Strategy needs good words
This isn’t about storytelling in advertising. I fucking hate the lazy, self-regarding industry rhetoric about storytelling. I fucking hate all that waffle about storytellers and their caves and campfires, the invocation of unnamed ‘ancient storytellers’, and being told that to arouse emotions and change behaviours advertising 'must' tell stories. A gorilla limbers up and starts playing drums. Coloured balls roll down a hill. A man tells us we could smell like him. Gerbils are shot out of a cannon. A fat kid runs down an empty road. A puppy steals a toilet roll. A bronzed man walks down a beach in Speedos. Martians laugh at humans. A man hurtles through the air in a wing suit. Things get distorted when seen through a bottle. A meerkat talks to camera. Young people gather on a hill and sing. Sofas, kitchens, and carpets are offered at low, low prices. An offer must end. If you think that any of this is a story, you need to think, as Andy Nairn has suggested, very long and very hard about the basic ingredients of a good yarn, before telling the world that we spin them for a living. No, this isn’t about fucking storytelling in advertising. It’s about something much more important.
Strategy is narrative
At the end of the day, strategy is the art of getting other people to do something.
In the pursuit of that, narrative (call it ‘storytelling’ if you really must) is the strategist’s tool.
Strategy is narrative.
Strategy explains the world, projecting forwards and imagining an interconnected sequence of events.
It imagines a world in which there is agency, causality, and consequence.
And in doing so strategy imagines a different future.
Strategy then, is an imaginative act.
And narrative is how it thinks, expresses itself, and brings others along.
Which is where words come in.
Whether expressed as conversation, brief, or presentation, strategy is meaningless and powerless without words.
If you can’t put your strategy into words others cannot follow.
This without the accompanying words is utterly meaningless:
(We'll come back to that later).
No amount of curiosity, insight, rigour, listening skills, or creative instinct (all requirements of any planner) can compensate for an inability to express strategy in a way that is concise, comprehensible, persuasive, memorable, and inspiring.
How many strategies one wonders, fail to convince and gain support not because they are inherently bad strategies, but because the narratives they are expressed as are fundamentally unpersuasive?
My guess is rather too many.
Persuasion. It’s the fundamental skill that separates the effective, high-value planners from the mere overhead.
And yet for all that, while there’s plenty of advice on brief writing or presentation writing or presenting skills, there does not exactly appear to be an oversupply of advice on the crafting of strategic narratives.
So some observations and advice.
Born of doing it badly.
And seeing it done brilliantly.
Let's first begin with audiences and outcomes.
#1 Know your audience
Now if strategy is rather art of getting other people to do something, then it obviously behoves the strategist to understand his or her audience.
It demands knowing why they are here, if they actually want to be here, what they’ve seen already, what their successes and failures have been, what they know and believe already, what prejudices they carry, what expectations they hold.
After all, indifference towards your audience and the reality in which they live, to paraphrase Dieter Rams, is actually the one and only cardinal sin.
#2 Make action your goal
Your job is not to be the most clever person in the room.
Or to win.
Or to make people feel good about themselves.
Or to download information.
Or to share ‘learnings’.
Or to make the simple complicated.
Or to be a warm-up act for the main event.
It’s to get other people to do something.
Steven Spielberg had long wanted people to experience the dislocation he’d felt as a child of divorced parents. Working back from that, he eventually arrived at the story of E.T.
Strategy thinks backwards.
Be clear on what you want people to do, and work back from that.
#3 Narrative demands jeopardy
Conflict, friction, tension, danger - without them there is no such thing as (or need for) strategy.
In the words of the military historian Professor Lawrence Freedman:
Strategy only comes into being when there is a sense of actual or imminent instability, a changing context that induces a sense of conflict… Strategy therefore starts with an existing state of affairs and only gains meaning by an awareness of how, for better or worse, it could be different.”
So be clear and precise about what makes the need for strategy necessary.
More simply put, make sure there is a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome.
Solutions after all, only derive their value from the degree to which they solve problems.
Spend the appropriate amount of time on the problem.
As the head of the Industrial Engineering Department of Yale University (note, not Einstein) once said:
If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.”
We know this because we keep bloody recycling this quote and its many iterations.
If only our awareness of a misattributed quote was matched by our willingness to act on its wisdom.
#4 Structure creates narrative
Most presentations created by the corporation are without narrative structure.
They are merely a sequence (and more than occasionally a vomiting out) of slides.
Many of them as Richard Rumelt has observed, are “a scrambled mess of things to accomplish - a dog’s dinner of goals” masquerading as strategy.
Rendered with a casual contempt for the audience and an aesthetic sensibility that borders on hostile, it is up to others to extract some sense of priority, coherence, narrative, and strategy.
A glorified list is not a strategic narrative.
Strategic narratives have a shape.
With ups and downs. Highs and lows.
Whether they live as a full-scale strategic responses, distilled creative briefs, or heaven forbid, conversations, strategic narratives are by their nature rollercoaster rides.
