In a recent interview, French President Emmanuel Macron argued that the absence of “grand narratives” in society has eroded public trust in political leadership and has constrained the aspirations of countries and their citizens.
It’s a sentiment that President Macron’s predecessors Charles de Gaulle or François Mitterrand might have expressed, but one could easily envision Steve Jobs or Elon Musk making a similar case in favour of bold, unifying visions.
At the risk of inciting a philosophical debate about the merits of postmodernism, I think President Macron has offered us a timely reminder about a central tenet of communications that is applicable to both the public and private sectors.
The most powerful stories are those that imbue a sense of purpose. People want to feel their actions contribute towards an idea or ideal greater than themselves, and, at their best, grand narratives can help define that shared sense of purpose.
Narrative can motivate and mobilize large groups of people towards the pursuit of ambitious goals and can infuse and instill a commitment to a common vision against which the decisions of political and business leaders can be weighed.
To craft a grand narrative that is both inspiring and engaging, you must distill complex issues to basic elements: There will be a right and a wrong, often represented by heroes and villains, and there will be a great challenge to be overcome.
This has caused critics to warn that grand narratives can lead to oversimplification and exclusion or be used to distort public perceptions by sacrificing diversity and nuance for clarity – noting that history offers us many such cautionary tales. For his part, President Macron takes issue with the growing tendency to “deconstruct and destroy” all grand narratives simply because “something grand must inevitably contain an element of evil.” Put simply, thinking big isn’t thinking bad.
The alternative is to dismiss specific narratives. Divisive appeals to racial or religious prejudice should be forcefully denounced, as should any attempts to question the equality of people based on their nationality, gender, or sexual orientation.
Modern narratives should focus on recognizing heroes rather than labelling villains. To that end, President Macron is right in saying that “we need to develop a kind of political heroism” and in asking “Why can’t there be such a thing as democratic heroism?”
For businesses, the question is much the same: Why can’t there be such a thing as corporate heroism? In crafting grand narratives for their companies, CEOs and their teams should talk about how they are contributing to a greater cause.
The villains of the story, and the challenge to be overcome, should be represented by something not someone. Depending on your corporate mission, it could mean drafting a story arc about the fight against poverty, disease, or climate change.
Identifying a grand narrative can also help corporate leaders make strategic business decisions that prioritize long-term investment over short-term results. By choosing a challenge for their grand narrative, companies must be bold and ambitious.
Of course, there will always be a need for specially tailored messages for specifically targeted audiences, but they should all be derived from a common and consistent narrative that applies to your entire organization and its stakeholders.
Grand narratives can help citizens, consumers, employees, and shareholders understand how your decisions fit in a bigger picture. President Macron believes the concept of grand narratives is one that we must rediscover – he is absolutely right.