Tips on writing and narrative theory is something most authors seek in order to improve the quality of their books or texts in general. But here’s a little secret: Writing tips and narrative theory is not only about books, whether fiction or nonfiction. Applying narrative theory in business contexts can be a crucial element of success.
What exactly do we mean by narrative theory in business contexts, and how can it increase productivity through the creation of better texts?
Using narrative theory in a business context can be a crucial element for success. Here is how to improve the narrative structure of a project.
In basic terms, narrative theory describes the strategies the author employs to maximize the goals of the text in question. That is to say, narrative theory is about the ways a text can be written to emphasize certain aspects, perhaps over others.
But what do we mean by the “goals of a text”?
The ultimate goal of a narrative is to communicate its contents. That is always the case regardless of the kind of text in question. What differs is the scope.
As I mentioned in my article on writing short texts, fiction authors want to communicate a text in order to instigate an affective reaction—stir emotions, instill a state of mind, or present an idea.
On the other hand, in nonfiction such as academic texts, blog articles, or current-affairs analyses, authors want to communicate a text in order to argue a thesis or present facts.
What do authors in business contexts want to communicate? What should a writer for an advertisement agency or the person composing a job listing, be interested in? Here is where things begin to get interesting!
If the phrase “combining facts and fiction” sounds like … fake news, I’d be glad to explain the controversy away. In the context of narrative theory in business, to combine facts and fiction essentially refers to the narrative strategy of emphasizing certain facts while downplaying others, or to ameliorate one’s argument in certain ways.
The uniqueness of narratives in business contexts lies in the fact that they are a cross between fiction and nonfiction.
In pure fiction, authors don’t need to be too preoccupied with reality. Indeed in some genres such as Gothic, horror, or fantasy, even the laws of physics can bend.
On the other hand, in pure nonfiction, ignoring facts to ameliorate your argument when writing an op-ed or an essay is at least unethical and in some contexts against the rules altogether.
But in business narratives, things are different—creatively different.
The ambiguity of narratives in business contexts lies in their positioning between categories. And it is this very ambiguity that, when harnessed, can maximize the impact of a presentation, product, or other relevant element. Business narratives are both fiction and fact.
To name an example, a job listing needs to present the basic facts of the position in question, but it is not bound by the same kind of rigidity nonfiction texts are.
With the help of some imaginative writing usually encountered in fiction, the writer of such an ad can introduce some originality into the text, enhancing its visibility and uniqueness. Both elements are important in job listings.
There are, of course, various degrees of latitude: Creating a job listing for a programming position at a startup company is not the same as creating one for a Wall Street financial analyst, where the presentation of unadorned facts is a priority. But the basic idea of understanding and harnessing the power of narratives is applicable in all contexts.
Remember the difference between fiction and nonfiction: The former mostly tries to instigate an affective reaction, the latter mostly to argue a thesis or present factual information.
Business narratives do both. A business narrative argues its thesis, that is, it presents factual information, yet at the same time it instigates an affective reaction. A business narrative wants its audience both to be informed and to feel something.
To understand why narrative theory in business is a crucial element of success, one needs to understand the importance of creative ambiguity in business narratives.
Try to recall the oldest, most vintage advertisement you can think of. They often contained a very crude illustration of the product, if at all, together with a long piece of text written in diminutive font.
Here’s an example from 1917:
In this kind of business narrative, the author has focused almost exclusively on information. In other words, the balance between fiction and nonfiction heavily favors the latter. This is how advertisers approached their texts for a long time.
Things changed with competition. It wasn’t enough for the product to stand out; the ads had to stand out, too.
Gradually, the visual elements became better, the texts became shorter, and ads began to grasp the fact that instigating an affective response (rather than simply arguing a thesis) was of paramount importance. If you have seen a single episode of Mad Men, you can relate to this.
In recent years, other businesses have also begun to understand how crucial narrative theory can be. Here’s an example:
If you enjoyed this app, rate it on Google Play and help the developer. Thanks.
Rating the app will take 10 seconds of your time. Your review will help other users forever. Thanks for helping!
The facts are the same in both cases. But Case B emphasizes the affective importance of the narrative.
The example in the previous section hopefully shows how some minor details can make a difference. Even improving on some basic, simple things can have an immediate impact.
