The Crucial Difference Between Story and Narrative

Storytellers. Writers. Marketers. We are all creatures of what “ought to be true.”

In Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois praised this idea. “I don’t want realism,” she said,  “I want magic! Yes, yes magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth.”

Blanche’s magic is what we marketers often communicate to customers. We don’t lie but, in varying degrees, we present a version of what ought to be true, rather than the unvarnished truth.

Watch how easy this Apple iPad Pro ad makes creating and editing business presentations seem. Neat. But no one I know can do that. Or think of the enterprise software case study that claims the product made it “easier than ever for managers to do their job.” As it turns out, it’s not that easy.

These stories aren’t lies. But they’re not exactly true. They ought to be true. Navigating this balance between what is true and what ought to be true is one of the classic differences between story and narrative.

If story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment,” narrative is the choice of which events to relate and in what order. Put simply, narrative is how we choose to tell a story.

We apply different narratives to the same story all the time. Think about the way you tell your friends the story of your first date with your spouse versus how you tell your parents the same story. You leave a few details out and you almost certainly reorder a few … events.    

One of the most important skills for us as business storytellers is to apply different narratives to our brand story.

Audiences care whether or not a story is true. But, depending on the context of where and how the story is told, we storytellers have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to create more powerful narratives that make the story better. Audiences accept what ought to be true as long as the context is understood beforehand.

For example, take the case study story of a big B2B equipment purchase. The company was doing well and decided to invest in new equipment. After starting the search, they experienced an equipment failure. They’d already decided on their eventual provider – a young upstart company – before the failure. The equipment failure simply hastened their contract negotiations and forced a streamlined implementation process.

If we created a narrative for this customer story, we might minimize, maximize, remove, or reorder the events to create a more dramatic and satisfying story. It’s not a lie. It’s what ought to be true.

When I tell the story of how I went from screenwriter to television marketer to content marketer, I almost always leave out an entire two-year stint where I toiled as an assistant at a defense subcontractor that made military-grade testing equipment. It’s not important to that narrative. My story is stronger because I don’t include it. But I’m conscious of it. (By the way, those two years are their own fun story, and I have a narrative for it as well.)

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s slide into madness comes when she can no longer reconcile the difference between the story and the narrative. She’s spent so much time in the illusion of what she says, she no longer remembers the core truth – her story.

Our stories – whether brand, personal, product, or customer – are the truths that reflect our experiences. But our narratives are the lenses that color those reflections and make them more beautiful.

It’s your story. Tell it well. 

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