What exactly is a narrative?

The UK political conference season is now in full swing and the media are obsessing about ‘the narrative’. Last week, The Guardian claimed Labour leader Ed Miliband set out a “clear overarching narrative” for government. The Confederation of British Industry disagreed, arguing Miliband’s speech lacked an “economic narrative”. Others claimed his speech was part of a “narrative reorientation process…” – a procedure which sounds possibly quite painful.

The term narrative is being thrown about like confetti but what exactly is meant by it?

Unfortunately narrative is used in such varied ways as to make the notion almost vacuous. Often it is used as a short-hand for vision or mission, like when people want big ideas rather than policy details. Others use narrative in the sense of world-view or common opinion. The US media often talk about the “narrative” in Washington around President Obama, for example, essentially meaning what people like them think of him.

Stories too are often felt to be core to an understanding of narrative. But a narrative is more than a basic story. Ed Miliband’s anecdotes in his speech about people he met in the park may have been an attempt to create an overarching narrative but the stories themselves weren’t sufficient. They lacked other key components that make up a narrative.

So what is a narrative and what does it need to work?

In simple terms, a narrative is a series of events or actions told in a sequence or pattern that make sense together. As author and critic David Lodge put it: “The structure of a narrative is like the framework of girders that holds up a modern high-rise building: you can’t see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character”. Core to the sequence is a clear sense of beginning and end, hence why some stories make a perfect narrative, with a clear opening and close (eg “once upon a time” and “happily ever after”).

However narrative is usually understood to mean a story with a certain type of structure and component parts. To understand what type, we need to revisit the Ancient Greeks and particularly Aristotle’s work on Poetics. Aristotle argued a perfect story need not only have a beginning, middle and end, but that each element needs to take on certain characteristics. As well as setting the scene, the beginning needs to establish the sense of conflict or challenge to be overcome. As this conflict is explored, the middle part of the story must establish a turning point or twist that often, in the eyes of Aristotle, involved a reversal of fortunes. The end is the unravelling of the plot and the resolution of the conflict. In this way, Aristotle created a framework for a narrative that flows in an arc: the confrontation, the turning point, the denouement.

Most classical stories can be fitted into this framework. The story of David and Goliath, for example, begins with the Philistines preparing for war against the Israelites and Goliath, a mighty soldier, defying the whole Saul army. The twist comes when the young boy David decides to stop tending to his sheep and go to fight Goliath, using only stones as weapons. The story ends with Goliath killed, the Philistines routed and David winning recognition for his deeds.

Within this story structure, there also needs be characters. Psychologist Algirdas Julien Greimas distinguished three different pairs of actors in a narrative.

  1. The subject (the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’) and the object (the ‘grail’ or ‘goal’)
  2. The giver (the figure creating the object) and the receiver (the beneficiaries of the object)
  3. The helper (the people who help the hero achieve the goal) and opponent (the enemies!)

Most stories can be fitted in this framework. For example, The Lord of the Rings involves Frodo Baggins (subject) trying to find the fiery mountain (object). The giver of the mission is the wizard Gandalf and the beneficiaries of his mission are the people of Middle Earth. The helpers are many (particularly those in the Fellowship), as are the opponents (particularly the supporters of Sauron).

That’s how a narrative works in fiction, but how is it used elsewhere?

Actually, some of the greatest political speeches draw heavily on a narrative structure and approach. Take Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on 14th July 1941. Churchill’s purpose in the speech is to reassure the British people about the resilience of the nation in the face of the Blitz. He begins by looking back on what has just happened in London and admits when “the storm broke” he wasn’t sure about the quality of the civil defence services but they were held together by “unconquerable grit and stamina of our people”. In the key part of his speech, rather than trying to play down fears of what may be to come, Churchill talks up the threat, expecting “vehement counter-action by the enemy”. Yet despite the destruction, Churchill predicts the British people would not want a parley or truce. Using words he says are the voice of the majority, he says: “‘You do your worst – and we will do our best’.” He ends by reminding people why we won’t turn away from the goal, for “out of this time of trial and tribulation will be born a new freedom and glory for all mankind”.

I’m not sure Churchill used the term narrative, but more recent politicians have been explicit about its role. The late Lord Philip Gould, the Labour peer and political pollster, saw the notion of narrative as core to his articulation of Labour’s strategy. As my former colleague and Downing Street speech-writer Peter Hyman remembered, in Philip Gould: An Unfinished Life, Philip was always focused on the sense of narrative journey:

“What is the journey we are taking the country on? What are the landmarks? And how will we know when we get there? A sense of journey is utterly vital to prevent being knocked off course. If people know where you are heading then setbacks count for little. There are always obstacles in the way of big projects and the public will accept them. If the public do not know what the sacrifice is for, or what the sunny uplands look like, then they will be unforgiving of incompetence or hardship on the way.”

The narrative is also a key tool for the successful CEO. It is a way of bringing people together behind a shared sense of history, mission and purpose, united against a common enemy and focused on a single prize. As psychologist and educational expert Howard Gardner explains:

“Leadership involves the creation of powerful narratives, narratives that are much more than mission statements or messages. They are actually stories where there are goals and obstacles, where good and bad things can happen along the way and where the people involved feel part of an enterprise that’s trying to end up in a better place.”

However Gardner is also quick to point out that leaders need to embody their narrative as well as explain it: the narrative must be something they do as well as say.

A great example of a corporate narrative is Virgin Atlantic’s. In a recent article in the Daily Telegraph celebrating the 30th birthday of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson tells the story of an innovative new airline trying to put the fun back into flying for its customers, in the face of an industry with a reputation for terrible customer service, competitors like BA who tried to block their progress and a perilous financial situation which almost broke his business. Challenges overcome, competitors bested, innovations delivered, Branson is able to look back on 30 years of fun, flying and success.

This may all be true, but why should we care about narratives, anyway?

For one thing, people remember narratives better than they do random facts or anecdotes. If you doubt this, just think about how you remember simple information like phone numbers. Most people don’t find it easy to remember a long list of numbers (like 4214972) but they can remember the same information when grouped together (such as 42 14 972). The narrative is a more sophisticated ‘memory tree’ which joins together different elements into a memorable story. As PR consultant Nick Morgan argues in Forbes magazine: “Because our brains retain stories better than any other form of information, we develop shortcuts to handle all the information we need to in the modern world. The most important shortcut is the narrative.”

Narratives are also a good way of engaging the audience in a shared battle. Told right, they can be motivating and inspiring, hence why they have become particularly important for politicians. As author John Hagel argues: “Narratives are far more powerful than stories because they actively call for participation – they are open-ended, with the resolution hinging on the choices and actions that each of us will take in the days and years ahead. The outcome depends on us. What will we choose to do?”

Philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre go further, claiming an understanding of narrative history is a prerequisite for any understanding of human actions and the identification of the virtues required to succeed. In his seminal work After Virtue, MacIntyre argued: “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal… I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Those tasked with writing speeches for political leaders during the conference season would do well to remember MacIntyre’s words. Just listing actions or achievements rarely helps to inspire or motivate people. Instead we need to provide a sense of the context, the challenge, the heroes and the villains. Only by explaining what story we are in can we hope to take people with us.

Click here to read more about our approach to narrative development.