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Home > News and views > Narrative skills are fundamental and indispensable in business in the 21st century

Narrative skills are fundamental and indispensable in business in the 21st century

Ground breaking research reveals how prominent business leaders in the United Kingdom see ‘narrative’ as an integral part of doing business. Based on extensive interviews with business leaders, mostly CEOs and Chairs, from nearly a third of FTSE100 companies, the study fills a gap in our understanding of narrative in business, and highlights how skills associated with Arts and Humanities subjects are valued and sought out in business contexts.

Undertaken by researchers at the Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE), at the University of Oxford and funded by the UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the report (Storycraft: the importance of narrative and narrative skills in business) has a compelling foreword written by ESU Chair Miles Young and reveals how prominent business leaders in the United Kingdom see narrative as an integral part of doing business, the skills they associate with narrative, and how they think these skills are best developed.

The key findings include:

  • Narrative is a fundamental and indispensable set of skills in business in the twenty-first century. The ability to devise, craft, and deliver a successful narrative is not only a pre-requisite for any CEO or senior executive, but is also increasingly becoming necessary for employees in any organisation.
  • Narrative is about persuading another person to embrace an idea and act on it. Narrative exists in action rather than as a static message.
  • Narrative is necessary for a business to communicate its purpose and values. This reflects dramatic societal and economic changes this century by which society as a whole and employees, especially younger ones, expect businesses to live and operate by positive values. The old corporate objective of focusing on maximising shareholder financial returns is no longer sufficient.
  • A successful narrative must be authentic and based on facts and truth.
  • Audiences for business narratives are becoming increasingly numerous and diverse. Previously, businesses would focus external communications on core audiences such as customers, suppliers, investors, and regulators. Now businesses must engage with a wider variety of stakeholders and a diverse workforce, actively taking a position on key social issues including the environment, social well-being and the community.
  • Writing is a critical part of narrative, but it is as much a performative as it is a written form of communication. Body language, facial expressions, staging and engaging an audience are as important as the written word when it comes to disseminating a business narrative.
  • Diversity is integral to narrative on two levels. First, in a multicultural society like the UK even an internal narrative for domestic employees must appeal to people from different cultural, ethnic, gender, linguistic, religious, and educational backgrounds. For businesses with offshore operations those narratives must cross geographic, social and cultural borders. Second, the devising and crafting of a business narrative must be done by a diverse group of people, reflecting the differences in background among audiences as highlighted above.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of ITV, comments:

‘It’s so easy to think the art of storytelling only matters for films and novels. In this new report, some of the UK’s most senior business leaders are clear that narrative skills are fundamental to business too. At a time when the government is thinking hard about the skills base necessary to enable the UK economy to bounce back post-Covid, this message should not go unheard. Arts and humanities skills are vital for the world of work.’

Jane Easton, Director-General of the ESU, adds:

‘Narrative, story-telling, persuasion, body language, facial expression and engaging with an audience are all things that our workshops and competitions teach. It is gratifying to see these skills recognised and valued in a business context for the powerful and essential attributes they are.’

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