Narratives are usually seen as a bad thing, especially in India.
When we disagree with our history books, we dismiss them as a colonial narrative.
When we disagree with the present view, like when newspapers report events, we call it a media narrative.
When we are more sceptical about the future, we think optimism is a narrative. When we are more optimistic about the future, we think pessimism is a narrative.
Say the word ‘narrative’ and the first interpretation that comes to mind is that narratives are evil, a tool used to misrepresent the truth. To create a narrative implies a concerted, calibrated effort. Narratives are biased. Narratives are attention-seeking.
I have a secret for you.
Successful companies are great at concerted, calibrated effort.
Successful companies are biased.
Successful companies are attention-seeking.
And it’s all because they use the power of narratives.
A long time ago, Donald Miller, The New York Times bestselling author of the book, Building a StoryBrand, wrote about what separates successful companies from unsuccessful ones.
See if this sounds familiar.
Sometimes, as business leaders, it feels like things just aren’t clicking.
We hustle and work hard, only to find that all our efforts haven’t really done anything to help our businesses grow.
It’s like shouting into the void, and it’s frustrating.
Miller had a phrase for this. He called it the ‘narrative void’.
He even drew a diagram explaining how the narrative void permeates all aspects of a company, to the point where it takes over, slows everything down, and cripples companies.
When a company experiences a narrative void, the onboarding programs are disengaging. The internal communication is ignored and never opened. The middle management is rudderless and seems out of touch. Leadership is seeking insights, and they receive lots of status updates. The mission statements are prominently displayed in the reception area and forgotten when employees settle their desks. Customers aren’t sticking around. Sales think that the answer to anything is more discounts.
As an organisation’s narrative void widens, it lets others define who they are. Like their worst employees, or their most unhappy customers, or their competitors, or even the media.
But there is a fix. Here’s Miller again.
So much of running a successful business is about communication. Reading a market. Negotiating a deal. Putting together a compelling offer. Motivating a team. All of those things demand clear communication.
And nothing brings clarity to our communication like a story.
A story is the most powerful tool you can use to connect with another human being.
Here’s what Miller imagines such a company looks like.
We know a little bit about this. Over the last five years, we’ve written thousands of stories about businesses in India and Southeast Asia. Stories backed by reporting, data, and analysis. And time and time again, we’ve seen that successful companies have something in common—a consistent narrative. When we speak to the CXOs, middle-management, ex-employees, customers, competitors and analysts, they all tell us essentially the same thing.
What we’ve noticed is that successful companies have three traits.
- They execute faster than others.
- They have incredible internal alignment among their teams.
- They are able to describe their value, which gives them disproportionate advantages to retain customers and talent, raise capital, and fend off competition.
All of these are because they have unlocked the power of their narrative.
At The Ken, we’ve always understood this about companies. This is why we don’t categorise our stories the way others do. We define the world around us, and in the stories we write, as narratives.
For years now, companies have been reaching out to us and asking, “I love the way The Ken writes and tells stories. Can you come in and teach us how to do the same?”.
So a few months ago, we piloted a product to help companies unlock the power of narratives inside their organisations. We did this by offering a customised workshop called Building and Differentiating with Narratives. The workshop was offered to ambitious, high-growth organisations for their leaders, founders, and executives.
We received emails from hundreds of companies, all interested in booking a workshop with us. Out of these, after some review and conversations, we chose three companies.
We can’t share a lot of details, but let’s just say we selected them based on their size, the problem they were facing, and quite frankly, whether they could afford us.
All these companies are multinational giants, each of them has revenues in the hundreds (and even thousands) of crores, and they understood how narratives can take them to the next level.
Here’s what we found out.
- Data-driven decision making is harder than it looks
“There’s a lot of data. My team is drowning in data. The problem is the decisions”
In our first conversation with the CEO of a massive analytics firm, he rued the fact that his employees were struggling to make sense of data and come up with something that sticks. They would just take all the data, show slide after slide to their clients, and then wonder why nobody seemed interested. That’s what happens, more often than you think, when the objective shifts from decision making to data show off.
And that’s where data storytelling comes in. Data storytelling can help turn data insights into action. Without effective communication, insights can go unnoticed or unremembered by your audience; both hard and soft skills are crucial for leveraging data to its fullest potential.
We leave the science of data analysis to the experts and instead focus on the art of crafting a story from the mass of information. How do you choose the right data, how do you tease out the valuable insight from a swathe of insights in any data dump? How do you go from spreadsheets, algorithms, and mathematical calculations to informed decision making?
Visuals are a key part of data stories. They aren’t just complementary to the main narrative, but a mini-story by themselves. The right visual, in one glance, can leave you with a crystal clear idea of the point being made, the decision to be taken, and the action to be performed. Prakata Patil, our Lead Designer, shows just how to create such visuals. It’s something that her team has been doing for years for The Ken’s articles. Her Visual Stories, as we call them, have their own section on our website.
- Ask for insights. Receive lots of status updates
“Emails have too much data and thoughts are too dense. In a global organisation, anyone reading the document, internally or externally, should be able to derive the same takeaway and purpose.”
The head of the Consumer Market Intelligence team of a multinational food company shared that they were often frustrated when an email or a document got sidetracked into explanations, rather than taking the conversation forward.
