An overused narrative.

Perhaps it is the fact that the 2012 presidential campaign is underway in earnest, along with its ongoing torrent of analysts parsing every word. Or perhaps it is because I find myself reading more and more business blogs that are really pseudo-marketing blogs. Or maybe it is simply that my subconscious vocabulary overflow meter has finally been triggered.

Whatever the reason, I find myself mechanically tearing clumps of hair out of my head whenever I hear what has to be the most abused, overused word of the year: “Narrative.”

We are told that the Romney campaign has to find a “narrative that resonates with Middle America,” while the Obama campaign needs to find a “narrative to respond to the Romney campaign.” Marketing leaders are looking for a “narrative that resonates with consumers.” The Olympics provided us with a “rich narrative of personal achievement.”

I finally reached my personal limit when I started seeing the word pop up in the nonprofit space. “We have to find a mission narrative that donors will respond to.” Honestly, when I hear nonprofit executives talking about a “mission narrative,” I want to scream. 

“Narrative” is a word for our times. It sounds grown-up. Sophisticated. But it is also, basically, meaningless. Is a narrative a story? A theme? A conversation? A pitch? A lie? It is a word that offers little but self-importance. It is a word designed to be deliberately vague. 

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not sure where “narratives” fit in politics, business, or particularly, the nonprofit world. Campaigns need platforms — a worldview that is supported by policies, not stories. Businesses need strategies — unique, defensible positions supported by operational activities that fit together. And nonprofits need a mission — a specific way of changing the world. 

It is important to be able to talk about how you can help change the world. But it is much more important to actually have a way to change the world, and then to go about doing it. It could be that your problems in fundraising (or marketing or selling or operating or campaigning) have less to do with the way you’re telling the story and more to do with the actual subject matter. Are you making a difference? Does your organization actually help people, directly and impactfully? If the answer is yes, we can find a way to powerfully tell the story. If the answer is no, then no amount of marketing, writing, editing, or creative manipulation will help you grow. 

Leave the narratives to the authors. The world needs help — what are you doing about it?