beliefs are built from the experiences you have and the stories you hear and accept. Narrative is the way you present stories to others so that they can build them into their own belief systems.
It’s a sophisticated, highly nuanced and very, very human way of navigating life. You can’t see, do and know everything about the world all by yourself – so you learn from the stories of others, and build belief systems that you think will do the best job of protecting you and preparing you for life.
It starts early:
Leaving the path is dangerous
Don’t talk to strangers
Don’t take gingerbread from the witch’s house
Work together to achieve big things
Build your house out of bricks, not straw
Just because someone’s wearing granny’s gown, doesn’t mean it’s granny
A princess is so sensitive, she’ll feel a pea through 10 mattresses
And then it continues every day for the rest of our lives. Narrative chunk by narrative chunk, we build a way of seeing and understanding the world.
We are all hardwired to constantly scan our environments for stories. The purpose being to find things that fit with our world view, or that can expand it. It sometimes doesn’t matter if the narrative is even correct. No woman – princess or otherwise – for example, is going to have a rubbish night’s sleep because a suspicious queen places a pea under her mattress. But because we hear the story again and again, we hold onto shreds of it and fibres from those shreds can make it into our mental framework. They might even lead us to think that true and pure women should be sensitive princesses who need to be protected.
In evolutionary terms, narrative is the thing that allows us to build up large stores of information about stuff we may not have first-hand experience of. It gives us enough knowledge to best-guess our way through life. Narrative and stories are, in fact, some of the most fundamental ways human beings source and build information about the world.
So what does this have to do with business?
If you accept that every person on the planet is hoovering up pieces of stories to help them build a framework to understand the world, then it makes sense that they’re also absorbing chunks of narrative about businesses too.
You can allow the narrative about your own business to be created and shared in an ad-hoc way by your teams, your suppliers, your customers and other stakeholders. Or, you can decide that you want to own and shape your narrative, so that you influence:
- How happy your colleagues are – because being at the centre of a positive narrative is a better experience than the opposite. And having a role in a narrative makes it a very interesting story indeed
- The information external people know about your company – if you give people a story, they’re hardwired to store it away, and if it’s interesting enough, repeat it. If you don’t give people a story, they’ll either forget you or make up their own
- The way your organisation becomes part of the way people understand and assess everything around them – because if your story is good enough and useful enough, it could become a core part of your customers and teams’ mental framework
So shaping your narrative – or at least joining the dots to make a complete narrative – is important, even if your people are already sharing positive experiences. Because even if your customers and teams love you, their ways of expressing your story may be limited to the narrow experience they’ve had – or indeed, the words they have to describe you.
How do you tell your company’s story?
If you think your “company story” is some kind of biography, read this carefully, because you’re probably missing something fundamental. Rather than being a set of facts about key dates, narrative usually consists of thematically-expressed beliefs. A narrative needs to resonate, as well as be understood.
We opened our doors in July 2002.
Is a fact that can be understood (and probably rapidly forgotten).
They’re a decent company.
Is narrative, and positive – but it’s limited. It won’t do you any harm as a narrative, but if it’s all that’s being said about you, you’re maybe missing an opportunity to be more – and to form more of people’s way of thinking.
We’ve been making banking work for you since 2002.
Is narrative, positive and extremely useful. If you give people reasons to buy into this narrative, they’ll begin to use you as a point of reference for all that’s good in banking.
Functionally, “Making banking work for you” is a theme. 15 years ago, this theme – or strand of narrative – might have meant offering online banking so that you didn’t have to scramble into town during working hours. In 2019, it might mean introducing Starling Bank-esque innovations, like showing you what kind of holiday you could take next year if you save a certain amount regularly – or texting you every time you spend.
To implant itself in people’s mental frameworks, themes need to be consistent and suggest clear beliefs and benefits. “Making banking work for you” suggests beliefs including:
We’re in this for you
We saw what wasn’t working and we fixed it
…and we keep fixing it
We believe in fairness
We believe everyone should be able to save
Where do you start?
Creating narrative should really be the first job of your brand. It starts with developing a rock-solid proposition and then articulating it in ways that are super-easy to absorb.
You need to be telling a whole-picture story, and telling it and living it honestly. It needs to become the framework not just for the story you tell, but the way you work and the relationships you have.
An organisation that tells and lives the story, Making banking work for you, can be forgiven for making mistakes or having a bad year. This is precisely because it lives out its beliefs.
We moved our customer services teams to head office, because we think it’s the way to make banking work for you…
We’ve learned important lessons from this year, because we want to make banking work for you…
The key is to tell a genuine story, expressing its themes simply and interestingly, over and over again.
As ever, if you’d like to talk to us about telling your organisation’s story, we’d be interested to hear from you.