They are rollercoaster rides because strategy concerns itself with changing the status quo, with moving from one state to another,and with obstacles, conflict, resistance, and competition.
So think about the structure, beats and cadence of your narrative.
There’s nothing particularly original about this way of thinking about and structuring narrative. There are many like it. But the one is mine, and it has served me well.
Mapping the headlines of your strategic narrative to a structure is I have found, invaluable in ensuring that you actually have a coherent and seamless narrative that isn’t riddled with continuity errors.
Do it as the very first step in crafting your strategic narrative.
Do it before your narrative is submerged beneath embellishment, too many words, or the crack cocaine of slideware.
#5 There is only momentum or useful description
Many years ago a practitioner of improv theatre explained to me that there is only Movement or Colour.
Movement is about moving the narrative forwards.
Actor #1 : “The house is on fire!”
Actor #2 : “I’m calling the fire brigade!”
Colour does not move the narrative forwards - but it does add context and detail:
Actor #1 : “The house is on fire!”
Actor #2 : “I’m scared!”
There are only two questions to ask of every single sentence that you write.
Does it create Movement?
Does it move the narrative forwards to the next stage?
Does it create Colour?
Does it provide useful context and detail?
Movement without Colour fails to elaborate what we mean.
Colour without movement is a useless tone poem.
Be clear with each and every sentence you are writing what you are trying to accomplish - Movement or Colour?
#6 Narrative travels in one direction only
Does each point seamlessly and logically lead to the next?
Just because you are turning the page or reading the next slide is not enough of a test.
Reading your logic out loud is the best way to test the coherence, tightness, and logic of your narrative.
Remember - stories only travel forwards.
Unnecessary repetition and detours undermine the coherence and persuasiveness of your argument.
Look for points or slides that take the action backwards.
And eliminate them.
They have nothing to contribute.
#7 Make no assumptions
If you want to build trust and confidence you’ll need to bring your audience along on the journey.
So don’t leap to conclusions.
They breed doubt and suspicion.
And don’t indulge in non sequiturs.
They breed confusion.
Hold the hand of your audience.
Show how the chains of your logic join up.
Make your logic and reasoning transparent.
As Professor Lawrence Freedman puts it:
To engage, [stories] must ring true and survive examination in terms of their internal coherence and consistency.”
As in life so too in narrative - transparency builds trust.
#8 Be the ruthless editor
Richard Rumelt cites the story of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 as an example of strategic focus and (with the advantage of hindsight) simplicity.
The story can be boiled down to just five elements:
We’re facing the combined Franco-Spanish fleet. (Reflection).
We have to destroy the enemy fleet. (Ambition).
We’re massively outnumbered and if we lose we’ll be under French rule in a matter of weeks. (Jeopardy).
Their gunners are less well-trained than our more experienced captains and gunners (Hope).
“No day can be long enough to arrange a couple of Fleets and fight a decisive Battle according to the old system.. .With the remaining part of the Fleet formed in two Lines I shall go at them at once… I think it will surprise and confound the Enemy. They won’t know what I am about. It will bring forward a pell-mell battle and that is what I want.’ (Solution. In Nelson’s own words).
Strategy is as much about what we choose not to do as it is what we do.
In this instance Nelson chose not to adopt the traditional naval tactic of the time which was to slog it out with the two opposing fleets staying in line, firing broadsides at each other.
Instead, he sailed right at the enemy fleet to divide its line and bring on chaos.
This was the hasty sketch Nelson drew to illustrate his strategy:
The rest is the stuff of naval legend.
In five hours of fighting, the British devastated the enemy fleet, destroying 19 enemy ships. No British ships were lost.
If then the nature of strategy is sacrifice and focus, it stands to reason that brevity is a vital litmus test of good strategy.
So be the flayer of guff.
The heartless truncator.
The merciless editor.
The steely-eyed surgeon of words.
Strip your strategic narrative down to five sentences or less to expose its coherence and persuasiveness.
And never fall in love with your words.
You will need to kill a great many of them before you're done.
#9 Try not to create in slideware
Crafting strategic narrative is not the same as crafting presentation slides.
And slideware is not your friend in the creation of compelling and persuasive narratives.
Slideware is not our friend because it only allows us to create and see one slide at a time, thus blinding us to whether we are building a coherent narrative.
There is an instructive exchange in between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Cities.
Marco describes a bridge stone by stone:
“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.
“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”
In focusing our attention on just one stone at a time slideware blinds us to the arch.
The act of creating or progressing to the next slide might give us the comforting illusion of sequence and logic and narrative flow.
Or allow us to feel that we've got away with being lazy.
But clicking to the next slide is not the same as real, connecting narrative tissue.
Too often it takes a rather bewildered audience to reveal to us the gaps in our narrative.
Do not fall for the siren call of slideware.
Try writing the argument in simple one-sentence headline form on sheets of paper or Post-Its.
