Starting with Story

Why Start with Story?

Whenever we take on a strategic communications project at Arcana, we begin with a Story Strategy. We want to get to the heart of a project before we get too far ahead in what it will eventually look like, sound like, or feel like to use. Why do we start with a story? Because storytelling is the language of meaning, and meaningful design can change the world!

Not a formula – but a powerful framework

For those new to using storytelling strategically, let’s start with the basics: Stories are part of what makes us human. The universe is a big, amazing place, and to understand how it works, for centuries, humans have honed the universal language of mathematics. When you’re trying to explain a scientific framework, chances are you’re going to end up at the blackboard writing out equations at some point. As complex as a natural phenomenon might be, it is grounded on objective mathematical principles that we can map out and explore meaningfully.

The same truth exists about that which can’t easily be measured with math: our motivations, our perceptions, our assumptions, and our emotional experiences. Just as mathematics is a universal language for exploring the physical world, I often say that narrative is a universal language for exploring the conceptual world. Storytelling isn’t a formula, but it is a framework for making meaning of subjective human experience.

Stories provide clarity in complexity

Stories are powerful because they provide clarity in contexts of inherent complexity. We work with fascinating people who are creating interesting possibilities – people who are disrupting long-standing assumptions and building a better world. This is complex work that merits a focused, but open-minded lens. Without it, we risk losing the nuances of relationships, power dynamics, and the choices that define us.

As fundamental as our stories are to who we are, what we do, who we connect with, and how we work together, storytelling is not a muscle that gets exercised much in modern worklife. Rarely do we take time as leaders, as teams, as collaborators, to get clear on where we’re coming from, where we’re headed, and what role each of us plays to move our shared plot forward.

Putting stories to work

What does it mean in practice to start with story? In the context of communications projects, it means exploring audiences, contexts, personalities, voices, values, and key messages before designing materials, tools, and products. At Arcana, our story strategy process start with a period of discovery to better understand the narrative you’re inviting us into. This might include exploring the personal narratives of the key players involved in your business, the public narratives that shape the mission and vision of your organization, or a deep dive into your audience’s pre-existing narratives. The essential task is to uncover story pillars that bring together the challenges you’re tackling, the choice you’re making, the outcomes you’re reaching for, and the values that make it meaningful to you and your audience.

Story strategy not only allows us to identify the specific personality and voice of a brand or a project, it also helps us hone in on key messages that activate. As Marshall Ganz (one of our story heroes) says, “Narrative is the discursive means we use to access values that equip us with the courage to make choices under conditions of uncertainty, to exercise agency.” In other words, we need stories to feel the feelings that move us to action. Without new stories, we can’t change things.

Create an emotional connection

The closer we get to articulating our stories with clarity, consistency, and courage, the more ready we are to invite others into partnering, collaborating, engaging, and sharing with us. Just take a browse through some of our latest work to see the wide range of story strategy applications.

So don’t discount the power of starting with a strategic approach, of putting yourself in the shoes of the people who engage with the things you share.

Can you think of one area of your business, your organization, or your work that would benefit from a storytelling session? Take a closer look at what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and how well you’re engaging with those that need your message most.