But first, to basics: Why narrative? The most obvious benefits come from its adaptability ­ and the insights it offers. Many techniques could fall under the heading of ‘narrative research’. Some are re-workings of familiar qualitative approaches; others are related to techniques like ethnography, discourse analysis, social network analysis and stream analysis. Traditional focus group moderation will of course elicit stories, but the distinction between this and narrative research is the intentionality underpinning the generation and analysis.

Accidental By-Product

So, are stories an interesting and accidental by-product of your qualitative research or could you ­ should you ­ make them central to your design and delivery of the work?

Let’s go back a bit and track this emerging trend, when this interest in narrative appeared. We might think of it as quite recent, but in academia, it’s been dated back to as early as 1895 (Hevern 2004). In the first half of the twentieth century writers like Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp popularized the idea of myth, folklore and archetypes in society.

Then W.J.T. Mitchell’s book, On Narrative, published in 1981, was hailed as a landmark event. It’s a collection of articles by leading historians, psychoanalysts, philosophers and literary critics, all of them preoccupied with what they see as the importance of narrative.

Until recently, these developments had little impact upon mainstream management or research thinking, but organisations have become more open to the use of story and narrative in the context of communication. They are also recognising the wider opportunities provided by narrative in the fields of marketing, market research and strategy development.

In the last decade a number of management books have emerged with titles like Sensemaking in Organisations (Weick 1995), Tell Me A Story (Schank and Morson 1995), The Story Factor (Simmons 2000), The Springboard (Denning 2001) and Organisational Storytelling (Gabriel 2000). A current strand of postmodern academic work, too, views organisations as a pluralistic construction of stories, storytellers, and story performance events in which every story implies its opposite. For example, David Boje (2001) shows the relationship between competing storytelling efforts of Nike and the anti-Nike activists. He argues that we should not accept any one set of narratives alone as ‘reality’ but rather embrace all viewpoints as part of the totality of Nike.

Mark and Pearson (2001) also apply narrative theory ­ specifically cross-cultural elemental archetypes ­ to brand building. They identify a series of archetypes like Creator; Caregiver; Ruler and Jester, before translating these into a branding context.

You might be thinking this all sounds a bit flaky. Maybe, but the
serious business press, too, has begun to highlight the importance of storytelling, with articles in the Harvard Business Review (Denning 2004, McKee 2003), Wall Street Journal (Bennett 2003) and Financial Times (Denning 2004 and Kellaway 2004).

What does this mean to qualitative researchers? The attractions of narrative as a research method are obvious. Storytelling is natural and easy, entertaining and energizing. Stories help us understand complexity. Stories can enhance or change perceptions. Stories are easy to remember. They bypass normal defence mechanisms and engage our feelings. They are a great tool for exploring ideas, stretching our thinking, and communicating.

Persuasive Tool

Perhaps the most interesting thing about stories for organisational research, though, is that they also persuade. In this way, narrative and story research can become much more than collecting views or opinions, to be analysed and presented back to a client in a conventional way. It can be about using stories to understand, influence and persuade. It becomes what I like to call a research intervention ­ not necessarily what we are asked to do in fmcg research, but something that is a realistic objective in organisational research and management.

Many organisations now supplement their quantitative employee research with qualitative work. This is usually in the form of focus groups, but by taking this further and employing narrative techniques they begin not only to understand but also to influence their employees.

But how to do it? The first stage in any narrative project is to collect your raw material: the stories. There are several ways of doing this but the principle is to capture the material in as ‘natural’ a way as possible. It is here that narrative work overlaps with ethnography and social anthropology (see Philly Desai’s Truth, Lies and Videotape, Autumn 2004, In Depth).

Traditional focus group trappings ­ the discussion guide, the recruiting, the focus group room, the time allowed ­ can sometimes be too contrived and unnatural to get individuals to begin telling stories. So in this setting the moderator must overcome this, allowing discussion to range into unexpected areas and prompting stories to emerge. In our experience narrative groups require a particularly skilled and self-aware facilitator.

You might also want to play around with the conventions of the business ­ one technique for enhancing natural language capture is to use ‘naïve’ interviewers (adolescents are very good at this) to ask the questions that trained researchers would never ask.

Stories in the round

The main method we utilise for story elicitation is the Anecdote or Story Circle. The technique was originally developed by Snowden at the Cynefin Centre (Snowden 1999, 2001) and is based on the natural human ability to tell stories in a group. Sailors call it ‘ditting’ and all cultures have similar experiences, whether from the pub, the water cooler or the campfire (as it happens, in the middle of Spielberg’s famous movie Jaws (1975) is an excellent example of an ‘anecdote circle’ in action).

