We live in a world of ever more change and choice, a world where we have far more opportunity than ever to achieve our potential. That kind of world is enormously exciting, and full of options. But it is also highly disorienting, threatening to overwhelm us with sensory and mental overload.
In that kind of world, the ability to provide persistent context becomes paradoxically ever more valuable. Persistent context helps to orient us and connect us in ways that can accelerate our efforts to achieve our potential.
Content versus context
In our digital world, content providers progressively chunk up their offerings to provide more choice and easier access. Music is now available by the track rather than packaged onto a CD. Sure, we will continue to watch movies and TV programs on our digital devices, but increasingly we consume video in bite-sized chunks – the preferred length of a YouTube video is 2 – 5 minutes. As for text, it has been progressively deconstructed from books to articles to blog postings to 140 character tweets.
As this occurs, value moves from content to context. In the old days, context came in various forms. It came in the package that delivered the content (you often could judge a book by its cover) or, even more broadly, it came from the stable surroundings that produced the content. We had familiarity with the institutions and societies that generated the content. As our world fragments and changes ever more rapidly, we find that context cannot be taken for granted – it must be defined.
We have already seen a growing emphasis on experience as an important element of context. Stories have become increasingly important to provide even broader context. We are now on the cusp of a revival of narrative as an even more valuable context.
The context trajectory – from experiences to stories to narratives
What is the context trajectory here? Experience is content specific and static – it generally ends when the interaction with the content ends. Stories add a more dynamic element – they position specific content within a flow of events but these events typically have a beginning, middle and end. Stories unfold over a defined period of time.
Stories and narratives are often used interchangeably, as synonyms. But here I will draw a crucial distinction between the two. Narratives, at least in the way I will be using them, are stories that do not end – they persist indefinitely. They invite, even demand, action by participants and they reach out to embrace as many participants as possible. They are continuously unfolding, being shaped and filled in by the participants. In this way, they amplify the dynamic component of stories, both in terms of time and scope of participation. Stories are about plots and action while narratives are about people and potential.
Examples of narratives
What are some examples of narratives? Religion is full of narrative. Take the Christian narrative: people are born in sin but have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior. All of us are part of the narrative and it is open ended – how it turns out depends on our choices and actions and it continually unfolds as new people are born every day.
The growth of the United States critically hinged on a compelling narrative that we have a Manifest Destiny as fugitives from oppression to deliver freedom to the rest of the world (I didn’t say narratives had to be true, only that they have to engage the imaginations and actions of participants). As long as oppression exists in the world, this narrative mobilizes us to act and the future awaits to be defined.
Narratives are versatile. Many different stories can nest within a broader narrative – witness the many stories in the Bible and religious texts that help to illustrate and support the broader narrative. In an even more fine-grained way, experiences can be designed and used to support narratives as well. Anyone who has attended a Catholic mass can appreciate the way that experiences help to draw people into and reinforce the power of broader narratives.
The role that narratives play
Narratives provide stability and continuity in our lives. Narratives help to orient us. When confronted with a growing barrage of demands on our attention, narratives help us to filter, select and prioritize what should receive our attention.
In fact, narratives motivate action by helping to make sense of the world around us. They can diminish our perception of risk while at the same time increasing our perception of rewards. Thus, by making sense, narratives also help us to make progress. By inviting people to take initiative, narratives encourage people to lead. Narratives have the potential to profoundly shape the future.
Narratives also help participants construct meaning, purpose and identity for themselves. They help to situate participants in a broader context and to build relationships across participants.
At their most profound level, narratives help to ignite and nurture passion within us. They help us to imagine new possibilities, develop confidence that we can act to create those possibilities and motivate us to overcome any obstacles that we face in achieving those possibilities.
The need for new narratives
Narratives became deeply suspect in the post-modernist world, where eternal truths gave way to texts that needed to be situated and then deconstructed. Deconstruction and fragmentation reigned supreme.
Now we must pick up the pieces and re-assemble them into new and more compelling narratives. As human beings, we resist atomization and fragmentation; we yearn to connect and build on the efforts of others. We also seek meaning, purpose and identity on an individual level – something that narratives, and little else, are exquisitely designed to provide.
This human need helps to explain the resurgence of fundamentalist movements around the world as well as the continuing appeal of nationalism. Without new narratives, we will fall back onto older narratives that help us to make sense of the increasing confusing world around us and provide a compass to guide our actions.
