On narratives

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 25, 2011
Filed in Business storytelling, Strategy

John Hagel has written an interesting post on the importance of narratives in providing persistent context for our lives, organisations and society. The post is important because John is an esteemed thinker that business and institutions notice and heed. And it is also this reason that I’m prompted to write this reply because I feel there are some points requiring clarification.

If you’re like me you hear the term ‘narrative’ all over the place these days: “What’s the political narrative?” “We need a compelling narrative.” “Their narrative is unclear or even non-existent.” I’m certain most people have little idea what is really meant by the term. John begins to describe what he means by ‘narrative’ but, for me, it doesn’t go far enough, especially since most of his post is filled with the term.

A narrative must have a narrative structure. That is, it is told as a story. I realize this mixes up John’s experiences, story, narrative trajectory a little but please bear with me. For example, John comes close to giving us narrative structure when describing the Christian narrative when he says, “people are born in sin but have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior.” This is a statement rather than the narrative but anyone familiar with Christian ways will immediately fill in this statement with the stories that help us make sense of it. The narrative version of this statement is simply  “people are born in sin but THEN have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior.” Two events connected. Without the ‘then’ it’s not a narrative. Narratives, like stories, are made from events. Their connections infer causality.

People confuse their description of the narrative with the narratuve itself. And John does this when hs described the Christian narrative as a statement rather than a story. It is a natural tendency to give our narratives and stories shorthand descriptions. They make perfect sense for those people immersed in the narrative. But if you are not living the narrative or unaware of the big story then the descriptions make little sense.

John’s American narrative is close to being a one but just falls short when he says, “The growth of the United States critically hinged on a compelling narrative that we have a Manifest Destiny as fugitives from oppression to deliver freedom to the rest of the world …  As long as oppression exists in the world, this narrative mobilizes us to act and the future awaits to be defined.

The actual narrative requires a narrative structure something like: when America was established, the founding fathers welcomed the oppressed from around the world, they then fought to free themselves from oppression and over time they forged a culture that sort to deliver freedom to the rest of the world.

Now, my American narrative is quite an anaemic example and I’m sure just about anyone could suggest a better rendition. My point is simple, however, narratives require a narrative structure. Story structure provides a narrative with its power.

I understand John wanted to elevate narrative above stories and experience. But in doing so I think he inadvertently misrepresents stories. Firstly stories are not merely about plots and action. Stories are about people, events and something unanticipated (Jerome Bruner). Jay Callahan, the celebrated professional storyteller, puts it another way: stories are about people, events and trouble. You just can’t have a story without characters.

For me narratives are broad-brush stories. Narratives are stories without the moments. Of course academics will disagree. I opened The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative to see that “I took the car to work” is a narrative. But I find this definition unhelpful.

John’s defintion seems like a definition of life to me:

“Narratives, at least in the way I will be using them, are stories that do not end – they persist indefinitely. They invite, even demand, action by participants and they reach out to embrace as many participants as possible. They are continuously unfolding, being shaped and filled in by the participants.”

I agree that narratives invite action and reach out to embrace people. They are unfolding and are being shaped by people. But I disagree that they do not end. The US Cold War narrative is no longer with us and it has been replaced by the War on Terror narrative. As one ends another takes over.

John’s list of the benefits of narratives is a good one:

  • stability and continuity in our lives. Narratives help to orient us
  • narratives motivate action by helping to make sense of the world around us
  • narratives also help participants construct meaning, purpose and identity for themselves, and
  • narratives help to ignite and nurture passion within us

But they hold equally true for stories. Narratives are a type of story. A big story. An explanatory story.

I totally agree that we need narratives and it’s important we understand the narratives that are currently in play and how they shape our understanding and response of what’s happening in our organisations and society. I just hope we can move away from talking about narratives as if they are more important than our experience and our stories. The experiences, stories, narrative trajectory bothers me because it feels like the old data, information, knowledge hierarchy which is equally unhelpful.

Narratives emerge from a combination of events and people deciding what aspects of those events they want to retell; what gets amplified. It’s much like history really, an emergent process. Regardless of what we do narrative patterns will emerge and only when we are mindful of these narrative patterns will we be able  to choose those patterns to nurture and the ones to disrupt.  Nurturing comes from retelling stories. Disruption happens when new stories are triggered that counter the narrative. If the disruption is big enough (think Egypt) then a new narrative is born.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. The word narrative does suggest a lot of confusion when it appears. I think it is connected to the fact that when having these discussions we tend to try and simplify into something that sounds like a conclusion we can capture in one glance, like “narrative is…”
    Narrative is tricky for cognition in a way it makes us think we can capture it. I’m not sure it is possible since knowing what constitutes a narrative needs the input of all the people who see themselves as part of it.
    I’d suggest that most of the examples you gave here are strongly connected to plot – a choice of details and actions within a narrative that are placed in such order they make sense.

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