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How leaders at every level can use storytelling to build culture

United Minds’ Kara Fisher says narratives can clarify a shared vision, align teams around a common purpose, and fortify culture. 

How leaders at every level can use storytelling to build culture
[Photo: Marko Geber/Getty Images]

Humans are storytellers. Whether on the campaign trail, in boardrooms, or living rooms, stories help us make sense of the world. Narratives build trust, enhance reputation, and move millions of people to action. In fact, executives consistently rank reputation as their most valuable asset.

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Narratives also strengthen organizations. Through steady leadership and strategic stakeholder engagement, narratives can clarify a shared vision, align teams around a common purpose, and fortify culture. 

In my experience supporting organizations from startups to Fortune 100s, the strongest organizational narratives begin with strategic analysis and result in creative ideas that leap off the page. Through a collaborative, iterative process, they unify organizations and can serve as a North Star for all communications.

Imagine a three-room house with walls covered in blank paper, waiting for your ideas. In this imagined house, each room represents a distinct phase of narrative development. Let’s walk through those rooms together.

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Define the story worth telling

For a narrative to enhance reputation, it should tell stories at the intersection of three areas:

  • What we do well
  • What competitors don’t do as well
  • What our audiences care about

To uncover answers and put the narrative in motion, convene a broad array of stakeholders to introspect and consider competitors and audience. Here is one way to start:

Map narrative stakeholders and their responsibilities. Include stakeholders within and outside a company who represent diverse roles, levels, geographies, and more. Identify whom to involve at each stage of the narrative development process.

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Inaugurate a core team. Invite colleagues with the skills and authority to manage the narrative process from start to finish. Ensure the core team is connected across regions, functions, and teams and understands decision-making structures.

Invite leaders to describe their vision, strategy, and priorities. Learn from executives, team leads, and subject matter experts. Ask questions like: 

  • What unique value do we bring?
  • Where do we stand relative to peers?
  • Who are your key audiences, and what do they care about? 

Ask, too, for specific stories, examples, and proof points. Together, imagine creative ways to tell these stories. 

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Distill the story lines

In the second room, imagine that each wall has one large blank sheet of paper, ready for a story or big idea. Here, the goal is to distill three or four central stories. Eventually, teams will tell them through moving, accessible prose. Messaging can take the form of talking points, memos, messaging maps, frameworks, and more, for use in different contexts. 

To identify three or four core story lines, embrace a “fail fast” approach:

  • Quickly craft possible narrative directions and choose a subset to test.
  • Road test early headlines, themes, and messages for resonance, authenticity, and differentiation.
  • Convene a diverse array of new reviewers for focus groups or one-on-one interviews.
  • Ask reviewers to share tangible examples that bring ideas to life. 

From these conversations, begin to finalize the overarching narrative, story lines, and messages. The more focused the narrative, the more likely that it will stick. Audiences will more likely associate a brand with these ideas, rather than getting lost in a sea of possibilities.

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Deliver the narrative so it compels sustained, meaningful action

Once the narrative is final and approved, share it within the company in ways that inspire. Invite participation from all levels of the organization:

  • Ask executives, upper-level managers, business resource group leads, advisers, and others to help craft a successful rollout plan. 
  • Engage managers on how to make the narrative real and tangible for their teams. 
  • Kick off a broader rollout for all colleagues that engages hearts and minds and helps every person see themselves within the larger company story. 
  • Share the narrative externally as well, introducing a new narrative with images, videos, recordings, and other creative campaigns to inspire audiences to take action.

Remember that the narrative reflects change. Iterate over time. Regularly convene a diverse cross-sectional group of colleagues to share stories and learn from each other. Treat everyone as a storyteller, no matter their formal title or role. Establish narrative governance systems that encourage people to submit feedback, updates, personal stories, and ideas. Ultimately, encourage everyone to see themselves in the narrative and its evolution. 

The strongest narratives come to life on and off the page. They can impact audiences through media, conferences, marketing, and more. And leaders can also bring their story to life through investments and action. By investing in areas of opportunity, organizations can enhance employee experience and inspire stakeholders.

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Narrative as North Star

Of course, narratives alone cannot guarantee or maintain reputation. World affairs, executive actions, and employee activism are among many factors that shape reputation around the globe. Yet while narratives cannot control for external factors, they can act as a proactive step toward setting the stage, unifying stakeholders around a shared vision, and deepening affinity.

Through strategic analysis, writing, investment, and action, a narrative can transcend words, phrases, and paragraphs. It can become a blueprint that guides all communications, advances purpose, and enhances culture at a time when reputation and impact matter more than ever.


Kara Fisher is vice president at United Minds, part of the Weber Shandwick Collective.

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