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  • Writer's pictureDannielle K Pearson

The Power of Storytelling Why narratives are important & how to create one

If you were given a blank sheet of paper (or digital equivalent), what would you do with it?  Would you take charge and forge your own direction, or would you seek insight, and ask clarifying questions?  What would you choose to create?  Forming a narrative is a bit like being handed a blank sheet of paper.   Whether it’s for work, a side hustle, or a personal experience narratives are germane to how the world works.  There is an advantage in being a good storyteller it has the power to open doors. Evidence shows companies that are able to skilfully craft narratives build strong brands, and loyal customer bases. Individuals that are able to do the same, also benefit. I’ve witnessed the impossible become possible simply by telling a compelling story.

Our “human-wiring” has a lot to do with why storytelling is so powerful.  When we engage with stories either through oration or written text, the electric activity in our brains increase by a multiple of five.  This creates new synaptic connections, releases oxytocin, and increases the listeners ability to empathize with the presenter and topic.  When we listen to a presenter that resonates with us, our brain waves match the storytellers. We are literally on the same wavelength.  Narratives are powerful learning tools they are immersive, which means they seamlessly incorporate differing learning styles (audio, visual and kinaesthetic) at once. In essence, we form our view of our world, our realities, and how we connect through stories.  

Despite the importance and pervasive nature of storytelling, the ability to devise a compelling narrative can be arduous and confused.  I’m fortunate that my first job out of university was as a Military Intelligence Officer.  Within my first six months as an Intelligence Officer, I created and delivered over hundred intelligence briefs to senior military officials, across a wide array of disciplines. There was no one standing over my shoulder to ensure what I was writing was relevant or correct, it was wholly up to me to decide. All the while I knew if I got it wrong, there would be stern consequences.  At the time, this felt commonplace but upon reflection this was anything but common. My baptism by fire actively built proficiency in identifying relevant insights & trends, narrative structure, and the ability to convey complicated messages simply, to any audience.   What those initial years taught me, is while narrative telling is a critical skill it’s not developed passively.   The baseline I built as a Military Officer has been fundamental across all of my chosen professions.  It has afforded me a seats at tables, I would not otherwise have been invited to.

What is a Narrative and how does it relate to a story?

 A story is a by-product of a narrative.  Envision a box, the story is the box itself, the narrative is what fills the box.  Narratives are the building blocks and roadmap that informs the beginning, middle and end of your story.   It’s what enables the audience to relate to your topic; it’s where the magic, or mishap happens.  Without a narrative, you have a conversation, rather than a story. Narratives and stories are inextricably linked.

Why is telling a narrative important?

A strong narrative is powerful, it can deliver outcomes, elicit change, and provoke thought processes. I’ve seen this play out in a multitude of ways, perhaps the most profound is in early-stage seed funding. A core principle in early stage investing, is whether the investor believes in the founder. It’s not the product, or the market, it’s the founders story.  The practicalities of running a business can be learned out over time, but the belief in someone’s ability and fortitude often can’t.   The vehicle for this insight, is dependent on the narrative told.

In today’s economy most careers require strong narration skills. Whether you are a senior leader, salesperson, marketer, customer success, or a software developer, the need to convey information in a structured and compelling way, is pertinent.  Despite its importance, many are left to their own volition to figure it out.  It’s not surprising that Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT have experienced a rapid ascension. They are reliable means to populate blank sheets of paper, quickly.  It’s much easier and timelier to evolve work that has been created, than starting from scratch.

What are steps you can take to get started?  

Whether you are starting from an empty page, or you have solicited AI support there are a few steps you can take to cultivate a strong narrative.  Here are four tips I’ve learned across my career, in how to devise a compelling narrative.

Structure your narrative as an “inverted pyramid.”

At face value this is bizarre advice but telling a narrative is about context.  Inverted pyramids, start broad and end narrow; I call this moving from the macro to micro.  Your key points and takeaways sit at the narrow end of the pyramid, but context resides in broad side of the pyramid.  In my experience narratives that move from the “macro” to the “micro” are often more thought out and resonate more clearly.  Details are important but assuming they are universally understood, is a mistake. By providing context you align your audience to the key points you want to relay.  This allows them to connect with your story. Connection is where neurons fire, and wavelengths are matched.

Always start with an outline.

An outline forces you to structure your thinking, and applies to any circumstance from a client presentation, a fiction-based manuscript, or a toast at a formal event. It’s a canvas that allows you to express your thoughts without committing to a full explanation.    The absence of an outline is likely to result in a stream of consciousness rather than a cohesive set of talking points.  While a stream of consciousnesses can be insightful it’s not a story and won’t yield the same benefits.  Outlines are a great way to turn a stream of consciousness into a narrative.

It’s a Process; give yourself time.

Whether you are starting with a blank sheet of paper, or it a series of bullet points derived from an AI tool, your first draft will not be your final draft.  Unfortunately, AI is not to a point where it understands syntax thus refinement, rephrasing, and elaboration are still required.  Importantly, the more you are required to explain or evolve a topic the more you are forced to question it, the stronger your points become.  The amount of time required can vary greatly dependent on the topic and situation.  Writing an article to post on LinkedIn or may take three days from idea inception to completion versus completing a client deliverable, may require three to four weeks to fully flush out key points, obtain stakeholder buy-in and narrative refinement / finalisation.  It’s important to remember crafting a narrative is a process not a task.  Time is required to evolve your thinking. 

Be authentic and back yourself.

This point is multi-faceted. First, be true to what you want to convey not what you think people want to hear.  Second, it’s your story you determine what people should hear.  While audience, and stakeholder input is important, you control the narrative.  I’ve personally experienced this across my career, whether a client is adamant they understand a key point and does not require an explanation, or a sales prospect has determined they have all the details required. Sometimes your stakeholders will have the required context, and sometimes they won’t. It’s up to you determine whether they do, and whether all points are germane to your story, or an abbreviation is appropriate. It’s important to be mindful of the needs of your environment but equally espouse the confidence to speak your truth.  Whenever I have assumed critical points were implicitly understood, they rarely were.  Back yourself if you don’t you can’t expect others to.   

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