Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

A presentation by John Hagel, Chairman of Deloitte, at the recent SXSW conference has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere.  In it, Hagel advocates differentiating story from narrative.  While he is right to draw the distinction and gets some of the differences right, he misses some key features of narratives that explain why they can be so persuasive.

In his presentation, Hagel notes the power of stories for engaging audiences, but says they have limited power because of their closed-ended nature. They have a beginning, middle and end. Once a story resolves, it is more or less over. It is also more about the people in the story than about the listener. It can be retold and serve as an example, but beyond that there is limited opportunity for members of an audience to engage it.

Narratives are different, Hagel says, for two reasons. First, they are open-ended—they do not have a resolution. Second, they have an implicit “invitation to participate,” which allows listeners to play a role in what the outcome is going to be. “There is something that is in the process of unfolding. The end is yet to be determined. And…there is an invitation for all of us to participate in that narrative, to help determine what the outcome is going to be,” he says.

Hagel goes on to say that narratives operate at personal, institutional, and social levels. Examples of social narratives he gives are Christianity and the American narrative, which motivate “incredible action” over time. An example of an institutional narrative, according to Hagel, is Apple’s “Think Different” slogan, which encapsulates a much broader narrative of the potential of technology to help us break out of the conformity of mass society and express our individuality. Finally, personal narratives are central who we are and how we act.  Opportunities and threats presented in the larger narratives, says Hagel, motivates these actions.

Hagel is right to draw the story/narrative distinction, and is correct that narratives are open-ended. However, as he presents things a narrative is just a story that is open-ended, yet to be resolved. Stories can indeed be open ended. The NATO-countries’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is one such story right now. Sooner or later, that will resolve to a closed story and become part of a larger, open-ended Afghanistan narrative.

narrative-system-2This is one way in which Hagel misses the point. A narrative is not just an unresolved story, but a system of stories, some resolved and some not. This is a point we have stressed in earlier posts in this blog (for example, here,  here and here), and in our book Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism. It is the “systemness” of a narrative that makes it open-ended because new stories can always develop that relate to other stories in the system, thus providing an ongoing basis for interpreting events and motivating behavior. The “social narratives” Hagel identifies—Christianity and the American narrative—are exactly like this, and are clearly more than just unresolved stories.

Another thing Hagel gets right: There is a relationship between larger narratives and the individual narratives that guide our lives. But in my opinion he misses a key step. He distinguishes between social and institutional narratives, but this is a distinction without a difference. Society is made up of institutions, and institutions are necessarily social. Take two examples he gives: The American narrative and the individualism promoted by Apple’s slogan. The American narrative is in large part based on stories of individualism, and individualism is itself strongly rooted in narratives of the Reformation and Enlightenment. Apple’s slogan actually invokes the American narrative, which is what makes it so effective as a marketing tool.

So Hagel’s formulation has the broad social narratives at the highest level—what we would label master narratives, which endure over time and are broadly known by members of a culture—and personal narratives at the lowest level.  The step he is missing is what we have called local narratives, systems of stories about events in the here-and-now. Local narratives ground master narratives in contemporary events and define a place where individuals can cast themselves in roles, aligning their personal narratives. This creates vertical integration, where all three levels are aligned, and it makes for an extraordinary persuasive package.

Islamist extremists are brilliant in applying vertical integration. They use a number of master narratives (13 of which are defined in Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, though there are more) to interpret contemporary events as threats, enticing their audience to cast themselves in roles as defenders of the faith. For example, as I argue in a forthcoming book, the Taliban exploit a narrative vacuum in Afghanistan to portray NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as modern-day Crusaders, there to subjugate and exploit Muslims. The Taliban present themselves as champions who are there to resist the Crusader forces and they encourage ordinary Afghans to take up their cause (i.e., align their personal narratives). Together they will repel the invaders as Afghans have done so many times before (e.g., the Brits in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s) and establish an Islamic Emirate as the rightful government of the country.

Likewise, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign draws on the American master narrative to frame contemporary events as a system that works to submerge individuals in a sea of social conformity. They encourage their target audience to resist by drawing on the power of technology (Apple’s, of course) to reclaim their individualism and fight the forces of sameness. Thus they achieve vertical integration between the American master narrative, contemporary social events, and personal narratives of their target audience.

If we treat narratives only as unfinished stories, we lose the perspective that comes from systems thinking. The real power of narrative lies in the connections between stories. Within levels, these connections create open-endedness that allows a broad range of events to come under a narrative’s scope. Between levels, the connections can create a powerful persuasive package that relates events at broad social and cultural scales, to what is happening now, and in turn to how we should think and behave.