Seeing and Speaking in NarrativeWritten on November 12th, 2011
The train is rolling by. I’m in my room at the Holiday Inn Capitol in DC and the tracks run right outside my window. The hum communicates enormous weight and power in rhythm punctuated by occasional quick squeals and now and then a whistle moan. Early this morning it half woke me several times. Tonight it sounds beautiful.
I taught a workshop on story and narrative today. One of my top three criteria for a good story is “at least one flesh and blood character”. I emphasize the importance of a protagonist and recommend giving people a human being to identify with, follow, root for, etc. — rather than an organization or an idea
That’s all true and good advice, but it is equally valuable to be able to see and communicate in narratives when the protagonist is not an individual. When it is a team or an organization; an idea, a cause or even a piece of legislation. I contend that looking for narratives and our roles in them is simply a wise way to approach life. We see and feel things and make connections we might otherwise miss.
On top of that, the ability to communicate in narratives pays off in all sorts of ways. People understand narratives and identify with them. Narratives engage. And when you speak in narratives, you’ve got a chance to frame the conversation.
Ira Glass defines the recurring sequence in all This American Life stories: “Then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, and this is what it means. Then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, and this is what it means.”
There’s a narrative to who your organization is. There’s a narrative to how you’ve evolved your mission. There’s a narrative to your biggest achievements. There’s a narrative to what you’re fighting for and what you’re fighting against. There’s a narrative to why your organization is valuable and how it plays an important role in bigger narratives. There’s a narrative to where you want to go in the next year or the next five. In every case it’s basically “Then this happens, then this happens, then this happens, and this is what it means” – or “and this is what we learned.”
Tapping into the unique power of story and narrative calls for both. You want to learn to tell stories of individual human beings with the plot and character arcs that can make such stories sing. And you also want to learn to see and speak in narratives about everything else.