Have you read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Or perhaps you’ve seen one of the many movie adaptations of the popular novel? In the book, Ebenezer Scrooge is an unkind, selfish, and greedy man who is visited one night by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. After seeing the error of his ways and being given a glimpse into what might happen if his patterns continue, Scrooge makes amends and becomes a caring, generous man. As the book ends, all is well with the characters in the story, and Dickens turns to the larger narrative with the famous last line, “God bless us, every one!”
For many years I was guilty of using the words “story” and “narrative” interchangeably. But then I came across an article in Forbes by Greg Satell, simply called, “The Power of Story.” This article illuminated some interesting and important differences between the two terms. Now I teach these two words differently in my communication classes, and I use both story and narrative more powerfully when I speak. Let me share what I’ve learned about how story and narrative differ,
What are the Differences?
In a fantastic article called “The Untapped Potential of Corporate Narratives,” John Hagel differentiates stories from narratives. He writes, “stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined.” This ties in to another difference outlined by Hagel. Stories are about specific characters. They tell the events surrounding identifiable people, whether it’s the speaker or someone else. However, narratives, because they are still unfolding, invite the audience to participate in what happens next.
How Can We Use Them?
When we understand the differences between stories and narratives, we can use them to write better material for our presentations. For instance, we can tell specific stories to help the audience see particular events, to point to the reality of an issue, and to illuminate how certain people have been affected. Then, we can expand that story into a larger narrative. The narrative then invites the members of the audience into a greater event which they can influence.
One of the most powerful ways to use story and narrative is to examine how they fit within the passage of time. We can use stories to slow time down and highlight very specific moments. We can use a story to help the audience hold that moment in their hands, turn it over and over, and really examine it, feel it, and understand it. And we can use narrative as if we were time travelers, moving back to where the narrative began, understanding how it has changed across time, and then forecasting into the future, by imagining how it will continue to be challenged and changed.
While stories and narratives have important differences, we can’t forget that they work together. Satell says,
“Stories spark interest, which is helpful, but if they are left alone they decay and eventually disappear altogether . . . A story is an event. Yet as part of a larger narrative, it provides the core of a mission.”
In the case of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, it was the telling of specific stories that changed the overall narrative of Scrooge’s life and actions. In the spirit of Dickens, we can ask ourselves when writing our presentations, “What stories need to be told here?” and “How will those help us write this narrative for years to come?”
At Presentation Mentor, we love to help individuals and companies tell the specific stories that shape their narratives and missions. Check out our all-new, online course for more information.