Narrative and story – why they matter and how they differ.

Thought leaders and content marketers toss the words “narrative” and “story” around so often that they start to seem like indistinguishable bits of buzzword fluff. According to Kristian Alomá, CEO of Threadline, they are, however, quite different – and the importance of understanding that difference extends well beyond the marketing department. Watch this video for a brief overview of his thinking, and then dive in to the full interview with this emerging leader in narrative design.

Chuck Kent: To begin – what exactly is Threadline?

Kristian Alomá: Threadline is a narrative design firm, and we bring the insights, theories and philosophies of narrative psychology into the marketing world. Narrative psychology is the field that looks at how people use narratives, and stories, to define their own identity, and to understand the world.

CK: So, tell me, what’s the difference between narrative and story and how do they ideally relate?

Narrative is the structure that builds stories. Story is the dressing on top.

KA:  Narrative is the structure that builds stories. Story is the dressing that sits on top of that narrative structure. But a narrative is the core idea of the relationship between the way one thing transforms another.

CK: People often think of narrative and story primarily in terms of marketing output – but if you’re talking transformation, does narrative have a deeper organizational use and purpose, too?

KA: Yes. It’s a structural tool, to use in the same way we might use positioning or a planning document. Narrative is a structural tool to help you either plan to express an idea or provide the common core meaning of an idea by structuring it in that narrative format.

CK:  So, if I understand correctly, narrative is structure, story is expression?

KA:  Absolutely.

CK:  Since it’s such a hot topic right now, what do you see as the biggest opportunity and/or missed opportunity for narrative, both in marketing and organizational life today?

KA: There’s too much emphasis on the story and not the narrative. That is, I think we focus on creating something that’s viral, that’s exciting or emotional or engaging, but without understanding how that thing we’ve created either connects back to our purpose or helps the customer make meaning out of using our product.

You’re in business to serve others – and if they’re not the hero in your story, there’s no story for them at all.

The other “miss” is when organizations make themselves the hero of the narrative. If you’re in business, you’re in business to serve others – and if they’re not the hero in your story, there’s no story for them at all.

Your story has to be in service of theirs. It has to help their story be expressed, help them become the hero, or help them celebrate some aspect of who they are or what they’re doing. Your narrative has to support theirs. When that happens, they start to see you as, really, a part of their own story.

CK:   So, you have to understand how people are structuring their own thinking about the story of their own lives, the structure of their own lives?

KA: You’ve got to understand the way people make sense of the world, the way they make sense of themselves. If you know, for example, that your organization plays X role in the life of clients or consumers, it gives you a sense of the way in which you can take your organization or your product or service and craft it, package it, put it into that narrative structure in a way that fits. Then it becomes something they can adopt. Otherwise, it just feels like another piece of random data floating through their experience of reality.

CK: Can you give an example of how you’ve employed narrative techniques to help corporations solve a problem?

KA: I’ll reference a couple of examples, speaking in broad terms about them.

One is a new non-profit here in Chicago. They were looking to provide parenting resources, training courses and tools for new parents – especially new parents from neighborhoods and backgrounds that were typically underprivileged and didn’t have access to the kinds of resources parents in upper-class or middle-class neighborhoods have. So, we did a bit of research on those parents that need their help, to understand what parenting is to them, what their challenges are. We worked to create an understanding of their story.

Then, we started to look at that and say, okay, what are the ways in which we can help them overcome tensions and barriers in that story? Rather than just talking about ourselves, which many organizations end up doing, how can we talk about our position in their story. The result was a campaign focused on the parent, creating a hero out of the parent in this space.

It’s not advertising anymore – it’s the expression of self.

What we’re seeing is that there’s been a lot of positive response and connection to this program, and it’s starting to grow. As more parents make the organization a part of their own story, and talk about it with others, it’s not advertising anymore – it’s the expression of self. It’s someone saying, “I learned how to do this…I’ve figured out how to discipline my child, or how to deal with teething or sleeping,” and the reference within that story is always that organization.

CK: What are some of the techniques behind developing that, and how might they differ from traditional marketing research techniques?

KA: One of them, from a research perspective, is conducting interviews that elicit stories, rather than simply asking questions and looking for those direct responses you might see on a traditional survey or in a focus group. When we’re trying to understand an audience, for example, the worst thing we can ask them is, “Tell me about yourself,” because people will just tell you the things they want you to know about themselves, not who they actually are. But when we ask them to share stories about what it means to be a parent, or the first time they learned about parenting, things like that, the stories they tell in reply embed so much more emotion, and a lot more insight.

