TOM CRITCHLOW
February 16, 2024

(Another) Quick Riff on Narrative Strategy

The logic of narratives, narratives as worlds

I’ve been ruminating on the idea of narrative strategy for a while now. The last time I wrote about it was in 2020.

I’m convinced that narrative strategy is the frame through which I do all my consulting work. For my internal logic it is how I think about every client project - it’s the overarching umbrella for my work. But externally? I’m not sure clients understand it that way. I think the phrase “narrative strategy” places too much emphasis on the narrative part and not enough on the strategy part.

Anyway - I have been thinking about this for 4 years and doubt I’ll resolve it by the end of this blog post. I am after all only posting this to keep my streak going.

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Articulation is The First Product

This is a phrase from my friend Brian Dell. For early stage startups and early stage products the first thing you need is some articulation. Something that starts to create clarity around the problem, opportunity or solution. Articulation is the first product.

Some consultants help clients develop a kind of articulation. This is typically crafting a manifesto, thesis or about page.

Two friends doing this superbly:

Eliot Peper who is primarily a sci-fi author of great talents also dabbles in consulting:

When I’m not writing novels, entrepreneurs hire me to write about what they’re doing and why it matters.

I start by reading about the company and interviewing founders, employees, board members, customers, and partners—basically anyone with skin in the game and a unique point-of-view on the business. Then I synthesize what I learn into an essay about why these particular people are seeking to solve this particular problem in this particular way—here’s a recent example.

Having a canonical prose narrative explaining what you do and why it matters is surprisingly high-leverage.

Adam Delehanty who I’ve worked with before just announced his new narrative studio Ghost:

I started Ghost for about 💯 reasons.

But most of all, I do it because when it goes well, producing and publishing great ideas can change the trajectory of my client's life.

That’s because writing is not just a way to figure out what we think; it's a means of understanding who we actually are.

This is where writing and editing becomes coaching. Sentences become strategy. And why so many of my clients have become lifelong friends.

Both of them are better at words than me. Go hire them, they’re great.

Could this be described more like “strategic narratives” than “narrative strategy” though? That’s no pejorative! But the articulation matters.

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A Company Story is Powerful

My buddy Elan Miller who runs Off-Menu does exceptional brand strategy work. The best, truly. We’ve worked together on a number of projects and one thing I love is Elan’s ability to go beyond the brand to the actual company story.

That’s what we aspire to do for our clients. To get to know them better than they know themselves. To make them feel seen. So we can help them express what makes them uniquely memorable across every touchpoint of the brand. 

What makes Off-Menu uniquely memorable is how we help teams figure out & tell their story. We custom design every engagement to unpack a team’s vision & understand their customer’s aspirations through ways they could never imagine. 

For example, this one time we gave travel agents polaroid cameras to capture their definition of luxury to better articulate what makes them uniquely special. 

We specialize in surfacing unspoken human truths from unexpected places; the kind that once experienced, you can’t unsee.

We then use everything we learn to provoke you with new opportunities that change the trajectory of your business.

All before packaging everything together seamlessly into a differentiated narrative; one that gives your team shared direction for how to build a brand people fall madly in love with. 

We call this narrative-driven design.

Elan is the GOAT of brand strategy. Go hire him.

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Meanwhile, there’s a different kind of company story. Not a brand story, but an internal story. Here it starts to get more personal. I see this tension with startups all the time:

Businesses early in their development are often still largely owned and primarily shaped by their founders. A third critical question of internal logic that should be addressed explicitly rather than left to whim and chance is about how personal the business is: to what degree and in what ways the business is for its founders (or for some group of insiders which is meant to grow beyond the founders, as is the case for many partnership firms)?

There are many things that founders or other key players who have the power to shape a venture’s evolution and to choose whether/how to make the venture meaningfully for them might want. They might aspire to pursue a certain vision of the world or to create wealth, which relate to the points we’ve explored above. They might want to be in charge, or to be able to focus on certain kinds of work they like doing, or to work with particular people whose company they enjoy, or to build their personal brands.

At one end of a continuum is a business that’s created and fully acknowledged to be a “lifestyle business.” If two brothers want to restore classic cars together, make a certain level of income doing so, and take July and August off, more power to them. Would that every business should be so clear about its commitments.

The great danger here lies in the middle ground, where the point of the organization isn’t explicitly meant to be the fulfillment of the founders’ vision for their own good lives, but where the personal desires of founders (or other powerful people) in fact shape a range of decisions. The founder who isn’t a strong CEO but who wants to be in charge (perhaps wants to be active in the business and “doesn’t want to have a boss” or perhaps just values being able to call all the shots) not only risks managing poorly, but risks undermining the belief that the organization truly stands for a commitment to something larger than himself. Strong founders and strong leaders make clear that they are accountable to higher goals and to impersonal standards—they create a “government of laws, not men.”

How does this internal logic seep into external narratives?

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Narrative as Engines of Change

Ok so far we have three different flavors of narrative strategy: the “strategic narrative”, the “company story” and the “internal logic”. Now let’s introduce another flavor: narratives as engines of change:

Narratives play a crucial role in the strategy to address and resolve narrative discrepancies, combine and moderate stakeholder expectations from differing fields and clarify an organization’s positioning regarding broader social narratives. We propose that the use of narratives in a strategy goes well beyond the phenomenon of corporate storytelling. As contextual factors, narratives serve different goals than the mediation and dissemination of strategic decisions. We argue that this strategic use of narratives plays a particular role in organizational change situations.

This frame of narratives as engines of change is, I suspect, why Jan Chipchase is writing a book about corporate sense making:

Over the last two years I’ve been researching my next book on human and organisational sensemaking. Aside from the depth of themes covered—from the origins of speech systems and writing, to theories that seek to explain organisational decision making—I’ve taken a meta-view that looks at narrative formats. The analysis probed what drives engagement in the workplace, why certain ideas gain widespread traction, and which (sometimes excellent) ideas fall by the wayside. These themes keep circling back to organisational purpose: its mission, vision and core values—that manages to bridge its history with its idealised future—and which is communicated through a strategically positioned narrative.

(If you’re into this kind of thing don’t sleep on his recently announced Strategic Narratives Masterclass)

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Narratives are Little Universes

Marcin Wichary has a lovely little riff on the feeling of finishing writing a book. In it he describes the book as a world:

A few sentences of dialogue from a 1968 sci-fi book changed the way I look at writing.

The book is called Tales of Pirx the Pilot and written by someone who’d become my favourite author – Stanisław Lem.

Lem was a masterful literary world builder, and Pirx stories were no exception. The opening paragraphs weren’t wasted on clunky exposition or establishing shots. No, you were thrown straight into Pirx’s universe, without an onramp and without a warning. The explanations would come in due time, in between the lines, or never at all.

As Marcin goes on to say:

“But what’s surprising me today is how much I am dreading walking away from the little universe I created in the last eight years.”

Narratives as worlds. Consultant as world-runner.

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Now I think perhaps we’re closer to a territory for what I mean when I say that I work on “narrative strategy” - I mean that I work from a place that starts with world building, questioning the internal logic of the client’s organization and engages with driving change across multi-dimensional projects that touch on external and internal factors. And yes sometimes manifests in strategic narratives and writing.

Narrative loops that inform how companies show up in the world but also inform how things work under the surface.

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Perhaps one day I’ll capture the essence of narrative strategy in something more tangible and concrete. The irony is not lost on me.


More blog posts:

A Lil' Website Refresh

March 20, 2024

Work is a Place

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: