Storycraft: the role of narrative in business

By Miles Young, Warden of New College Oxford and former Chairman and CEO of the international advertising, marketing, communications, consulting and public relations agency Ogilvy & Mather

Here is a riddle.  

What is of overarching importance but receives no recognition, is fundamental to success but receives no training, and is intrinsic to creating purpose but receives no praise?  

The answer is: storycraft, or, more prosaically, narrative skills.  

Put simply, how does a business explain itself? And how do its employees at any level within it explain what they are doing and what they want to do?   

Narratives humanise data. Stories clarify, captivate and compel. But, until now, the business case for narrative skills and storycraft has been signally missing. Is it, perhaps, that it seems somehow ‘unbusinesslike’ to advertise the benefits, or even the existence, of such super-soft skills? Maybe it’s just safer to confine them to the realm of the unspoken or, at best, of anecdote.  

This report commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council exposes some of the truth and removes some of the anecdote, which is that British business leaders not only value narrative for themselves and their businesses, but see the need for it increasing and the willingness of the educational system to underpin it falling short.   

They see narrative as something which holds their businesses together. It coheres. Driven by values and imbued with purpose, it is the means by which they engage with an increasingly complex range of stakeholders, internal and external. It frames issues. It provides the advocacy dimension to strategy. It helps in defining the higher levels of a strategy. It provides a means for navigating change. It is an agent of simplification in a world which is unmanageably complex. It motivates employees and includes them in the organisation. For businesses facing the challenges of emerging from the pandemic, no roadmap alone will be enough: but a carefully crafted narrative will help.  

Perhaps it is only now, a quarter century or so into the digital revolution, that there is enough space for proper perspective on these issues.    

First, it has created ‘meaning lag’: the more content, the less easy it is to create meaning out of it. It is narrative which can create that meaning, editing out what is unnecessary or distracting.   Secondly, social media makes it less likely that the meaning which does emerge is truth-based. Fake meaning abounds, from news to opinion. Narrative is a discipline, a probing process, which creates sense out of nonsense.  And, thirdly, digitally enabled neuroscience shows that emotion is not a self-indulgent luxury in our behaviour but a fundamental driver. Many things are decided emotionally, and then the brain proceeds to create rational justification for those decisions. Storytelling which engages these emotions will better influence decisions.

But it is clear that business leaders believe there is a danger of narrative skills being lost. They are not wrong. The arts and humanities, a major source of these skills, are sometimes caricatured as unnecessary to the economy. This new research points to the siloisation of education as having an additional effect: STEM students do not have the opportunities they need to learn storytelling themselves. The combination of these two factors risks entrenching a binary divide, and, therefore, a general under-skilling of our management resources.   

This report argues for building a narrative skills framework, which will encompass communicative, empathetic, critical, creative and digital skills.    

The good news is that this can happen while the country still has large reservoirs of talent and experience in humanities and the arts. The time has come to build them up into what they should be, a source of competitive advantage as our emerging post-Brexit national narrative takes form.   

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