Put them up on a wall.
Expose them to the light of inspection and critique.
Expose them to the light of inspection and critique by other people.
An argument is only as strong as its weakest link.
So look for where the logic gaps are.
And eliminate everything that isn’t necessary.
One last thing.
What is true of creating with slideware is true of filling in creative brief templates.
Just because we have filled the box in does not mean we have created a persuasive, tightly argued strategy.
#10 Use small words to express big ideas
Using big words make you look pretentious.
Never forget that the corporation has a deep-seated, instinctive aversion to anything that smacks of intellectualism.
And while STEM degrees might confer many skills and advantages, it’s pretty safe to say that they do little to instil a delight in language.
Besides, the nature of the modern corporation is that they are populated by a multiplicity of nationalities. Which means it might be better to say that they contain “a lot” of nationalities, rather than a “multiplicity”.
Moreover, small words chosen well and ordered carefully more often than not are strategy’s best friend.
Consider that commanders in the Royal Marines typically articulate their desired effects through simple words - “secure,” “protect,” “find,” “inform,” and “pursue” - all drawn from a shared lexicon so all Marines will know exactly what is meant.
“Yeah, but that’s the army. We’re dealing with creativity. Not waging war. Our job in more nuanced. More creative. How can we develop emotionally engaging communications and brands if our language has to be dumbed down?”. I hear some say.
Yet small words are patently not the enemy of nuance, complexity, or creativity.
Hemingway recognised that when in an interview with The New Yorker magazine he said:
I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange them in the proper combination you make it stick."
Phillip Pullman has said that his aim in writing His Dark Materials was to produce a version of Milton's Paradise Lost for teenagers. An examination of authority and freedom, and how these ideals interact with God and religion, a story about the loss of innocence and growing up... by turns political, philosophical, and metaphysical, His Dark Materials is many things.
But the words. They are always small.
Even when unravelling the mysteries of quantum physics:
When you choose one way out of many, all the ways you don't take are snuffed out like candles, as if they'd never existed. At that moment all Will's choices existed at once. But to keep them all in existence meant doing nothing. He had to choose, after all.”
Small words married to big ideas.
#11 Don’t hide behind jargon
Judicious use of language that your client organisation uses can signal empathy and understanding.
There’s nothing like jargon to signal membership of a community
But do it too much however, and you look like you’re sucking up.
Worse, throwing jargon around is a substitute for independent, critical thinking.
Being able to wave around the (tediously stupid) “millennials” label for example, does not magically confer upon us a deep and exhaustive study of anybody between the ages of 22 and 37.
It just means we know the label.
Jargon and labels obscure truth more than they reveal it.
Indulging in them squanders your role as the clear-sighted outsider. The thing they’re paying you to be.
#12 Make time for deep work
Crafting strategic narratives requires time and an absence of distraction.
It’s the stuff that as Richard Huntingdon has reminded us, requires what Cal Newport termed ‘deep work’ - "proper, meaningful, in flow, immersed work that delivers the thing we are paid to deliver, new value for our agencies and clients.”
For all the breathless industry talk about 'collaboration' there will always come a point when in pursuit of strategy, a dangerous mind can do nothing better than to seek solitude.
#13 Read good words
There are two ways to become a better writer or teller of strategic narratives.
Reading and writing are inseparable.
Doing otherwise would be akin to being a composer who never listens to music. Or a chef who never dines out.
As for what to read, Faulkner had the best advice:
Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window”.
It’s why I ask every interviewing candidate - “What are you reading?”
Get good at words
Strategy as I said at the beginning, is the art of getting other people to do something.
And without the right words in the right order there can be no strategy.
Curiosity, insight, rigour, listening skills, creative instinct… they all matter. Of course they do.
But at the end of the day they are rendered impotent if you are not good with words.
I find it no accident or coincidence that the best planners I have worked with have all been great writers.
You are only as good as your words.
So get good at words.
We must get good at words because there is work to be done in the world.
Work to be done far beyond the humble art of encouraging people to buy our brand.
There are new futures to be imagined.
There are better futures to be created.
There is a future waiting to be rescued from the jaws of civilisational collapse.
There are old ways to be undone.
There are zombie ideas to be slain.
Toxic practices to be eradicated.
Inertia to be punctured.
Indifference to be overthrown.
Wilful blindness unmasked.
The stinking mass of vested interest to be drained.
The forces of resistance will need to honestly acknowledged.
The points of leverage will need to be identified.
There are constituencies to be brought along.
And communities galvanised into focused action.
Strategy, as Professor Friedman has written, is revolution.
And revolution will need words.
In the pursuit of change, it seems to me that the need for strategic narrative is more valuable and pressing than ever before.
Professor Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History
Jose Ignacio González‐Aller Hierro, ‘Some strategies and tactics regarding the Trafalgar campaign’, Journal for Maritime Research, February 2011
Richard Huntingdon, 'The value of deep work is your only real value'
Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy