What’s the Difference Between Story vs Narrative? And Why It Matters to You

Story vs Narrative.

This one distinction forms the basis of all our workshops, client work, and even my next book in the making:

And here’s why —

Story, in its simplest form, is about a character and the things that happen to them.

Story, in its simplest form, is about a character and the things that happen to them. As author Michael Lewis defines it, “a story is — people and situations.” A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Where we explore the desire, dilemmas, and choices that a character faces. Think of a story as an anecdote or vignette that recounts specific moments, with a time and place. It provides us with entertainment, insight, or even a lesson on life. It creates a shared emotional experience that can bond us together. A customer story. A “values in action” story. A new employee on-boarding story.

Therein lies the challenge — in business, we are swimming in a sea of stories.

Everybody has a story. From the boardroom to social media. Infinite stories. Billions and trillions of stories. Where every story matters. In such an environment how can you make sense and meaning of things, much less get everyone aligned around a shared common story? That’s the role and power of narrative. Defining the frame.

Narrative in contrast to story, is much bigger. It’s a way of looking at the world.

Narrative in contrast to story, is much bigger. It’s a way of looking at the world. An overarching concept that influences thought, meaning and decision-making. A symbolic frame like the American Dream or Just Do It. It doesn’t necessarily have clear beginning, middle, and end like a story, but rather is still usually unfolding over time. Which means the conclusion is still up for grabs! If stories are each like a pearl, then narrative is the necklace or string of pearls. It’s what connects the dots at the big picture level. A good narrative, will use a range of stories to illustrate, animate, and validate its message. Narrative gives meaning to a broader vision, a view of what’s possible, and why we should head in that direction.

While our slide says “Story” for easy vernacular, each of these uses cases is really a “Strategic Narrative”

At Facebook, we work with multiple product teams including one with over 100M power users. How many stories exactly are there? For another client, we framed their vision to almost 20,000 employees for the next generation of a $2B corporate campus. If you try to communicate at such an epic and high-stakes level, without a clear distinction between story and narrative, your message is likely to get lost in translation.

That’s why Strategic Narratives matter more than ever.

In the face of complexity, disruption, and business transformation — what organizations need is a bigger story: aka a Strategic Narrative.

It’s the same reason why Jeff Bezos many years ago banned Powerpoint and implemented the 6-page memo at Amazon.

The purpose was to elevate the discourse before any decisions are made on the future of any aspect of Amazon’s products, services, or divisions.

Visual: The Difference Between Story vs Narrative

Hopefully, you’re starting to see how narrative is crucial for anybody trying to shift the status quo. It’s what helps people see the forest from the trees. To make strategic sense and meaning. And align the trajectory forward.

So where can you learn how to craft a narrative?

Few companies give their leaders a structure or model for this. To communicate the breakthrough work being done by you or your team, it’s not enough to tell a simple story. One closed loop story does not go deep enough to portray a disruptive visions, product, or idea. You need to go further. You need to think in narrative.

This is a draft passage from my next book: Disruptive Storytelling: How to Sell Radical Ideas to a Reluctant Audience, in bookstores March 2019.

Woot, woot! Welcome your feedback on this excerpt in the comments below. Want to join the book preview email list? Add your name here.

Learn to Think in Narrative — May 22, 2018

Are you ready to go from story to narrative?

Then join us for our next 1-Day Masterclass in San Francisco.

You will learn our breakthrough 3-step narrative sequence for any high-stakes presentation. Discover how to humanize data, get executive sponsorship, convey your product roadmap, align your team, and create conviction around big bets and high stakes outcomes.

This training is unlike any other storytelling or communications workshop you have ever taken. Many participants describe it as a life-changing experience and catalyst for career advancement.

Hosted in partnership with Cooper Design, you’ll be amongst product, design, research, and marketing leaders.

Limited seats available — register here to secure your spot!

5 Key Learnings on Strategic Narratives

One of the attendees from our last workshop, Pat Harrington, Product Designer at Colony.io, wrote a great post about his 5 learnings on strategic narrative. He does a great job of capturing some of the exciting highlights, so go ahead and read it for a preview of what you’ll learn in our 1-day Masterclass. Last time this course is offered till the fall.

Interested in an inhouse version? We are currently booking for the summer and fall. This is the same methodology we teach to leaders at Facebook, Google, Genentech, Kohls, Bloomberg, SAP, and InVision.

Stay tuned — we’ll be sharing lot’s more teasers from the new book over the next few months!

Metaphors be with you,

Michael

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