Build a corporate narrative people actually use—creating a great one

by | May 16, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

Three games into this year’s NBA playoffs, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr announced that he was going to miss games due to severe complications from a back surgery. The expected flurry of analysis followed: Would this derail the team to lose their leader at such a critical moment? One commentator made an observation that any professional communicator will appreciate—he said, essentially, that he thought the team would be fine because Kerr had established a culture so strong that his players knew exactly what was expected of them and exactly how to execute. In other words, they had a strong team narrative.

Hopefully, most of our head coaches won’t be off the sidelines anytime soon. But communicators clearly recognize that this level of organizational unity—the clarity in identity and direction—is essential to carry us forward in the midst of change, complexity and fluctuating stakeholder demands. This is when a strong corporate narrative makes all the difference.

But crafting a compelling and useful narrative can be overwhelming. CEB, now part of Gartner, has answered three key questions to make the process more approachable.

What exactly is a corporate narrative?

First and foremost, it’s an organization’s ruling statement of who they are. It’s easy to get jumbled up in the noise of purpose, culture, values, brand, strategy, vision, priorities, etc., but in the end, the narrative is the fount from which all these other aspects of our organization flow.

Second, a narrative has to narrate. This seems elementary, but the secret sauce consists of telling the story of the relationship between our identity and direction. It says, “This is who we are, and therefore this is the direction we will take.”

What is the best way to construct a narrative?

A little over a decade ago, British novelist Christopher Booker published an oft-praised and at-times maligned book claiming that all stories in the world boil down to one of seven plots. Similarly, our research found that all compelling narratives round up into just two plots – the “north star” and the “shifting landscape.” As an observation, people tend to hear these two categories with a degree of bias – when we hear “shifting,” we might assume it implies something inferior, but this is not the case. Both are equally powerful. They simply start the narrative at different points, based on what makes most sense for our organization at the time.

The north star narrative is for a world of relative constancy. In this type of narrative, our organization’s identity is so clear and unshakeable and central to everything we do that we lead with, “This is who we are—therefore we will be these things and do these things.”

The shifting landscape is a better fit if there are dynamics at play in the broader world that affect who we need to be for our stakeholders, to the extent that it wouldn’t make sense not to acknowledge them right off the bat. In this case, we lead with, essentially, “Here’s what’s going on, therefore this is who we need to be and what we’re going to do about it moving forward.”

Organizations may move back and forth between storylines over time, so it’s a helpful exercise for us to sit down with our teams and discuss which of these two storylines best suits our organization today, and use that as a starting point.

How do we get people to actually use our narrative?

Few people naturally care about their company’s narrative unless it is abundantly clear that it is useful to them. Our research shows that more than half the people who know perfectly well that their organization has a narrative and that they should be using it still aren’t using it. To combat this widespread narrative ennui, narratives need to be relevant to who our people are and the jobs they’re trying to get done.

In our research, we asked, “When would anyone ever actually use a narrative?” Happily, the question has a clear answer. People are most likely to use it for three primary purposes:

  • Alignment: Helping connect employee activities to organizational strategy and values. Leaders and managers at all levels are likely to benefit from resources built with this objective in mind.
  • Persuasion: Using the narrative to influence stakeholders to make a decision in favor of the organization. There is a lot of external value here, as a good narrative makes life easier for front line sales people, HR recruiters and others who need to be able to consistently and effectively tell the organization’s story.
  • Assimilation: Teaching new stakeholders about the organization. Leaders have many opportunities to educate others about who they are – whether externally or in onboarding or upskilling employees.

Thinking about using corporate narratives in these three ways can make developing and distributing narrative-based resources a lot more practical and approachable. For instance, a number of organizations we work with have taken these use cases and used them as a basis for input and feedback from diverse parts of their organizations, making sure that the resources they develop are actually useful.

A strong corporate narrative will effectively convey an organization’s identity and direction, but we can only capitalize on this if it’s used consistently and in context. Whether we’re creating a corporate narrative for the first time or redesigning an existing one, making sure it’s a tool to help our people do their jobs will ensure they’re much more likely to use it.

Dorian Cundick
Dorian Cundick is an executive advisor at CEB, where she specializes in unlocking the business potential of the Communications function. In her role, she advises organizations on proven best practices rooted in research on topics including executive communications, employee engagement, building advocacy, social media, and corporate social responsibility.