Here are three tips to consider when composing a text for a business context.
The amount of ambiguity you can introduce into your text depends heavily on the context. Obviously, preparing a financial report is entirely different from creating an advertisement. Consider these as the two extremes—there are advertising posters consisting of nothing but a single color and a letter or two, not even full words.
When you don’t show everything to the reader, you force them to imagine, which is far more powerful in terms of impact than showing everything.
This is a usual strategy with online articles. Instead of a headline like “Finland is the happiest country in the world, U.S. slipped to 18th place,” a more probable alternative would be something like “Guess which is the happiest country in the world, U.S. slipped unbelievably low.”
Used with caution and with at least a modicum of respect toward the reader, this is an effective way to create a call to action—in this case, to click on the article.
It is not unlike a detective novel where the writer deliberately misleads the reader about the identity of the killer. There would be no novel without this narrative strategy. It is precisely this deliberate withholding of information that attracts the audience’s interest.
Overdoing it, however, can have the opposite results. I once saw a headline that read “The country consuming the most coffee per capita is not Brazil, U.S., France, or England.” A better alternative would have been: “Guess which country consumes the most coffee per capita.”
Many authors of business texts forget that a business narrative, no matter its context or how short it is, is still a story. This means that it always at least implies characters, a narrative problem, and narrative evolution.
In virtually all cases, these are only implied, though we see more and more examples of forms that are halfway between short stories and advertisements, or news articles and advertorials.
However, implied or not, the author of a business narrative must always have a clear view of these things: Who communicates the story to whom (characters); why this story is communicated (narrative problem); where it starts, how it proceeds, and how it reaches its conclusion (narrative evolution).
Even something as simple as a job listing often contains such elements, at least if its writer is skillful. You can often see wanted ads becoming personal, asking you, “Are you the missing member of our great team?”
This presents characters to you, the reading audience. It usually proceeds with a narrative problem like “Do you have what it takes to create great content online?” And of course, the narrative arc must continue with the implied evolution: “Join us, and help us make our great company even greater!”
The more a business narrative is approached as a proper narrative, the more coherent and sense-making as a narrative it will be, which facilitates its coherence and efficiency.
A business narrative is a story, and as a story it instigates an affective response. The question, then, is: What should the reader feel? The author better have a clear idea, because the clearer it is, the better the narrative can be steered in that direction.
Let’s revisit the example of the previous section, about rating the app. In Case A, as a result of the hypothetical author having no clear idea of the emotions they wanted to inspire, the effect is very diluted. It comes off as cold, uninteresting.
Case B, conversely, seems aware of the need to predicate itself on the user’s sense of community. It attempts to instigate feelings of being helpful, making a difference, and helping others.
Business narratives are often cold, repetitive, and lackluster. The reason can perhaps be companies’ reluctance to take risks trying something other than the known, familiar way of things.
One should remember, however, that originality is precisely what carries the most potential for memorable communication.
If the goal of a business narrative is to communicate information about a company, a product, or a procedure, this narrative needs to have affective power: It needs to make its readers, viewers, or listeners feel before they think, experience before they understand.
Some time ago, a video of an unusual preflight safety demonstration went viral. In it, the cabin attendant enriched the usually boring information with hilarious comments.
For example: “The location and use of life vest for your child that shows the most potential is located in the safety information card,” or “If needed due to a loss of cabin pressure, four oxygen masks will drop from the compartment over your head. Once you’ve stopped screaming, place that mask over your nose and mouth.”
An interesting conclusion can be made by approaching the safety demonstration as a business narrative: By inserting jokes into an often clinical, dull flow of information, the cabin attendant managed to grab the attention of the passengers, increasing the possibility of their paying attention to the important safety information.
It goes without saying that the entire incident has also had a positive effect on customer satisfaction, brand recognition, and so on.
After all, the notion of intermixing facts and fiction is certainly not about distorting facts. It is about presenting the very same facts, only in an imaginative, attractive way, which serves the purpose of the text by communicating its contents.
Storytelling is an integral part of human existence; therefore, to use narrative theory in business environments is to tap the natural ability of humans for propagating a message.
Humans are social beings, relying on complex communication for vast portions of their lives. To understand the intricacies of narrative and storytelling means to communicate better, and therefore to live better.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops Android apps focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general.