Build your Own Personal Narrative

Written on February 4, 2015 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

santiagoBy Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University

A Hollywood producer wants to make a movie of your life –not covering just your lived experiences but also anticipating your future. If you accept the deal, you may start working with a scriptwriter –or decide to write the script yourself. The resulting story should recreate your life in the best possible light, appealingly and attractively, even entertainingly for the general public. This regardless whether your personal story is not only composed of happy moments but also of drama and even tragedy: the lives of most of us have light and darkness, ups and downs, happiness and sadness.

Additionally, in order to build a good personal narrative, the script should depart sometimes from actual events and recreate reality with epical and poetic elements.

Let’s get back to reality. It’s quite improbable that our lives will reach the screen, but we may agree that the exercise of developing the story –the narrative- of your life makes sense, both for you, your family members and friends, even for a wider array of stakeholders if you are a leading manager or hold a prominent social position.

One of the puzzles of the human personality is our virtual compulsion to storify our reality: we love stories,” says Amy Zalman (1). Indeed, since childhood we grow attached to stories, fables, family anecdotes, local tales and epical narrations of remote civilizations. Those stories bring meaning to our environment, simplify the complexity of the world, facilitate our integration in society and provide us with behavioral references and role models. Furthermore, stories enhance our sense of belonging to the broad and diverse constituency of human beings.

The early philosophers used myths to explain some of the major issues affecting our lives since they were mindful of the formidable pedagogical power of stories. Plato, for example, will be remembered by many for his myths of the Cavern and of the Ring of Gyges; the first addressing whether true knowledge is possible and the second considering -with less fortune in my opinion- the duty to be just regardless of external pressure. (2)

Stories are also essential to bolster social organizations and to gain both internal and external supporters. The origins of states, religions, institutions, some family sagas and of course companies, rely on stories, based either on reality or fiction, which recreate their genesis and evolution and make them stand unique and distinctive.

Furthermore, storytelling is essential for learning and personal development and widely used in the education of children. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are the stories that my mother told us after watching movies together. Her emphasis was not just on the plot, but also on the visual and evocative aspects of what she had observed, which stimulated our imagination and awareness, and our desire to further our knowledge.

However, the use of stories is not only restricted to the education of the young. Experience shows that stories are also very useful for teaching adults and even senior managers. The case-study methodology, commonly used at business schools, employs a characteristic strategic narrative that gives meaning and unity to facts and data on a company or management situation. Interestingly, according to the feedback from executive programs’ directors, managers, especially those with greater responsibilities, increasingly demand shorter case-studies, perhaps due to their lack of available time and their distinctive orientation to action, with less time for the reflection, a common feature of manager’s work.

In fact, the analysis of stories and narratives has flourished across the social sciences in recent years, from international relations, to business strategy or political science has led to the creation of the cross-disciplinary field of narratology, the theory of how narratives are structured and related issues.

In this context, a concept that has gained increasing ground is “strategic narrative”. The fundamental assumption behind strategic narrative is that telling stories is a purposeful activity, and that those who relate narratives want to cause some effect in listeners or recipients, for example increasing motivation, aligning people around some cause or value, strengthening a community and even to influence the future behavior of others. Indeed, strategic narrative is associated with linking the past and the future: “Narrative imagining was fundamental both to our ability to explain and our ability to predict”, explains Mark Turner (4).

In this same vein, one of the recommendations of Sun Tzu’s in his popular The Art of War -a preferred reference book of managers-, is that “true leaders create magic in all their strategies”. My interpretation of this is that the strategic narrative employed by business leaders can provide the appropriate, almost spiritual, conditions to motivate others.

Indeed, in business communication, stories are carefully selected by top managers to describe their company’s key milestones, or to illustrate their organisational culture and stakeholder’s values, their strategic mission and essential features. Those stories add true value to their companies and conceptualise their main strategic advantages.

Also, CEOs use stories in their presentations to justify or mystify key strategic decisions and to provide context for corporate transformations. “Stories are the latest fad to have hit the corporate communication industry. Experts everywhere are waking up to the something that any child could tell them: that a story is easier to listen and much easier to remember than a dry string of facts and propositions”, explains Financial Times’ columnist Lucy Kellaway (3).

There are a number of timely takeaways from this post:

-First a clarification: strategic narratives are not pitches. The latter are those discourses prepared for short, quick presentations, either of your company or of yourself, usable at cocktails, elevators, at the beginning of business meetings as well at some other social events. A strategic narrative takes longer than a pitch and provides more nuances and references to provide a complete picture about you or your company.

– While building a narrative, I suggest you follow the golden rules of American publicists: First, tell a meaningful story; Second, be concise –even brief; Third: emphasize the emotional over the conceptual.

-It is advisable to develop a strategic narrative of your own company if there is not one in place already. This narrative should portray the company’s institutional values, the fundamental milestones in its history, its main activities, products or services and the key features of its members. Stories have protagonists, and it may be helpful that the main characters are company figures. At the same time, the more anchored a narrative is in past characters and former episodes, the less future-oriented and innovative it may be. Of course, it depends on how forward looking and futuristic are the stories that form the narrative.

-It is recommendable that you have your own strategic narrative about yourself: an attractive and seductive story about your origins, your background, your key personality traits, showing how your personality was formed. Your story may also include your principal mentors, or alternatively you may emphasise your growth as that of a self-made person.

Your own story, of course, evolves as time passes. Some personal narratives emphasize the consistency and unity of one’s life, whereas others may highlight the discontinuity and juxtaposition of different facets or stages in a life (like when we refer to the first Wittgenstein or the second Picasso).

I am convinced that taking the effort to produce your personal narrative will help you to give more meaning to your own life, even if it lacks coherence and you find that the dots of your experience are disperse. Are you ready to tell your own personal narrative, providing the best possible account of your own life?


(1) e dostrategic-narrative.net/#sthash.imxNkl1c.dpuf

(2) Plato, The Republic, www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm

(3) Lucy Kellaway: Sense and Nonsense in The Office “(London: Financial Times, Prentice Hall, 2000); p.19.

(4) Mark Turner: The Literary Mind (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); pp. 14-20.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept