Narrative Threads – How to craft and tell strategy stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 20, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Strategy

A great way to help your strategy stick is to craft a story your leaders can tell that explains why your company made its strategic choices. This strategy story is typically told without notes, includes some of the leader’s anecdotes, tackles the more obvious anti-stories, and is well suited to larger gatherings where the full story can be told.

We’ve helped companies all around the world to craft and tell their strategy stories, including Shell, IBM, Microsoft, Allianz, Bayer and many more. And each time, it’s been clear that to truly embed a strategy, you have to go beyond the single strategy story.

It’s often challenging to share a single strategy story multiple times with the same people in the same format because adults don’t like hearing the same story told over and over. Also, usually there are only a few opportunities for sharing the full-blown version: large get-togethers, team meetings, town halls. But an effective leader needs to share elements of this broader strategy story in their day-to-day conversations.

A valuable insight came in 2014 while I was in Abu Dhabi. At a conference there, I met a documentary maker from Al Jazeera who made films about the Middle East. I asked her how she decided which story to tell, given the complexities in that part of the world. She started to draw sine waves in the air, explaining that many story threads could make up the narrative for a film. Her job was to work with her team to decide which threads resonated best, to find the authentic story they wanted to tell.

This got me thinking. Perhaps we could help leaders find the narrative threads interwoven through a strategy story, and then pull one and re-weave it into a conversation.

After some experimentation, we discovered that narrative threads best answer ‘Why?’ questions about the elements of a strategy. For example, let’s say that one of your strategic choices is to simplify your business. When a team member asks you, ‘So why are we spending so much time integrating our cost modelling methods?’, you can answer the question with a narrative thread.

You might remember that our strategy stories are presented in the format of a clarity story, as I described in my book Putting Stories to Work. There are four parts: ‘In the past…’, ‘Then something happened…’, ‘So now…’, and ‘In the future…’. A narrative thread is a fractal and has the same clarity story structure.

Narrative Threads

So to answer your team member’s question, you might say something like: ‘So you probably remember what we were like in the past. We had 12 cost-modelling methods, with each division having at least a couple of their own. Then we had that terribly embarrassing situation where our estimates were out by a magnitude of 10 when we pitched for the ACME work. So now, as part of our simplification work, we are bringing this number down to three methods. We never want to be in that situation again’.

Last week, I had the pleasure of teaching this method to the top 900 leaders of a 25,000-strong organisation and with only a little practice they were able to pick up the technique quickly.

If you’re responsible for explaining strategic choices, try listing some of the ‘why’ questions your colleagues, customers, partners and stakeholders are asking. See if you can fit the clarity story structure to each question illustrating a relevant example. You’ll find that narrative threads told in this way will create a strategic fabric that everyone can share, understand and appreciate.

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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