Storytelling appeared in the human record at the same time as speaking, at a time referred o as the the Cognitive Revolution that occurred more than 30,000 years ago. Homo sapiens evolved to speak about things that don’t really exist, and this is one of the things that make us different from other animals. The ability to determine what is fiction is the unique skillset of our species. It enables us not only to imagine things, but to convince others to do so as well. This type of collective belief leads us to flexible collaborations with countless numbers of strangers. Think about religion, military and media. This is the reason why we are at the top of the food chain, instead of other animals that are much bigger and stronger than us.
But what is the benefit of storytelling for modern corporations?
Interesting sociological research has been conducted that proves that a group bounded by gossip or small talk can merge into about 150 people maximum. These are basically mid-sized companies that even reach international success, but won’t grow much bigger than that. If the company culture is maintained only on intimate contact between co-workers, they won’t be able to influence more that 150 people. Leaders usually have no idea why are they stuck, so they come up with new financial strategies, most of which do not solve their problem. What they need to realise is that they have to tell a story.
Any large and successful cooperation is rooted in a fiction that exists in people’s collective imagination, and is based on the company culture that is rooted from their core values. A logo is presented at their front gate, on their uniforms, and is plastered on marketing materials and products to help them make their mark and convince others to be a part of their story. As customers, employees, or stakeholders, they all belong to the same fiction.
Companies with limited liability are legally independent from their founders, so they can survive even decades after their founders’ deaths, such as with Ford, Coca Cola and IBM, and continue to represent the same vision about their products and services. Successful companies spread an imagined reality that causes people to want to be a part of it, own it, wear it, and use it. The story, the fantasy, and ideas that are invented for them make certain brands desirable, and this is why we purchase goods from people we have never even met or don’t personally trust. Since we have a collective belief created by using our imagination, fiction creates powerful brands. This is how effective advertising, sales pitching and all sorts of marketing campaigns work - by spreading the word and building up certain narratives about products and services.
If you buy a new pair of gloves from Chanel, you know very well that Coco Chanel herself didn’t create them personally, as she died almost 50 years ago. You don’t pay 10 times more for these than for a regular pair of gloves because the material is different or because is more comfortable; no, you pay 10 times more for Chanel branded items because of the story she and her followers invented - the whole idea of feminine elegance, the French haute couture, luxury, being desirable and feeling special. If this story does not appeal to you, there are surely other brands you are willing to pay more for simply because you like their story. No matter if it’s clothing, a household item, a car brand, a tech gadget, or sports equipment, you share the values of their identity.
How you can use storytelling to expand your own company?
First of all, you need to know that not everyone will like your identity. Some people will hate it, and most of them won’t give a damn about it. Being likeable is not the point. If you aim to simply be likeable you will find yourself like a dog chasing its own tail because you can not please people with different values. Also, if you share mixed values that contradict each other, you will appear untrustworthy, and so will your brand, your products, and your services. This is how many companies get stuck. If you aim to become a bigger corporation, the very first thing you should do when you found your company is to set down your core values. Create an identity and a corporate culture for your brand. Your core values will evolve into vision that is the engine of your enterprise. That’s the story you communicate to your investors, partners, employees, customers, and to the whole world. This is what made Apple different from any other techie start-ups – they had a visionary leader who mentored his team and inspired them to create tools to advance humankind. Steve Jobs connected people who shared the same desire for global development. If Steve Jobs only wanted to create machines that work quickly or solve certain problems, Apple would have never had influence on more than 150 people. Apple now has 132,000 employees and 1.3 billion customers worldwide.
Okay, so let’s say you have a vision, have determined core values, and you are ready to manage your company - here comes the tough part. You need to communicate those stories, because they represent the identity of your company. Your website needs to be aligned with the core values, logos, all social media posts, trade show booths, and videos, they all need to consistently represent the same stories. You need to tell the story over and over and over again to as many people as possible. Entrepreneurship is not meant for introverted people. You need to approach people and talk to them. This is not the easy as it sounds, especially for certain techie people who prefer to develop their software in solitude.
To be a successful leader, excellent people skills are a must. Successful entrepreneurs are not only experts in their field, they are also terrific salesman. Communicating your story is not elevator talk or lunch break chit-chat. It is not a kind of conversation where you can avoid eye contact! This is about involvement, inspiration, commitment, regular meetings, cross-department communication, discussions, and brainstorming. At the beginning, your story represents who you are as a person, what you stand for, why you founded your company, and what you aim to do with it. With the involvement of your staff and clients, this identity can grow into something really big.
The identity of small and mid-level companies usually consists of the common interests of
co-workers and free coffee. To get beyond this, internal communication has to include more valuable topics than your daily tasks or casual conversations. You need to be careful with clichés, as these will make people question your integrity - try to avoid marketing buzzwords when you describe your services, especially in the software industry. These include ‘best solution,’ ‘revolutionary,’ ‘digital transformation,’ ‘innovation’ and similar terms. Guess what? Every new solution is innovative, yet they don’t reach millions without clear values and a vision that flourishes into an authentic story.
If you’d like to reach more than 150 people, then your identity must have integrity. People will join your company or buy your products because they identify with your story and want to align themselves to your brand. For them, you’re not just another company that disappears after certain number of years. Companies last as long as people believe in them. They grow as far and wide as the number of people that are sharing their stories. Successful leaders inspire, encourage, communicate values, mentor others, give feedback, learn, listen, and most importantly, appreciate others’ ideas and stories. This is how successful enterprises grow, even decades after their founding.