The power of narratives in a digital world

This year at South by Southwest Interactive, at least 112 sessions address storytelling in some form or fashion. It's clearly a topic of significant interest for brand marketers.

This year at South by Southwest Interactive, at least 112 sessions address storytelling in some form or fashion. It's clearly a topic of significant interest for brand marketers. John Hagel would argue, however, that brands that focus on telling a story are missing out on a much greater opportunity to engage audiences in a narrative.

Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte's Center for the Edge and a prolific blogger and author, gave an inspiring talk at SXSWi called “Moving from Story to Narrative.” To understand and appreciate the distinction between the two, Hagel suggested it's important to first consider the world we live in. There's no doubt about it – most of us move through life under a tremendous amount of stress, and in a time of mounting pressure, certain cognitive biases take hold. We tend to magnify the perception of risk and discount the perception of reward. Time horizons shrink, as it's difficult to think long-term when the present is so overwhelming. We often fall into zero-sum, win-lose mindsets, which erode trust in other individuals, institutions, and society.

This context is important because at times like these, powerful narratives can help people overcome these biases and collaborate with each other – and with brands – toward a more positive future.

Now's a good time to take a step back and consider how Hagel distinguishes between stories and narratives. Stories are defined by two attributes: They are finite (beginning, middle, and end), and they are about the storyteller or the “other people” – not about you, the person hearing the story. In contrast, narratives are open-ended; they are still unfolding, and the resolution is yet to be determined. Importantly, narratives invite all of us to participate to help collectively determine the outcome.

Narratives can arise at three different levels – personal (i.e., an individual); institutional (i.e., a corporation); and social (i.e., a broader connected community of people in society). Narratives also tend to be either opportunity-based (i.e., driving force is an opportunity for us to capture and enjoy) or threat-based (i.e., motivation is to band together to avoid attack). Both opportunity- and threat-based narratives can be extremely powerful to motivate action – and in many cases throughout history, even life or death choices.

So what does all of this mean for business? In an “attention economy” where brands compete for scarce attention, brands with authentic, relevant, and clearly articulated narratives will most effectively maintain consumers' attention and move them to act. If you're a brand leader, here are steps you can take:

  1. Look within your company, talk to senior leaders, and engage key constituents to explore your current narrative. As Hagel says, “Make it explicit.” Why are you here? What do you want to accomplish? How can you engage your key constituents to do so? And make this a collaborative process. If you look back at all great narratives throughout history, all have multiple “authors” and continuously evolve.
  2. Consider an opportunity-based narrative, which Hagel suggests the world needs right now. Framing is critical. To illuminate this point, Hagel made a profound statement: “The best way to think about the world is not 7 billion mouths to feed, but 7 billion minds to unleash.”
  3. Seek alignment between personal, institutional, and social narratives in which your constituents participate. The impact will be exponential.
  4. Embrace digital, social, and mobile technology, which opens up unlimited potential to collaboratively develop and deploy narratives at a scale that was unimaginable in the past. Don't be confined to a single medium, but rather, let your narrative unfold across a trans-media world.

Hagel gave all of us a wonderful call to action as brand leaders and as humans. Don't just tell a story. Engage people in a narrative. Don't just listen to a story. Participate in institutional and social narratives that align with individual values, working collaboratively toward a more positive future for all. 

Brooke Hovey is EVP of the digital practice at Cohn & Wolfe in the Americas.

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