Distinction Between Story and Narrative: Power and Purpose

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Winston Churchill painting
Words are very powerful. Sir Winston Churchill, who wrote every word of his many speeches, was a British Prime Minister whose speeches rallied a nation under a relentless Nazi onslaught in World War II. Of him, historians said he could march words into battle — and so he did.

Consider this quote from a landmark speech he gave:

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Those words came from the man, and it’s important to understand what took him to his position of influence to change the course of history even as we study the events. Churchill overcame a lisp and taught himself the art of oratory. He wrote:

“The climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures.”

As NPR reports:

You can hear the way he employed these rhetorical methods in the weekly radio address he gave on Sept. 11, 1940, as he responded to Hitler’s merciless aerial assault on London:

“This monstrous product of former wrongs and shame has now resolved to try to break our famous island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. What he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts which will glow long after all traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed.”

Churchill’s appealed to President Roosevelt for aid:

“What is the answer that I shall give, in your name, to this great man, the thrice-chosen head of a nation of a hundred and thirty millions?”

“Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt.”

Another long pause, and then he said:

“Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long‐drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

Many at the time thought Britain’s odds of beating the Germans were slim at best:
Yet what Winston Churchill did, by constantly putting Britain’s peril in the greater historical context of other times that Britain had nearly been invaded, but had been ultimately successful, he managed to tell the British people that this could happen again.
Churchill put the current story within a larger narrative. This is how story shows its power. Greg Satell provides an example from the business world — that of Vanguard’s founder John Bogle who started his career on a high achievement note, but he was impacted by 1973 recession:

It was a humbling experience, but Bogle managed to turn it to his advantage.  It led him to research that showed few, if any, fund managers beat the market over the long term.  So rather than chase the pipe dream of superior returns, he created low-fee index funds that would mirror the market.  Today, Vanguard, the company he founded, is the world’s largest fund manager.

We relate to stories, they connect emotionally with us and thus we can remember them more easily. Greg says:

The problem with stories, as John Hagel points out, is that they are self contained—they have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Narratives, on the other hand, are open-ended and invite participation.  They encapsulate an ambition.
 
[…]
 
Yet what makes those stories infinitely more powerful—and more interesting—is the narrative they support.
When we tease out the purpose behind a powerful story we find its potential — the broader narrative. Churchill’s speeches inform the narrative and mission: Britain shall be victorious. That mission influenced a country and its people.
 
Businesses are made of people. Stories are powerful, but it is when they are connected into a cohesive narrative that they lead to purpose — why we are here, what the business is about, where we are going.
 
Words matter. They are the blocks upon which we tell stories and build the narrative of our time — and businesses. As I wrote in that post:
In our increasingly twitterized world, it’s easy to forget the value of words. Less is more, as communication gets stripped to its barest essentials. Syntax, elegance, and grammar — all gone, in the service of utilitarian economy.
 
But just because we’re no longer chipping our thoughts into stone, we shouldn’t assume their lack of permanence or effect. Our most trivial online musings rarely escape the unblinking, restless gaze of Google and its seemingly limitless virtual libraries of digital storage.
What is the broader narrative of our time? Are we using our creative power to support a purpose? Not connecting the two is why two thirds of projects fail.
 
 
[image Winston Churchill painting]


Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni

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