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Outlier’s Path

Improving Narrative Intelligence

In the last few weeks, I attended several board meetings and noticed how remarkably efficient they were when the materials were in narrative format, popularized by Amazon. Bezos noted that good presenters could throw together a quick slide deck right before a meeting and wing it; however, leadership and board meetings are about making significant and sometimes irreversible decisions and communicating them. These meetings are too critical to allow casual presentations.

As a former statistician, I believed that logic and data, however present, would prevail. Given enough information and data, logic is always correct. Yet, many business decisions need to be made without sufficient data. In addition, the rules, responses, and conventions are non-stationary.

Some equate narratives to pure fiction and storytelling, which may be the case in creative writing; however, in business, the point of the narrative is to improve our collective understanding by decoding and clarifying our data-driven and non-data thought processes. Narratives can be a mode of intelligence by positing causal relationships between inputs and outputs and then connecting causes to effects. Narratives speculate on current conditions and predict outcomes. Narratives may or may not follow laws of deduction, but the best narratives also imagine creative possibilities. While logic computes what must be the conclusion, narratives surmise what else could happen that logic does not consider.

Imaginative and creative narratives often need to be corrected because they are just some possibilities among many. Despite being frequently incorrect or incomplete, narratives can operate in low-data environments, filling in for lack of information and data and giving us a mental framework to predict and plan for many alternative futures. When these narratives are written, we can go back to them and revisit our assumptions, data, deductions, educated guesses, leaps of faith, and conclusions much more clearly than in slides. In this way, written narratives allow us to run experiments and use the scientific method to improve our narrative intelligence and enable us to improve our future narratives.

The narrative flywheel may be slow at the start. As with anything, practice makes progress. Improving narrative intelligence is essential for making better decisions and communicating them to boards, management teams, investors, and other settings.