Interview: Five Questions with Frank Wolf


Last week I reviewed The Narrative Age by Frank Wolf - essential reading for communicators and leaders alike. This week, I asked the Staffbase founder and Chief Strategy Office some questions about the book. You'll enjoy his insights here.

Q: Frank, what helped you land on the title The Narrative Age?

A: Finding a title for the book was quite a process, to be honest. I had a couple of title ideas but realized at some point that it's not necessary to have the final title before starting to write. I knew I wanted to write a book about the power of narratives and used that as a working title. About six months in, the idea of "The Narrative Age" emerged. What I love about it is that it already tells a story. It’s a transformation from a time when narratives were present but not the focus. Many people talked about storytelling, but the patterns that emerge in our minds from these stories are narratives. In a noisy world, where complex problems have only seconds to be understood by an audience, a deep understanding of narratives becomes much more important. This is our reality now, and that's why, in this new age, it’s time for leaders and communicators to focus much more on the narratives they are building.

Q: As you know, I love the idea of the narrative moat. Could you talk a bit about why it matters for reputation, and if it’s different for CEO versus company reputation?

A: I asked a communicator I have known for a long time what he thinks about narratives. His answer was that, with a lot of effort and explanation, he got his CEO to understand the concept of storytelling, but the whole idea of narratives was just too complex or abstract to explain. I think this is a good description of the challenge of communication. It needs to find a better way to convey its value and the things it's building. The Communications function builds reputation, but that's a very general point of view and it’s not really actionable for most communicators. What communications actually does is to build specific narratives around the company, such as employer narratives, investor narratives, or value narratives for its customers. The narrative moat is a term that is hopefully very descriptive of the protection that all of these narratives provide and the ways they create a long-term competitive advantage for any organization. I hope this term helps leaders to better understand what they gain from communications.

Q: What is it about using narratives that helps leaders better manage transformation and change?

A: I think the key insight here is that you can only lead people to change if they are ready to follow you to a new state of things and a new set of realities. In this process, a better understanding of the beliefs your audience shares is incredibly helpful. In the book, I describe the concept of a narrative map, which helps you understand which existing narratives you can attempt to change and which are too deeply embedded. However, deeply embedded narratives don't necessarily prevent change; in fact, they can provide common ground. For example, if you have a cost-cutting program and want to explain why it is necessary, it is powerful to turn to the narrative map and maybe discover that the identity of the organization has long been focused on cost-effectiveness. The narrative of doing more with less has led to the company's success in the first place.

Q: What do you most hope that leaders and communicators learn from The Narrative Age?

A: I hope that it helps turn great communication into a skill that can be learned and understood. Right now, it's often seen as a talent or a gift that you either have or don't have. A very simple example is empathy. Some people are more empathetic than others, but I would say that if a group of leaders has thought about the narrative map of their audience, it automatically creates more empathy and understanding about the point of view of others. It would be great if the book could play at least a small part in helping people better understand differing or opposing points of view, especially in our polarized times.

Q: The book looks beautiful, and the illustrations are great. Why did you decide to pursue the self-publishing route?

A: I published a book with a publisher in 2011, and while the process was good, it took a long time and involved many meetings and tight restrictions on copyright and usage of the book. These days, the self-publishing option offers a lot of freedom and the quality is amazing. The resources at hand are incredible, from Amazon's global print-on-demand service to the great professional editors one can hire, and even artificial intelligence that helps create beautiful illustrations. Additionally, I was lucky to have an amazing design and editing team at Staffbase.