Knowing when to find a strategic narrative

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 17, 2015
Filed in Strategy

Have you ever heard someone say, that picture really tells a story? When I first heard someone say this I just couldn’t see it. How could a single image tell a story? Surely a story is a set of events culminating into something unexpected. There needs to be more than a single image for it to be a story.

Back in 1981 a calendar was published featuring a graffitied wall in Auckland. Four foot high and sprayed on concrete was the sentence: “Ralph, come back, it was only a rash”.1 Within an instant of reading that line I was imagining what happened with Ralph and his partner, the break up, the accusations. But what might happen next? Will there be a reconciliation, a reunion? I was given the middle of the story and I provided the beginning and the end.

Pictures can produce the same effect. I was recently in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I hired the audio tour and the friendly audio guide told me there are paintings throughout the gallery marked as the must see pieces. I looked at these pictures closely and many of them, especially the ones that included people, had that quality of making you wonder what happened before and what might happen next. The portraits often had subjects doing something: sharpening a scythe, mending clothes, walking toward a small house at sunset. Even the paintings devoid of people had things going on suggesting something just happening. In one of Van Gogh’s last paintings there’s a yellow field of wheat swirling in the wind with crows flying away. What scared the crows? They’ll probably come back and ruin the farmer’s crop. That was my story. Perhaps good painting makes us feel something because we are completing a story that the painting triggers.


How stories help us predict

Humans are hard-wired to make up a story, to make sense of what’s happening around them. Telling ourselves a story helps us predict what might happen next. It gives us context. Prediction makes us feel safe. To know what is likely to happen next helps us to decide what to do.

There was a terrific experiment done a few years ago that nicely illustrates how stories help us predict. The scientists recorded a story told by a subject while she was in a MRI brain scanner. Then they played the audio of her story to other participants as they took turns to have their brains scanned. And to everyone’s surprise the brain imagery from the story-teller synced with the story-listeners. That’s to say when the young woman recounted her prom night events her brain lit up in a certain way as things unfolded, and by just listening to the story the others brains lit up the same way. There was, however, one exception. Every now and then the listeners brain patterns would get ahead of the story. When this happened they were predicting what comes next. Of course this can only happen when it’s a story. It’s very hard, for example, to predict the next dot point in a PowerPoint deck.

When to find a strategic narrative

Our story completion skills work pretty well for us most of the time. We can predict quite accurately what’s going to happen next. But in times of change it is quite possible for competing stories to emerge across an organisation resulting in people working at cross purposes. When everyone has a different story everyone is shooting off in every direction like a startled colony of rabbits.

In these times it makes sense to get people together to work out the narrative that makes the most sense for everyone, and then work out which stories best support this narrative.

Last year I met a documentary film maker from Al Jazeera. I asked her how she decides which story to tell given the complexities of the Middle East and she said that for any project there were many story through-lines that could make up the narrative for the film. Her job was to work with her team and decide which through-line resonated best and was the authentic story they wanted to tell.

An organisational narrative is similar. There are always many possible stories to tell. We use a group process that allows the narrative to emerge. That way a larger group of people are involved in identifying the narrative and the stories to be told. In some ways it’s a political process. The influencers come together to negotiate a meaning about the company’s strategy. Imposed stories rarely work. They just trigger strong anti-stories and then you’re spending time tackling those bad boys.

There are lots of things that trigger stories: a line of graffiti, a single image. In organisations stories are triggered by the behaviour of leaders, what they say, what they do, what they repeat and seem to be putting effort into. When things get complex and messy, that’s the time to get people together to find the company’s strategic narrative. And then you need a way to keep it up to date, but that will have to wait for another day.

  1. Boyd, B. (2009) On the origins of stories: evolution, cognition, and fiction. The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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:

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