Then I go back and I analyze, not only the content of the story, but also the structure of the story. Was it a traditional hero’s journey or was it a man-in-a-hole kind of story, where they started out great and then, surprise, pregnancy happened. They have a different relationship with pregnancy compared to someone who, perhaps, was planning a family but then they realized they were ill-equipped to be parents. Those are two different stories, so when we see the structure, the narrative structure to each of the stories they’re sharing, we start to see a pattern across all of them.

CK: Is it key to get people to tell their own stories, so that you can look for the structure underneath it, versus, say, using techniques in which you observe and then tell their story for them?

KA: Both definitely, work. In a traditional market research setting, when you’ve got a month and they’ve only got fifteen interviews to do and a budget for that amount, the traditional interviews work, and you draw those stories out.

The nugget we want to get to, is finding that authentic narrative behind it all.

You can also observe these stories. You can do it either in a passive way – where you see it, you follow the hashtags on social media and things like that, observing the kinds of stories that are being shared – or you can very specifically follow a single person or have them observe themselves and upload content to you. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but the key idea, the nugget we want to get to, is finding that authentic narrative behind it all.

One of the examples I share is about interviewing people who are shopping for cars. If you ask them about the car they choose they’re going to tell you about how great it is, how it’s got this Blue Book value, and it’s got this satisfaction rating and such-and-such safety rating. But then, when you really get into the story behind it, the reason they might be choosing a car in the first place is that they’re dealing with the tension of being a new parent. Maybe they’re coming from the two-seater or the convertible, the exciting sports car – and struggling now to step away from that into the minivan world of airbags and third-row seats and all that stuff.

What they end up doing is saying, “That car is going to tell a story about me that is not who I think I am. I’m the guy with the Bimmer or the Lexus or the sports car. This car is the suburban dad hauling his kids to soccer every weekend – and that’s not me. But then, in come the auto brands that were traditionally sports car brands and they start to offer SUVs and such. Suddenly, this young dad’s narrative gets resolved. His tension of wanting to have a little bit of both gets resolved by that brand.

In this case, customers were struggling to express their story, and the vehicles available weren’t helping them. Then, when Alfa Romeo or Porsche or one of those high-end brands comes out with the SUV that has all the airbags and the extra cup holders and what have you, that gives the new mom or dad the opportunity to express their story in a way that feels authentic to them.

CK:  We live in a time when people like to justify themselves by being data-driven, and you’re certainly gathering data – but I’m guessing that the heart of the matter here isn’t the data so much as how it’s interpreted.

KA: Yes, absolutely.

CK: What does a narrative psychologist or this process bring to the gathered data, to make a difference with it? Because I’m still struggling a little bit to understand how this is different from previous research-driven product and brand development methods.

KA:  In some regards it’s very much an outgrowth of those methodologies. I think the difference lies in the way we analyze that same set of data and the way we look at the structures that are being revealed.

We’ve seen a large adoption, thankfully, of the idea that emotions are okay to talk about in the business world, that people have emotions and are influence by them. But focusing on emotions isn’t enough – we actually have to look at the role those emotions play in the lives of individuals, and understand what those emotions inspire, and what the outcomes are of having those emotions.

Narrative is looking at the long game. It’s seeing how you can play a role in peoples’ lives for the rest of the stories they’ve got.

Otherwise, I see as emotion as being like candy. Yes, it can make people feel happy for the moment, but then it’s just a moment of happiness, their life continues on – and your brand may or may not play a role in it. Narrative, to me, is looking at the long game. It’s seeing how you can play a role in peoples’ lives for the rest of the stories they’ve got, for the rest of that meaning they’re trying to create.

CK: If you had one bit of advice for the C-Suite relative to narrative and story, what would that be?

KA: I would say that if data is king, which a lot of folks think today, then narrative is the crown that everyone respects. You’ve got to not just emphasis and prioritize that folks are taking action or using the data, but that they’re actually making sense of it. That they’re taking that data and making it relevant and meaningful to the organization. That only happens in a narrative structure.

Narrative’s purpose is to make sense of data.

Narrative’s purpose is to make sense of data. If you’re in the C Suite, I would say definitely keep pushing on the data, but don’t forget to keep bringing those narratives, those stories to help make sense of it all. Otherwise, all that data will essentially fall to the wayside for your organization.

CK: Kristian, thank you very much.

KA: Thank you.

CK: I look forward to learning more about narrative and story.


About the Author Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.

Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.


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