Why you should be building an engaging corporate narrative in 2021

How to tell the story of your business to employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders in a way that drives the business forward

Truly great storytelling is compelling – it draws the reader in and can make them think and act differently as a result.

Authors are, by definition, brilliant storytellers.

They are the masters of every element of the narratives they manage and craft. The characters. The locations. The values of the cast. And, however many narratives they craft – they are able wrangle them together into a clear and compelling story that has a fixed ending.

Contrast that with the task facing brand and business leaders today.

Their narratives are constantly being shifted around them, often by things far outside of their control. The parts of the narrative – the values, the positioning, the purpose – are frequently designed in silo, by different people, at different times and under different direction. These moving parts are regularly impacted by external change – and the pace of that change is only increasing.

Storytelling for business is not easy. Tying these elements together is complex – but critical – in navigating change. Finding a way to connect initiatives into a clear story is key. Ultimately, a compelling story – or narrative – can help manage internal and external expectations, resulting in buy in and permission to achieve business goals.

As a result, storytelling has never been more important as a weapon in business leader’s toolkits.

So, how do you craft a narrative that tells the story of your business to employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders in a way that helps drive the business forward and delivers the impact required? 


Let’s start from the beginning – what do we mean by corporate narrative?

We are seeing narrative as a recurring theme in conversations with our clients – and particularly post-COVID, we’ve seen more and more business and brand leaders (across all sectors) seek advice on a range of questions from:

  • “how to connect with remote workforces?”
  • “how to explain the changes we are making to the business to the outside world?”
  • “how to communicate a change in direction?”
  • “how to unify and link together different internal initiatives?”
  • “how to connect disparate elements of brand and business?” (for example, connecting an Employee Value Proposition with a positioning, or purpose with a digital transformation programme)

Sometimes known as a business story or strategic narrative, a corporate narrative weaves together the key strategic elements of brand, culture and business strategy into a coherent and powerful story that can inform and inspire internal and external audiences to change their perceptions or behaviour in relation to the organisation. 

 

“A corporate 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”.

[HBR. https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-to-build-a-strategic-narrative]

 

This is important because, quite often, elements of brand, culture and business strategy are defined in isolation from each other over time. A narrative is the story that brings together and aligns these disparate business and brand elements – joining up various elements, providing clarity on what they mean and helping engage the business with them.

 

So what makes a good corporate narrative?

Typically split into 3 buckets, good corporate narratives explain WHY an agenda is important, WHAT has been achieved to date and WHAT to expect in the future.

“You cannot just look forward, you need to look back too. A powerful narrative takes your people on a journey – explaining why you started out on the journey, highlighting what you’ve achieved to date, and getting colleagues excited about what’s coming next”

Marc Whittingham, Engagement & Internal Communications, TUI UK & Ireland

 

As a result, narratives are powerful internally to engage and unite colleagues against a strategy, and can also be used externally to excite and inspire customers [be those consumers (B2C) or other businesses (B2B)].

If done well, a compelling narrative can help businesses in both the immediate, and the longer term:

  • Short term management opportunity to present business changes in a coherent way
  • Long term strategy opportunity to engage and galvanise employees / customers on your journey to realising your goals

There are many commercial benefits to doing this well – not least that a good corporate narrative can unlock value from previous investments in purpose, positioning and identity – even if those workstreams have been undertaken at different times and by different management teams (and even if those elements have previously failed to ‘land’ inside the business).

It’s an attractive opportunity for brand and business leaders, because it takes existing investment and helps it add up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s also attractive because it starts from the premise that the building blocks of the story are not necessarily broken, they simply need reassessing, revising and updating to match the context the business is currently faced with.

Yet it is also a different type of brand thinking, in that corporate narrative needs to be reviewed, updated and recommunicated to the audience far more regularly than a purpose or a positioning.

 

And that’s the catch

A narrative alone isn’t enough to inspire change and encourage action. What goes around it, how often and how well it comes to life in the organisation, is just as critical. Here are five strategies to employ to engage colleagues in change successfully –

1.

Start from the top: “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” [HBR]

The narrative needs to feel authentic – find ways to connect the narrative to the personal style and lexicon of senior leaders, so that it’s a natural extension of their leadership.

 

This can be easier said than done. To get senior support and buy-in, “don’t go in talking narrative in the first meeting. Have the conversation about what your people need to know, how it will land with them and how we can engage with them over time. With varied, senior stakeholders make sure they feel part of the journey. Gather their input along the way rather than sharing your own take on what is should be too early on”

Jamie Cardoo, Head of Brand, Grant Thornton UK

 

Once you have senior leadership buy-in and ownership – make sure you demonstrate it. Consider prominently featuring C-suite in launch activities and publicly assigning accountability to the most senior levels in the business.

