Narratives are systems of beliefs that help you interpret the meaning of things. 

So if you want people to buy what you’re selling, it's important that they can interpret the meaning of what you’re offering the same way you do. 

A nutrition fanatic will see a juicy cheeseburger very differently from my hungry teenager, who’ll see it differently from an animal rights activist.

The Difference Between Storytelling and Narrative

A word about the difference between storytelling and narrative: A story has a beginning a middle and an end. It has characters and plot devices and often some kind of hero’s journey. 

That’s all great. 

Stories can convey urgency and emotion. They can convey more complexity more easily than many other forms of information sharing. But here’s the thing: If you’re a company, or an agency or a non-profit, then you have to tell a lot of stories. You have a story for your employees, you have a story for your investors. You have a story for your executives, you have a story for your customers, regulators, the media, analysts, etc. 

In the best of all possible worlds, each of your employees can tell a meaningful story. All of those stories better be coherent and consistent with one another. A structured master narrative gives you an organized library of core elements. A structured master narrative can tell a thousand stories.

Let me make it a little clearer. At some point in the last three decades you’ve probably watched The Simpsons, right? You have a cast of characters. Homer is the stupid, hapless leader of a family with a skate-board riding, mischief-making son, a smarty-pants daughter, a nice wife and an assortment of neighbors and townspeople. He works at a nuclear plant run by a the greedily evil Mr. Burns. There’s the bar, the school, the Quickie Mart and a church. 

That’s the narrative. 

Every episode presents a situation. The town bully, preacher, teacher or someone has some kind of challenge to overcome. Each character responds to the situation as you would expect them to based on their time, place and character.  This is the story.

Reinventing the Wheel, Every Week

If you try to tell stories without an underlying narrative, you are now inventing a whole new story every week. You have to think up new characters and contexts. You have to introduce people to those characters and contexts. You don’t get the efficiency of creating a new episode involving the same narrative in a new situation. You don’t get the impact of sharing another episode revealing a tiny bit more detail about the characters to the audience. It never gets easier or more impactful. 

Does this sound like your marketing efforts?

Do you have an underlying narrative that fuels new stories for every campaign, ad, blog post, channel experience and conference appearance? Or do you make up each one from scratch every time? Are you starting to see some of the value here?

No? That’s ok. I’m going to show you how you can measure the strength of your narrative even before we ever have to agree on what a narrative is or why its useful.

Let's start with your website. Websites are usually the most obvious expression of your narrative. They are usually created at great cost and effort as a digital presence and home base for your brand. 

Go ahead and pull it up. Pretend you aren’t the one who wrote the copy or the holder of strong opinions about the person who did.

Give the home page a quick glance. What is this page trying to tell you? Can you tell what the organization is selling (or offering in the case of a government or NGO)? Can you tell what this organization’s approach to their issue is? Can you tell where to go next? 

Could you get all of that within the span of an inhale and an exhale?

5 Narrative Criteria

We’re going to measure narrative strength across five criteria: 

  1. Organization: Do you have a clear narrative that has been created and acknowledged by your organization? Does it include a library of elements that you can use and reuse to create meaningful stories for different audiences and contexts? Does your entire organization have access to it? Is it reviewed, examined and updated over time?
  2. Presentation: Is your narrative presented well? Usually your primary narrative presentation is on your website, but it can be in other places as well — brochures, presentations, other media, social media and so forth. Is it presented in a way that is easily found by its audience? Easy to follow? Interesting and engaging?
  3. Clarity: If I can find your narrative and follow it, do I get it? Does it make sense? Do I understand how it relates to me and my needs?
  4. Resonance: We want to look at two kinds of resonance — emotional and intellectual. For the first, the key question is this: Does it make me feel something? Is it exciting? Does it speak to who I want to be? But we also need intellectual resonance. Does it make sense? Do you make a convincing argument well supported by evidence?
  5. Shareability: Perhaps the most important element. If I can find it, and follow it. If I can get it, it makes me feel something. It makes sense. Can I turn around and explain it to someone else? Do you make it easy to share?

The point here is to give you a concrete way to think about your narrative and to see its impact, even if you’re not totally on board with the concept. If you want to see how this applies to some real websites,  you can see my analysis of Bernie, Hillary, Donald and Ted’s websites here

Learning Opportunities

ROI of Narrative Strength Assessment

Why bother measuring narrative strength? 

This structured review will give you a clear, focused direction for elevating and improving your narrative. Once you’ve done this analysis, you can start having the right discussions, and start generating clear responses that will have an impact.

Why does that matter? 

What’s the bounce rate on your website? How well does your market know you? Do you need to talk directly to every prospect for them to understand you? Can word of your value spread organically or must you convince every single person in person?

The thing to understand here is that a great narrative can be intentionally and systematically built. It does not depend on a brilliant, charismatic leader or very good luck. It depends on understanding the important elements of a narrative and deliberately building them. 

We consistently see measurable results when people invest in their narrative. Website bounce rates plummet (in one case from 89 percent to 29 percent). Social media engagement rises, the content marketing team pulls together. Suddenly each new piece is a little easier to figure out. The connections between pieces and the website and other assets is easier to pull together. Product teams get excited. Now they have reasons for prioritizing their roadmap. Executive teams get excited. Now they have a framework for aligning their vision and decision-making.

The first step to investing in your narrative is to understand where you are right now. If you’d like to try measuring your narrative strength, you can use the worksheet below.

Your score will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re scoring below a 20 on this 40-point scale, you have real work to do, but you’ll have a much clearer idea of how to go after it. You may find that different people will score your site (or brochure, or pitch deck or all of those things and others together) somewhat differently. I’ve found, however that scores are reasonably consistent when you ask the same questions.

If you’re scoring over 30, it means you’re in decent shape but have the chance to sharpen your narrative to have a bigger impact. If you’re at 40, definitely let me know, because I haven’t seen one of those yet. 

Narrative Strength Worksheet

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Note — in the optimistic hope that y’all (I live in Virginia) will actually try this exercise, I’ve created a LinkedIn group where we can share and discuss them. If you’re interested in getting some feedback or seeing others, please join the group.

Title image by Edward Franklin

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