But they are often discussed in articles and commentary in wildly dramatic terms, as if there is some mystic art behind their development and delivery.
A narrative should be a clear, concise and practical tool for the organisation, forged from the culture of the organisation and used as the foundation for all engagement activities with stakeholders. It should be developed with extensive input from those within the company and embedded across all the organisation’s touchpoints with those groups. There should be at least as much emphasis on embedding its use as there is on its articulation in the first place.
Here are a few steps (among many) I would recommend:
1. Understand parameters
Any narrative project, however wide the commitment to employee involvement, must start with a framework. This must come from conversations with leaders, so you gain a clear understanding – in their words – of the organisation’s purpose, ‘north star’ and strategic themes. Those leaders will also set the cultural tone for the organisation and act as guardians of its core values. Drawing out different leaders’ views on all these areas will give you a framework within which to work.
2. Involve team leaders/supervisors
Sometimes, in these projects, there is a rush to involve front-line employees as quickly as possible. Such involvement is, of course, essential to creating a narrative that is both compelling and credible. But don’t neglect the ‘squeezed middle’: the team leaders and/or supervisors who play a pivotal role in translating strategic aims into day-to-day action. They are a crucial group in their own right, so gain sufficient representation from them and tailor your research guides and materials to seek their input.
3. Craft, test, craft, test
One great challenge in these projects is to collate and distil key themes emerging from employee involvement into a clear, concise and compelling narrative. But don’t shape it solely behind closed doors and then unveil it to the world. Test it with key stakeholders to help maintain their involvement and assess whether the themes (and words) you’re proposing resonate and inspire. Make it an iterative process.
4. Find the ‘proof points’
Any narrative stands or falls on its credibility and, therefore, must be supported by evidence. This can come in several forms, from facts & stats to mini case-studies, all of which should form part of the supporting material on which you can draw for engagement activities. Spend time seeking these ‘proof points’ early on.
5. Work with touchpoint ‘owners’
Every organisation has multiple touchpoints with its stakeholders. These are often managed by many different people, with limited interaction or cross-over: these colleagues’ adoption of the narrative – or otherwise – will mean the difference between a narrative that lives and breathes within the company and a project that withers on the vine. So identify these colleagues and examine how best to connect and communicate with them. Lean on your senior sponsors to help them set expectations. Work with touchpoint ‘owners’ to engage them in the narrative, identify their support needs and flesh out any concerns. Provide a simple toolkit of materials and guidance to help them. Stay in touch and work with them on delivering principles in practice. Be a collaborator, coach, agony aunt and steadfast support.
6. Keep evolving
A narrative should be a living, practical tool for the organisation. It should not be a set of fine words that sits in a document or is posted on a website and forgotten about. As the company changes, the narrative should evolve with it. Establish a practical and systematic process for reviewing, updating and re-issuing the narrative (and/or supporting ‘proof points’) to touchpoint owners.
There are many other steps to consider, but these are some fundamental pointers that make a big difference, whether you’re an SME or a multinational.