“It’s not enough any more to say ‘we make widgets.'”
Last year, The Harvard Review wrote an article about “strategic narrative.”
“You want a story that inspires employees, excites partners, attracts customers, and engages influencers. A story that is concise but comprehensive. Specific but with room to grow. One that defines the company’s vision, communicates the strategy, and embodies the culture.
The natural step is to give the assignment to an agency. Most branding firms will come back with a tagline and positioning statement. Most advertising agencies with creative treatments and marketing campaigns. Most PR firms with messaging and communication plans. These are useful tactics but aren’t the kind of strategic narrative you are looking for.
A strategic narrative is a special kind of story. It says who you are as a company. Where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going. How you believe value is created and what you value in relationships. It explains why you exist and what makes you unique.”
Long before a narrative can be used strategically in the ways Harvard’s article aptly describes, it needs first to be excavated. In other words, it is one thing to say you need a story about your company’s origin, and quite another to develop it.
A story, after all, draws on moments in time that connected to form the influential series of events that led to the creation of your company. It is not pat or prepackaged or even self-evident at first. In fact, when you first reflect back, there’s no story yet, but instead a series of events or facts stretching back into the past. You must begin to ask, How precisely did they come about? Who took part? What experiences developed and where did they take you? What were the emotional moments that catalyzed change, insight or innovation? The excavation process digs up those moments, bringing them to light for renewed discovery.
As Murray Nossel, Narativ’s co-founder and director, writes about excavation in his upcoming book, Powered by Storytelling:
Excavation begins with the identification of your story. In which past event or series of events is your story located? Mine those events for the story itself. When excavating, we are like archeologists: We’ve found a shard or a half-buried jewel, but we need to dig up the earth around those artifacts to see what else there is. Often, we’ll find that our story is made up of more than the initial event that comes to mind—or even an entirely different memory or moment. To explore like this takes a certain mindset.
That discovery process is where the “story-making” begins to find its vitality. Don’t be surprised if simply tying together a string of facts from the past doesn’t really get anyone’s lasting attention. It’s what in and around those moments and then the specific language you use to relate them that breathes life into your origin story and that allows listeners to deeply connect. Having your listeners connect is the main point of telling the story to begin with, the “strategic” outcome you seek.
Be sure not to glom on to “story” without a process of excavation. You will short change yourself – and your listeners – if you don’t engage in a fresh assessment of the moments that contributed to your beginning with a willingness to re-write, re-tell, and re-experience the inspiration from the past in the present moment of your telling.