A typical organisation sends and receives dozens (and even hundreds) of emails, one-pagers, and project updates/proposals each day. Each one as important as the next, and each as unactionable as the previous one. Cultural nuances create barriers between teams in different parts of the world, while technical jargon alienates functional departments, and a heavy focus on the backstory leaves leadership undecided on the road ahead.
Our internal communication masterclass is designed to help break these barriers and create a framework for business communication, specifically, internal documents and emails, that are succinct, articulate, and in a narrative form that everyone in the organisation can consume.
And we take nothing for granted—right from the power of a subject line to ensure an email isn’t archived, to the right balance of problems and solutions in the body so that insight trumps information, to the emphasis on the conclusion so that decisions can be made instead of seeking clarifications. Effective internal communication should, quite simply, align stakeholders at every level.
In journalism, we often rely on an age-old adage, “Write so that even your grandmother will understand it.” Our masterclass ensures this sentiment rings true in every email, document, one-pager, and presentation.
- Customers don’t care about your features
“There is a lot of technicality in what we do. We need to really uncomplicate the communication for our customers.”
The CEO of one of India’s top insurance companies bemoaned that a lot of their customer communication tended to be inward-looking. The focus was very often on the product and not on who the product was intended for and why. A malaise that other founders also shared. “We want to get across the features of our products in a simple and visually appealing way,” they said.
The core problem is the human need to show off what we have created, whether it be in internal data presentations or emails. But the worst place this can rear its head is in customer communication—whether it’s during a product launch or a sales pitch.
Once a product is ready to be shipped, it’s all about the customer. And while “customer is king” is a nice adage, it leads to giving them what they want—discounts. But what if the “customer is the hero” and you give them what they need? What if you create an emotional connection?
That’s the power of storytelling. An emotionally invested customer is hard to create, but even harder to lose. We suffer through the later seasons of an increasingly boring Netflix series because we get emotionally invested in the first season. It’s no different for your customer.
Every product, right from the UX on the webpage to the advertisements, has to get the customer emotionally invested. And there’s no better way to do that than through a story—a story where the customer is the hero. Our Understanding Customers masterclass helps create this hero, while our Product Launch and Sales storytelling masterclasses help craft their story.
The Business Storytelling solution
There are many Business Storyteller programs available. There are even hundreds of videos on YouTube. But no one ever learned an art just by reading about it or seeing videos. And storytelling is an art. An art The Ken has been practising for years, in its stories and in its business. That gives us just the right experience to create a program with key differentiators.
- It is a subscription
Business storytelling isn’t a skill that one can meaningfully learn in a day-long workshop or a week-long course. It takes time to understand and absorb. It needs constant practice, over months, and we stick with participants along the journey, with a continuous year-long learning model.
The Ken’s offering is inventively structured as an annual subscription. The subscription is designed in a way that most of the learning is front-loaded into a classroom-style workshop. These learnings are then reinforced in subsequent sessions, which we call masterclasses, while also introducing them to more nuanced topics. In all, there are 10 hours of live sessions spread over 3-4 months, depending on the participant’s choice.
But participants should understand and learn storytelling even when they finish with the live sessions. So we give a complimentary annual subscription to The Ken’s Borderless plan, which includes all our stories from India and Southeast Asia and access to Inciting Incident, a weekly newsletter that analyses narratives in the world of business.
- Customised sessions
By virtue of writing about them every day, we also understand that each company has its own unique narrative. That is why our curriculum is not a one-size-fits-all model but is designed to suit each company’s needs and expectations. This, in essence, harks back to our reporting DNA—talk to people until the full picture emerges and only then go to the drawing board. We hold extensive conversations with clients to understand the overall objective, and then fine-tune the curriculum based on pre-course surveys to understand each participant’s expectations and requirements.
Moreover, the narrative void in each company may be localised to different teams or sections of the business. That’s where our masterclasses come in. Each one is designed to address a very specific area in which participants can refine their narrative skills. We have five such masterclasses:
- Data storytelling
- Understanding customers
- Product launch
- Storytelling for sales & marketing
- Internal communications
The result is a learning program that has depth and finesse for everyone and anyone who is enthusiastic about a new way of thinking—a story-first approach.
- We care about outcomes
Lastly, while we can go on about what we want and hope to achieve, the proof of the pudding is in eating it. Here is some candid feedback from participants. (They have been lightly edited only for grammar)
“I took away some really good pointers and am thinking about how to apply some of them to my next report already. The overall flow was good. The pace was perfect—not too fast, not too slow. I loved that the team brought the learnings alive through various examples like AirBnB, Nike, Jeff Bezos, Tesla etc. Honestly, I didn’t realise how time flew by. It was a very engaging workshop.”
“The section on understanding audiences and the discussion on potential hires as an audience was very appropriate and helpful. I utilised my learning immediately as I interviewed a couple of candidates the day after the session. I look forward to learning more in the masterclasses.”
There was a lot more from our three clients. Some good, some bad. We appreciate the good and value the bad even more, because that is what has helped us learn and iterate and improve to reach where we are now.
With that, we want to announce that we are opening up slots for the upcoming months. And because we are focused on quality, not quantity, and focused on outcomes, not just ticking boxes, we are taking bookings only for the next three companies. Sign up here.
Disclaimer: The Ken’s Learning team is not involved in editorial decisions and operates independently of its Editorial team.