As I showed with the SCAR tool, narrative is a useful method for bringing an engaging structure to communications. However at its core, it is much more important than simply a writing tool.
Narrative has rapidly become one of those buzzwords, something that organisation “needs”, but not that many people could define.
One easy definition is that is what moves people emotionally. It’s about the heart, more than the head. As such it’s vital if you are wanting people to act: whatever that action may be. It applies whether you want people to get active on civil rights, undertake change at work, buy a product or ven decide to employ you.
The importance of emotion in triggering action is supported by a number of leading researchers. In his essay Public Narrative, Collection Action, and Power¹, Marshall Ganz says ‘Public narrative is a leadership practice of translating values into action’. His focus is on encouraging people to act to achieve social change, but exactly the same principles apply in organisations or commercial settings. For all the figures, spreadsheets and quantified logical decisions that put the case for what should be done, it’s the narrative, the emotions, that answer the all important ‘why’ question.
“Emotions enable rationality”
George Marcus argues in The Sentimental Citizen²: “Emotions enable rationality. Our emotional faculties work more in harmony with our capacity to be rational than in antagonism to it.”
It’s our emotions, our lessons learned from previous experiences that provide the platform from which rational decisions can be made. It’s important to think of emotional thinking and rational thinking as the two vital and symbiotic ingredients in decision making.
So what does this mean in less lofty context?
This is a similar argument that marketers make with their clients. When looking at the rational and emotional drivers of end consumers, it’s the emotional drivers that push people to act or make a purchase, even if it’s the rational argument they put forward. When you really ‘want’ that gorgeous new thermomix for your kitchen, you’ll persuade yourself that you ‘need’ it. Narrative communicates the emotion that underlies that apparently rational reason for buying the thermomix.
So for marketers, narrative is about establishing an emotional connection with customers. Telling a story of how life will be better with a product or service and why you can trust a company deliver on that improvement.
For people implementing change in an organisation the similarities are also clear. A good narrative is what carries people through the emotional journey of the change that is being undertaken. You can say what is being changed as often as you like, but if you don’t help people connect to the ‘why’ of the change (why should we trust you and what you’re saying, and why should we do this change) then the change simply isn’t going work effectively.
For change management, narrative is key to establishing trust and providing a vision.
Even in a job interview, getting the interviewers to connect on an emotional level with who you are and why you’ll be good for their organisation, you’re giving them the emotional base to make the rational decision to offer you the job.
For interviewees, narrative is a powerful way to communicate who you really are.
Hold the hankies, it’s not about tears
All this does not mean getting teary and pulling at the heart strings in an inappropriate way. Imagine you’re on a first date with someone and before the entree arrives your date tosses in the heart-wrenching story of their parent’s tragic death in a car accident and their life as an orphan. It’s way too much and your appetite for a second date plummets.
Using narrative to engage emotion isn’t about making people cry. It’s simply about establishing a connection and giving people the safety to make the decision you want.
So remember, emotion and narrative are powerful tools; a little can go a long way.
1: Chapter 18 in Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, Edited by Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2011)
2: George Marcus, The Sentimental Citizen: Emotion in Democratic Politics, (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2002)