Narrative's 10x Effect




It’s not enough any more to say “we make widgets.” With changes happening so quickly from so many directions—competition, regulation, technology, talent, customer behavior—it’s easy for one’s story to become generic or outdated.

You want a story that inspires employees, excites partners, attracts customers and engages influencers. A story that is concise but comprehensive. Specific but with room to grow. One that defines the company’s vision, communicates the strategy and embodies the culture.

The natural step is to give the assignment to an agency. Most branding firms will come back with a tagline and positioning statement; most advertising agencies with creative treatments and marketing campaigns; and most PR firms with messaging and communication plans. These are useful tactics, but not the kind of story you are looking for.

A Strategic Narrative is a special kind of story. It says who you are as a company: where you’ve been, where you are and where you are going; how you believe value is created; and what you value in relationships. It explains why you exist and what makes you unique.

This doesn’t come out of the usual competitive landscape, customer interviews and whiteboard sessions. It takes a different approach and a shift in thinking led by the leadership team.


The first step is to understand the context of the Narrative. Research shows that our brains think of companies not as objects but as people. Every time someone engages with your brand, they are saying: “Tell me about your yourself.”

Consider the scenario of a job interview. You have the candidate’s resume, but what really matters can’t be put on paper. You want to know what inspires them, what they are like to work with and whether they can be counted on. You want to get a sense of them as a person.

It may sound a bit strange at first, but the same is true for your company. The context of the narrative must be a human relationship, not an institutional one. People want to get a sense of your company as though it were a person.

Human relationships require reciprocity and authenticity. The Narrative should say who you are, not just what you do.

The cornerstone of strategic narrative is a Shared Purpose: an outcome that you and your customer are working toward together. It’s more than the value proposition of what you deliver to them, or the mission of what you do for the world. It’s the journey that you are on with them.

With a Shared Purpose, the customer relationship shifts from consumer to co-creator.

Purpose To, For, With

Most leaders think of purpose as a purpose for—what you do on behalf of your customers. But what is needed is a purpose with.

Customers are no longer just consumers; they’re co-creators. They aren’t just passive members of an audience; they are active members of a community. They want to be a part of something: to belong, to influence, to engage.

It’s not enough for customers to feel good about your purpose. They want it to be their purpose too. They don’t want to be at the other end of your for. They want to be right there with you. Purpose needs to be shared.

You can go deeper into the idea of purpose by looking at Purpose Metrics.

We are all familiar with what you might call profit metrics: the measures that tell you whether you are on track to increase growth and efficiency. These include basic things like cost, revenue and margin. But how do you know if you are on track to fulfill your purpose?

Some companies have measures of social impact such as environmental footprint or charitable activities. These are important and valuable. But they measure your Purpose FOR, not your Purpose WITH. So how do you measure Purpose WITH?

Measuring Shared Purpose

Did you ever see the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart? There is a famous line in the movie that says “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

We can apply this idea as a metric for your purpose. Imagine that you have three bells in your office.


The first bell measures your Purpose TO — it rings when you sell and deliver your product.


The second bell measures your Purpose FOR — it rings when someone in your company expresses purpose in their work.


The third bell measures your Purpose WITH — it rings when anyone manifests your purpose to the world.

People don’t fundamentally change, and neither do companies. When they are founded, a kind of DNA is created that persists for the life of the company. The Strategic Narrative must align with this brand DNA, or it will be perceived as inauthentic.

To find your brand DNA, go back to the original vision and ethos of your founder(s).

Climbing the Mountain

A common concern about Shared Purpose is that it isn't distinctive enough. But that's the point. You want your Shared Purpose to tap into a universal need or aspiration. Everyone should want to wear the shirt—it creates the gravitational pull around your brand.

Brand DNA is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s uniquely yours. No one else can have your DNA. Purpose and DNA come together in your Path to Purpose.

Think about it like climbing a mountain. Your Shared Purpose is the mountain. Everyone on the mountain is pursuing the same purpose. But there are different ways up the mountain.

Your Path to Purpose is the part of the Narrative that tells people how you are going to achieve the Shared Purpose.

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What Everyone Brings to the Potluck

When your Narrative starts with your product, everything is about what you can do for others.  It’s like a full-service restaurant: just show up, enjoy the meal and pay the bill.

But when your Narrative starts with your Shared Purpose, things need to be more reciprocal and multi-dimensional. Everyone has something to contribute. It’s more like a potluck in which everyone brings a different dish. A potluck doesn’t work if everyone brings the same dish, or if some people don’t bring anything at all.

A key part of the Narrative therefore describes everyone’s Contribution to your Shared Purpose—like the potluck for your purpose.



Everyone knows the Nike slogan: “Just Do It.” What makes this slogan so powerful is that in three words it captures three different elements: Shared Purpose, Path to Purpose and Contribution.

Nike’s Shared Purpose is: “Inspiring the athlete in all of us.”

The Path to Purpose is: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”  

The potluck is the idea that:

  • Nike can provide the shoes, apparel and equipment.
  • Nike’s athletes can provide the inspiration.
  • Your friends can provide the support.  
  • But you have to get off the couch, lace up your shoes and “just do it.”  

Everyone contributes something.

What Part Do You Play?