We desperately need new narratives that will provide alternatives to the older, more confining narratives. These new narratives must embrace the fragmentation and change that give us more choice and options while helping to orient us and calling us to more fully realize the potential that we all have.
While narratives can help to orient and provide meaning, they also can blind us to alternative ways of viewing the world around us. What we need are narratives of explorers, rather than narratives of true believers. The narratives of explorers emphasize the opportunity to learn and grow by constantly framing new questions and embarking on quests to gain new insight through action. They focus on the possibilities to be discovered rather than the certainties to be recovered.
In constructing new narratives, we have many choices. Narratives can serve as unifiers (US national narrative) or as dividers (Marxist narrative). I suspect we need a narrative somewhere in the middle – one that celebrates our diversity but highlights the opportunity to create remarkable things by focusing this diversity on common goals. There are threat based narratives and opportunity based narratives; if we want to achieve our potential, we are better served by opportunity based narratives. Similarly, there are tragic narratives and heroic narratives – heroic narratives draw out the best in all of us.
Joseph Campbell identified the hero’s journey as the core foundation of the mythology that helped orient people in civilizations around the world. While the hero’s journey can be read as an elitist, even paternalist, narrative, perhaps we have an opportunity to reframe that narrative as one where we all have the opportunity to participate as heroes, subject to the same challenges and distractions as the heroes of the past but also having the same potential to improve the world. Rather than waiting for, and looking up to, the heroes who will bring us salvation, we can begin to look within and find the hero in all of us.
Different levels of narratives
Narratives can be framed at the individual, institutional and society levels. Many of us are embracing the possibilities created by the Big Shift and we are framing new narratives for ourselves at the individual level. The problem is that most of our institutions have abandoned narratives and instead focus on short-term performance. Our Shift Index and the revelation of steadily deteriorating ROA suggest that this approach is fundamentally flawed. The deteriorating trust in all of our institutions, both commercial and governmental, is another indication that the absence of compelling institutional narratives undermines our ability to build long-term trust based relationships with our institutions.
This is an extraordinary white space that is becoming ever more valuable as the fragmentation of content continues and the pace of change accelerates. The institutions that recognize this opportunity and move quickly to fill this vacuum will create enormous value and play a significant role in shaping our future.
But here’s the catch. Narratives cannot be crafted by PR departments. They emerge out of, and are sustained by, daily practice. They require taking a long-term view of trajectories that extend well beyond the individual institution. They also need to penetrate beneath the surface events that occupy our daily newspaper headlines to tap into the deep forces that are shaping these surface events. Our existing institutional leaders are generally poorly equipped to take on this opportunity.
The narrative opportunity is not just at the institutional level. It is even more significant at the level of society. As we become more and more fragmented and polarized, we need a compelling narrative that will help to focus our collective initiatives beyond any single institution. To have real power, it must be a far-reaching narrative, one that helps to stimulate, explain and focus all of the initiatives within society.
The technological foundation of narratives
On the positive side, the tools required to take on this task are becoming more and more powerful and ubiquitous. Think of all the great narratives of the past – their penetration of the society ultimately depended on their ability to transcend the confines of any individual medium. Yes, Christians had their bible as a core text, but they quickly moved into sermons, music, theater and video to evangelize the message. Look at the most successful evangelical preachers today and you will discover some of the most sophisticated transmedia platforms available. They have even discovered the power of small, local gatherings of believers to co-create the narrative. Our digerati talk in glowing terms about the emerging power of transmedia but its full power will not be harnessed until appropriate narratives emerge.
Digital technology provides all of us the ability to define and communicate narratives in rich and textured ways. Video and audio tools and platforms supplement conventional text-based forms of communication, and put them in the hands of everyone. Of course, the democratization of communication poses its own challenges. While it helps us to frame and communicate our own personal and institutional narratives, it makes it more challenging to frame social narratives that can unite rather than fragment us as we seek to learn faster by working together.
So, we increasingly have affordable and ubiquitous tools to help us communicate and enrich engaging narratives. We now need a new generation of leaders to put these tools to good use.
The bottom line
The role of a narrative is ultimately to attract, engage, motivate and call people to more fully achieve their potential. Narratives represent a powerful pull mechanism that can shape the world around us.
Who will craft these broader social narratives? Who even understands the need and power of a new set of social narratives? What would such social narratives look like?