First, we ask participants to tell their personal stories; nothing is off limits. We ‘kick start’ the group by asking an open question ­ one that doesn’t call for a yes/no answer ­ on a relevant topic. The circles are designed to exploit the natural human need to communicate through story and the fact that we often require prompts to remember pertinent events. Memories are contextual, so hearing another person recount their story triggers recollections of a similar experience that we would have overlooked otherwise.

Story circles usually comprise 8 to 12 people and multiple groups are often run simultaneously. The groups are very lightly facilitated, taped, transcribed and often video recorded. The light touch facilitation required can be difficult if you are an experienced moderator, as it requires a certain amount of flexibility and “unlearning”. For example, permitting long ‘uncomfortable’ pauses, or letting respondents stray quite a way from the topic, are all actions that go against a facilitator’s better instinct.

External observers or scribes note participants’ body language and provide different perspectives on the stories being told. We often combine anecdote circles with an exercise allowing participants to write down the themes they hear in others’ stories (this is also a useful diversionary exercise for when one or two individuals are beginning to dominate).

The circles generate a large quantity of material very quickly and because of their relaxed (and sometime chaotic!) format participants often forget where they are and begin to open up with extremely rich material, generating deep insight.

Finding the plot

Having collected the raw
material, how it is used or analysed is, of course, dependent on the research objectives. There are numerous analysis techniques for narrative but any analyst will always unconsciously or consciously weave their own stories and worldviews into the material collected.

To overcome this in organisational research we often use the storytellers themselves (members of the client organisation), or another client group, to analyse the stories with us. In this way we allow them to make sense of the material in the way they want to rather than us impose our worldview. Applying this to consumer research might mean generating stories, then engaging respondents themselves in a second analytic stage of the group.

Boje (2001) provides eight analysis options for the analysis of storytelling in complex organisations ­ interesting stuff, though some of these approaches are more practical than others. In addition there are other techniques related to text analysis, semiotics, and anthropology (Chandler 2001, Pople 2004).

One of the techniques we utilise a lot is Archetype Extraction, a valuable source of pattern identification and understanding. We have used archetypes (see box) to provide measures of employee and customer satisfaction and they can also provide interesting perspectives on brands.

To ‘extract’ archetypes, we work with client groups to examine the story material produced and identify the themes in it. In a workshop we facilitate the clustering of themes into 5-7 groups. At the end of this we ask them to personalise the clusters with archetypes (or characters). The characters should, if possible, use names that the group recognises or relates to ­ from literature, popular culture or from the organisation concerned.

Once named, these ‘archetypes’ can then be used for several purposes. For example, they provide a set of very strong markers of culture and one that realises it has too many “Harvard MBAs”, “Victor Meldrews” or “Cinderellas” may want to address this. Archetypes can also be drawn up as cartoons and used in staff training.

True Stories

Two areas where we have most recently used narrative techniques and storytelling are in customer research and community research. In both these areas, while the techniques have been applied differently, we have seen at first hand the power of narrative.

Customer Research:

We have been working with customers and staff of a major food retailer with a view to developing a customer service strategy. The brief called for research to underpin the development of a strategy and to kick-start the beginning of customer service improvement programme. This bridging between research and strategy development is exactly the area in which a research intervention such as narrative excels.

‘Customer service’ is a complex idea that means many different things to different people. To understand this and to create a change programme simultaneously, we used some of the narrative techniques described above. First, we collected stories about ‘customer service’ from several demographically selected groups of customers and from numerous groups of customer-facing staff. This was done using the anecdote circle approach described earlier.

The stories were then used with a sample of staff to create a set of archetypes in a highly interactive (and fun) workshop, where staff were encouraged to discuss the narratives and extract their own characters from the material. Staff used names, we suspect, from their own experience to christen the ensuing archetypes. So a fairly unfriendly character was called ‘Fred’ and another, quiet and ‘put upon’, was called ‘Mary’. Such characters may not exist in real life but, since the participants created them (instead of say using traditional market segmentations), they seemed to have a higher degree of cultural resonance.

These ‘customer service characters’ were then shown to senior management and other staff, who could see instantly the kind of customer service culture they wanted (and more importantly didn’t want) and act accordingly. The archetypes that emerged from the stories were absorbed into the ‘shorthand’ narrative language of the organisation.