Have you ever seen an improv comedy show? If so, you know that every sketch starts with two things: a setting and roles.

If you don’t know the roles, you can’t do the sketch. You might know the setting is a car, but the role might be a salesperson and buyer, or mechanic and owner, or driver and passenger. Even if you know it’s a driver and passenger, is it a friend driving a friend to the airport? A parent teaching their teenager to drive? Or an Uber driver picking up a customer?

Most companies have narratives that operate inside only a few role relationships. The most common are Seller / Buyer, Employer / Employee, and Distributor / Reseller. They all have one thing in common: they are all commercial relationships based on a transaction.

The Narrative needs to explain why someone should have a relationship with you beyond the benefits of buying your product. This means that you need to define a Brand Role that is something other than being a seller.

For more about Brand Roles, see the Narrative Guidebook.

To change what people do, you first have to change how they think.

Change is like a trapeze. People don’t let go of the old bar until there’s a new one within reach. The problem isn’t getting them to learn something new, it’s getting them to unlearn something they already know.

This shift in thinking, or mindshift, can be achieved in three steps:  

  1. Get people to see that the rope is fraying: their current way of thinking is ineffective.
  2. Show them the new bar: there is a better way of thinking about their situation.
  3. Help them leap to the new bar: let go of the old thinking and adopt the new mindset.

When trying to shift thinking, most of us tend to focus on the second step to persuade people why our way of thinking (or product or company) is is better than others.

But most people on the trapeze get stuck when it comes to the first or third. They can be convinced your solution is better, but they don’t think they have the problem, or they aren’t ready to make the jump.

The “Horseless Carriage”

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When motor cars first came into being around 1900, people had no frame of reference. They were like a carriage, but without a horse, so they became known as “horseless carriages.” In the picture below, you can also see that they were steered not with a wheel, but with something like a boat tiller.

As humans, we see the new through the lens of the old. If you have a novel solution, you need to give people a way to make the bridge from the old to the new. Before you ask people to let go of the old trapeze, give them a way to have one hand on the old bar and one hand on the new.

Steve Jobs used the same strategy about a century later when he introduced the iPhone as three new products: a touch iPod, a mobile phone and an Internet communicator. Then he showed how the three products were actually one device: the iPhone. 

Read more about mindshifts and work on identifying your own in our Narrative Guidebook.

We started with a Shared Purpose that defines your business in a way that makes it universally relevant and engaging. You can think about the Narrative as expressing these dimensions of your purpose.  

  • Differentiation: Why your approach is different than others (Path to Purpose)
  • Authenticity: Why you are genuinely qualified to fulfill this purpose (DNA)
  • Relationship: How you relate to others and how they relate to you (Contribution, Roles)
  • Engagement: How you pull people into your orbit (Mindshift)
  • Progress: How you stay aligned to your purpose and measure success (Metrics)

These all come together in final test called “Bring It On.” This is the element of your narrative that is the essence of what you are about. The thing that you know you are better at than anyone else. The dimension on which you want to compete.

The test is: If a competitor said they were going to compete with you on this thing, you would say “Bring it on!”  

  • Imagine if Microsoft said, “We are going to compete by being user-friendly and having elegant design.” Apple would say “Bring it on!”
  • Imagine if Dunkin Donuts said, “We are going to create more inviting environments as a Third Place.” Starbucks would say “Bring it on!”

It’s not your value proposition, although it might be related to that. Rather, your company’s “Bring It On” is the focal point of your Narrative. Try to boil it down to a phrase or saying that captures the essence of the entire thing.

Now that you have the individual threads of your narrative, it's time to weave them together into something concise, clear and compelling by creating a messaging document to inform all your other communications.

You can think of this as a touchstone or “stem cell” document, because it serves as the basis for lots of other kinds of expression.

You ultimately want two formats of this document: presentation and prose. The prose format ensures your Narrative stands on its own. The presentation format ensures it can be delivered by others.

To ensure that the Narrative can scale longer or shorter without losing its essence, the prose version has four lengths:

  • A word or phrase
  • A sentence
  • A paragraph
  • A page

The presentation version usually starts with some kind of observation or insight—ideally, something intuitive but not obvious. This is the best combination to get people nodding their head in agreement, trusting in your credibility and interested to learn more.    

The best narratives don’t try to sell people on anything. They create a connection and flow in which people naturally convince themselves. Remember that the purpose of the narrative is to establish a foundation for relationship. The narrative is saying:

  • Who you are as a company
  • Why you do what you do
  • What you are out to achieve in the world
  • How you achieve it
  • Who you are for others

Naturally, you should write the narrative in a way that is attentive to your audiences. Most importantly, write it in a way that inspires you. Ultimately it’s your passion and authenticity that will make your Narrative engaging.

The Narrative Journey Guidebook

Practice a new way of thinking about digital storytelling to create more enduring and authentic engagement and differentiation. This Guidebook walks you through the elements of the Strategic Narrative, giving you examples from companies you know and simple exercises to start applying it to your own business.


Say Goodbye to Hollywood: A New Kind of Storytelling

Shared Purpose

Purpose Metrics


Path to Purpose


Brand Roles


Putting It All Together

Writing It Up

Keep Learning About Narrative