Communicating change: creating the narrative
At the beginning of major change in business, we often create a narrative to help launch it. This becomes the basis of communications: a positioning piece. What exactly is a narrative? It is persuasive piece of messaging. Your company’s values are embedded in the narrative and it grounds all future communication. In writing this blog we wanted to help those who haven’t drafted one before, or those looking for fresh perspective. We’ll share some basics; hints and tips on creating the narrative, as well as ideas on how to use them.
The start of a change programme is an exciting time with real momentum, but it is challenging.
It’s fair to say most people writing change narratives find it quite hard. It can be tricky to get going and getting agreement from the leadership team about the wording can be difficult, with lots of iteration.
Why is this? We think it’s because people interpret a problem differently and have different views about the solution, so painting a picture that means something to everyone is like trying to scale the north face of Everest!
The Structure of a Narrative – a simple story
Let’s start with a simple story to look at the structure of a narrative.
In tribal times when a crisis struck – drought, famine or plague – our ancestors would gather to discuss what to do.
Witnesses seeing the water level of the well falling would foretell it drying up. A discussion with the village elders would result with a case for change: digging a new deeper well or moving to a new location.
The tribal leaders would implement a plan of action. A narrative emerges.
“Our well is drying up as the rains come less and less each year. To overcome this, we will find a new village location, one with a plentiful supply of water and good hunting grounds to build our new community. Healthy and fit members of the tribe will run large distances to find a new village location – then we will move.”
Some would accept the change straight away – others would dispute the evidence or plan of action.
“Why move if there is still water in the well? Besides, the rains may come soon and fill the well once again.”
The split in the tribe would see some wait longer than others, perhaps until the well dried up completely. The tribal leaders would speak to them again, “The new village is better than the last; the well is deeper and larger than before”.
In the end, everyone would move to the new village and the community would be in their new way of life – their new normal.
Change Curve Model
In this story we’ve tried to encapsulate some of the key aspects of how we (people) respond to changes that come our way – basing it in a simple way to the Change Curve model. Real life is a lot more like the diagram!
Of course, what interests us greatly as a communication professionals is what makes a good narrative in the first place?
If you are able to read a few different change narratives, you should see some common themes arise. They are normally relatively short and punchy. Around 200-300 words would suffice.
They should also answer the following:
Why are we doing this?
Short term goals we are trying to meet or problems we are solving. In the story we have “our well is drying up” – in a business sense it might be that our customer relationship management is poor or that our customers need a better digital experience.
Link to higher purpose
In the story we are “building a new community”, yours should link to company-wide strategy – it might be that you have a value such as “putting the customer first,” or “increasing customer retention” is one of the strategic priorities. If so, put it into the narrative.
Who is in the affected group?
Client services? Sales? If you can, include them when creating the narrative as a call to action.
What and how?
Define what is changing and how we will get there. In your narrative it might be a new Customer Relationship Management tool; new call handling policies, new complaint processes and training.
As we mentioned before this can be hard going; so here some further tips on how to unlock an inspiring narrative and the ways you can use it to influence the audience:
1. Interview your board
If you can do this as a group, it enables discussion and agreement. If interviewing one at a time: be wary of the sleeping tiger. This is someone who doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion, but at a later date gets riled that they haven’t been taken into account.
2. Make a film
Nothing crystallises a leader’s thoughts quite as much as being on film. If you can create a talking heads film about the change, through interviews with each leader, it will be a collective vision, which they can sign off on. It’s an excellent way to kick start a change campaign, and it will give you sound bites that you can weave into a narrative, if not becoming the narrative itself.
3. Run engagement events
It’s fundamental to get employees on the same page to make the change happen. Invite opinion formers – make the case for change – allow colleagues a chance to contribute by identifying the problems you are trying to overcome and their ideas what would make the company better.
The outcomes will not only support the change management team it will also give a strong basis for the narrative.
4. Film the events
Video booths also work well for getting people to make commitments/pledges to support the change – this will be impactful for those who aren’t there, it’s a useful tool to find early adopters who can be case studies.
5. Co-created story
With some effective facilitation you could get your leaders and a cross-section of your organisation together to go through the narrative step by step using a change template. If you can bring an agency on-board that can help co-create the story, you’ll get an objective opinion and it will help build a campaign right from the start.
6. Use animations to communicate the change
The animation will enable your audience to visualise organisational problems and changes that need to happen. Use the narrative as the voice over.
7. Change champions
Once your narrative is drafted, it’s worth drafting a short form elevator pitch that your change champions can remember. It should be something they can recite easily so that they can be the carrier of the message.