So when a member of staff or a customer is behaving in a certain way they are instantly recognised as ‘doing a Fred’. This type of study could be repeated in the same way at regular intervals and the emerging archetypes compared with the original set. This provides truly innovative way of benchmarking culture change in an organisation.

Community Research:

We carry out a wide range of community research across a range of client groups. They might be communities facing demolition of their housing; young people in hard to reach groups, or housing association tenants. In all these areas the power of narrative in allowing us to understand these groups and to create positive social change is immense.

All communities are complex and stories and rumours emerge on the community grapevine all the time. The community’s perspective on its own history will be woven into these stories, along with individual and collective worldviews. An understanding of how these dynamics arise, and the nature of the stories being told, allows us to understand and therefore engage with the community.

In recent work, narrative research has helped us ‘manage’ the grapevine in communities, foster community capacity where there was none before, and work with the groups categorised ‘hard to reach’. Using techniques such as the anecdote circles above and listening skills which are a key part of narrative we have been able to allow communities, householders and others affected by major social change to genuinely have their say and feel that they have been involved and consulted with correctly for the first time.

Their stories are collected, analysed and fed into the planning and policy making process up front rather than as an after thought, which was often the practice previously. Their stories reflect their perceptions of the systems and situations they find themselves in and provide large signposts as to why projects have succeeded or failed. The use of story in this way has long been practiced in the fields of social and community research. For an excellent overview of storytelling in this context, it’s worth taking a look at Ben Haggarty’s (2004) survey of professional story usage in the UK.

The End

Stories matter. Indeed, they’ve always mattered. It’s just that there has been a tendency to not only underestimate their power in terms of connecting with different groups but also to misjudge how well they enable individuals to flesh out their innermost thoughts and feelings.

In recent years they have started to be taken much more seriously, and are emerging as a recognised part of a researcher’s toolkit. Storytelling and narrative research is a large, emerging area and this article has only been able to hint at its potential uses. From an agency point of view it could be seen as just another technique to add to the portfolio ­ but this would sell it short.
Its nature and potency provide us with the toolset to navigate the complex, post-industrial knowledge economy where, despite our scientific and technological advances, it is the organic and intangible aspects of life that are becoming increasingly important.

In a world where dialogue, thinking, leadership and innovation are critical to our future prosperity, then storytelling ­ and story analysis ­ is a skill we should all master. Storytellers used to be seen as some of the most valuable members of the community ­ and maybe it’s time they were again.


Bennett J (18 July 2003), Storytelling and Diversity, Wall Street Journal

Campbell Joseph, (2004), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press

Boje DM (2001), Narrative Methods for Organizational & Communication Research, Sage Publications

Chandler D (November 2001), Semiotics: The Basics, Routledge, ISBN0415265940

Denning S (May 2004), Telling Tales, Harvard Business Review

Denning S (2001), The Springboard ­ How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge Era Organisations, Butterworth Heinemann

Denning S (24 May 2004), Storytelling is a Fundamental Skill of Management, Financial Times

Gabriel Y (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions and Fantasies, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Haggarty B (2004), Memories and Breath: Professional Storytelling in England & Wales, CRTDS. Report available at www.sfs.org.uk

Hevern V (8 March 2004), Narrative Psychology: bibliography and resources, web.lemoyne.edu

Kellaway L (10 May 2004), Once Upon a Time We Had Managers, Financial Times

Mark M & Pearson C S (2001), The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, McGraw Hill

Mitchell W J T (December 1981), On Narrative, University of Chicago Press, ISBN0226532178

McKee Robert (June 2003), Storytelling That Moves People A Conversation with Screenwriter Coach, Harvard Business Review, page 51

Pople I (March 2004), Investigating English Language: An Introduction to Text and Discourse Analysis, Nelson Thornes, ISBN: 0748733574

Schank C R & Morson G S (1995), Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (rethinking Theory), Northwestern University Press

Simmons A (2000), The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling, Perseus

Snowden D J (November 1999), The Paradox of Story: simplicity and complexity in strategy, Journal of Strategy & Scenario Planning

Snowden D J (July 2001), Narrative Patterns: the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations, Knowledge Management

Stewart T (7 September 1998), The Cunning Plots of Leadership, Fortune Magazine

Weick K E (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Further Reading

The Steve Denning site is an excellent source of material on Story in organisations and also includes his daily blog of all things story related across the globe.

The Society for Storytelling website. This a good source of material on the origins and traditions of oral story telling in particular. The Society Organise National Storytelling Week.