2.

Make it sharp: if it’s going to really engage employees and embed in an organisation, a narrative needs to have an obvious outcome or goal – a ‘so what’ for employees.

A compilation of generic stories without a clear purpose just won’t work.

 

“People in the organisation need to have context, what is this, why are we doing this and what does it mean for me?”

Jamie Cardoo, Head of Brand, Grant Thornton UK

 

Get right to the core of the issue – review your existing communications and speak to key stakeholders from across your business to identify the gaps, tensions and questions the narrative needs to really resolve for all your colleagues. Then find proof points and success stories from across your business to bring your point to life, demonstrate the story in action and crucially make the impact of the ultimate desired outcome clear.

 

3.

Inspire and excite: a narrative should not sit alone as words on a page. Real change comes from engagement, and engagement comes when employees feel inspired and excited.

 

Start from a solid base – build the narrative in a way that engages and inspires the business – a rallying cry that unites teams behind a common goal. But, bring it to life for colleagues in a way that inspires and engages  – perhaps through a new, fresh creative identity, to encourage action and buy-in behind something that seems original and worthy of their attention.

 

“Make sure the narrative reflects your business and your culture as much as you can. Push the boundaries to bring it to life in a way that reflects who you are so that it fits naturally into your brand and engages your teams. At TUI, we launched our new company story and strategy with a range of activities that reflected our position as a holiday company – including running competitions as part of the launch with holidays as potential prizes”

Marc Whittingham, Engagement & Internal Communications, TUI UK & Ireland

 

4.

Make it tangible: business is emotional – with personal hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations all tied up in the decisions employees make every day. To really have an impact, a narrative needs to lean into this emotion, building energy and pride behind the words on the page. 

But emotive words need a tangible base.

 

“The word narrative can be alienating and hard to grasp for some stakeholders without examples of how it will be used and experienced by your people. Demonstrate how the narrative will play out in reality to ensure all stakeholders see the wide-ranging value of it.

Jamie Cardoo, Head of Brand, Grant Thornton UK

 

Consider how the narrative is launched – from top-down townhalls, to follow-the-sun webinars, to localized team meetings. Rather than a single big-bang event, build a steady drumbeat of energy and engagement that launches the narrative in a tangible way.

 

“We relaunched the TUI story and strategy last year – and it was important that our colleagues felt and connected to our narrative. We launched a website that took colleagues on the journey of where we were, bringing it to life visually and weaving in gamification through QR codes and competitions. Supported by a leaders conference and ongoing team activities and events, it ensured the narrative embedded in the business in a way that fit naturally to who we are”.

Marc Whittingham, Engagement & Internal Communications, TUI UK & Ireland

 

5.

Set a target: a narrative can be exciting, inspiring and emotional. But ultimately it is just words on a page unless it drives change and has a measurable impact on a business.

To make sure your narrative is really working hard and delivering results for your business, link it back to commercial and non-commercial metrics (can you use or adapt any you already have in place?) so that progress in embedding ideas and effecting desired change can be tracked.

Be strict in using these metrics to monitor and track the change you are seeing in your business, set a target and be bold in adapting / pivoting your strategy over time if aren’t seeing the impact you need.

 

“Ensuring the business are part of developing the story and ultimately own it will help it naturally spread across the business.  Alongside this, it also needs a planned approach to how you’ll measure the success of the story.  Measurement can be tricky, so at TUI, we used a combination of weaving our key priorities from the story into objectives, informal chats with colleagues and fun pulse-checks like quizzes avoiding formal surveys”.

Marc Whittingham, Engagement & Internal Communications, TUI UK & Ireland

 

Storytelling is a powerful tool.

Weaving together stories and aims into a consistent thread, a corporate narrative is a powerful weapon in the toolkit of business and brand leaders assailed by constant change. 

Far from being the domain of authors, corporate storytelling is a critical business tool that helps businesses cut through noise to articulate what really matters in a clear and compelling way.

“Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have to influence, teach, and inspire.” [HBR: https://www.harvardbusiness.org/what-makes-storytelling-so-effective-for-learning/]

Whilst it’s not always easy to get right, when done well a narrative can be a highly effective tools to navigate through change and help businesses react to and realise specific goals – helping to galvanise employees, create a culture of success and have a positive impact on almost all business activities.