“Narratives can’t be handed over to a PR firm.” – John Hagel
I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to John Hagel’s featured session, “Moving from Story to Narrative,” this week during SXSW Interactive in Austin, TX. Hagel currently serves as co-chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte Center for the Edge, which he also co-founded.
As a former journalist for six years before joining the Content Team at Waggener Edstrom, I was particularly compelled by the session topic – my experience has generally been storytelling, reporting what I see, while shaping a narrative requires a deliberate, indefinite effort that usually falls out of the scope of a journalist’s directive. But Hagel challenged his listeners to expand their focus beyond stories into narratives, and in doing so drew some very intriguing distinctions between the two:
Narratives, however, take storytelling a step(s) further:
Hagel went on to point out that narratives can motivate action, occasionally inspiring life and death choices (when you consider narratives of religion or political movements, for example). Stories on the other hand are much less likely to wield much more significance than entertainment.
Narratives provide a form of stability amid increasing instability. Narratives are something we can hold onto – they don’t change radically or unexpectedly. They’re a compass in a time of growing uncertainty and play role in focusing on what’s important.
Given the impact a narrative can have on a company’s image, I felt particularly challenged by Hagel’s assertion that “narratives can’t be handed over to a PR firm.” While acknowledging that I may have taken the statement out of context, regardless I would offer in reply, “Who better?”
I believe that we’re messengers by nature and practice, and if strategized with acute foresight, the stories we tell should fulfill a larger narrative for our clients. And in the technology sector, it’s arguable that our roles are enhanced further, because as Hagel himself recognized, “digital technology opens up incredible potential. It enables us to connect, collaborate and learn on a scale that was unimaginable in the past.”
He used Apple as an example of a successful narrative, which is summed up by the slogan “Think Different.”
“Technology creates the potential and the imperative to break out of the uniformity of conformity that society forces us into,” said Hagel. “It is up to us to express individuality.”
As an agency, Waggener Edstrom strives to be associated with innovators. Melissa Waggener recently hosted a WE Ignite event at the Austin office, and she shared a discussion she had with Pam Edstrom about the merits of a potential client. “How are they innovative?” Pam asked. It seems to me that a question like that might be best answered with a narrative.
We have the potential to be drivers of what Hagel called opportunity based narratives – those that offer some promise for a better way of living. An audience is more likely to invest in the long-term with opportunity based narratives because they provide stability in an unstable, reactionary, rapidly-changing landscape. They play role in focusing on what’s important and server as a filter that can help us think about where to spend time and focus attention.
“The best way to think about the world is not seven billion mouths to feed,” said Hagel, “but seven billion minds to unleash.”