Storytelling: The Need for Narrative

Big-city amenities with a small town feel. Great quality of life for the price. Amazing downtown that is clean, safe, and filled with amenities. So easy to do so much. A place that moves in new directions a bit conservatively, but when it does, it almost always does so successfully. An overall B+/A- place to call home that is relatively hassle-free.

This is the story that those of us living in Indianapolis told others (and each other) during the early years of this decade. This is the story that has produced (among other successes) the gleaming White River State Park filled with cultural destinations, the Canal Walk, an outdoor music amphitheater and much more. It’s the tale that no doubt helped us secure the 2012 Super Bowl, quite a coup given the competition and the potential for a very cold January. This is the story that made you feel good about living in a place that some still refer to as India – No – Place.

While remnants of this story still creep into conversations, they no longer saturate them. Much of this is due to the changed economic conditions that have put some developments on hold, trimmed back others, and made balancing the city budget quite difficult. This more challenging climate, however, should only have dampened the fire of what was a very compelling narrative shared by many. …

… If our civic leaders would have kept telling the story. But they haven’t. When we talk about the power of storytelling, we often reference sitting around the campfire. But any campfire goes dark unless it is provided with new kindling and timber and stirred and stoked periodically to spread the burning embers.

When our citizens elected a new mayor in November of 2007 they not only changed administrations, they voted out some of our primary storytellers. This isn’t unusual. Candidates often win elections because they tell a new or different story that voters find appealing. But our previous mayor was voted out largely due to public opposition on tax matters. People didn’t vote against the city’s story he helped cultivate. They didn’t even vote for a new story since the eventual victor didn’t really have one.

Our new mayor presents himself as a “get down to business” brass tacks kind of guy. He prides himself on being no nonsense and frequently cites lessons learned form his military career. He rightly focuses a great deal of energy on addressing the significant infrastructure needs that any major city has, and he is indeed making some progress.

All this is well and good. But his story isn’t our story. Sidewalks and safety fall at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Important as they are, they aren't the narrative fuel that unites a community, inspires passionate and vibrant nonprofits, fully engages corporate generosity, and helps continue to shape a world-class convention and tourism destination.

And in the absence of a shared story whose flames are stoked by very visible storytellers, we are left with many smaller stories told on smaller soapboxes to more isolated audiences. It's fragmented. Pockets of pride can be found from some storytellers, but the waves of momentum and synergy are much smaller. And some stories and storytellers are not so positive. Some don’t contribute to our growth and development. Some even suck the energy out of the civic fabric. And worse yet, many people now have no story that they believe in or tell to others.

Every successful institution—company, school, community, association—has at one time achieved great things because of the stories its leaders, and more importantly, its members, residents, or stakeholders have told. People need a future to believe in and need to know that others not only believe in that story, but are working together to make it a reality. CEOs don’t necessarily have to be great storytellers, but they do need to insure that a great story is being told.

What’s the story being told in a place you care about?