Don’t Start a Startup, Tell a Story

The most effective tool of any entrepreneur is the ability to tell powerful stories.

Tackling Massive Problems | TEDxErasmusUniversity | by the undersigned

What drives change in the world today? Is it technology, with its exponential growth curve? Or the bold thinkers, the likes of Musk and Jobs, apparently immune to risk and eager to build a legacy by moving all of us forward?

No. It is stories, well narrated, passionately conveyed, that stir our emotions and drive our actions. We live in a story-driven world. Throughout most of our history, stories were how knowledge was transferred, how we passed on our understanding of the world. The most ground breaking innovation of our species was our ability to reliably retain information over generations, through paper. It allowed to put our minds’ thoughts onto a persistent medium, pass tales, and capture events of greatness and sorrow.

What do I know about stories? A few years ago I was living my dream as an aspiring film director in Los Angeles. In the movies, the goal is to bring your audience in the film-universe, make them part of the journey, have them cheer and cry for their hero. Screenwriters follow something close to a recipe in their movie plots. In the simplest terms, the structure of a story is nothing more than situation-conflict-resolution.

The Hero’s Journey by American Scholar Joseph Campbell

What made me truly appreciate the power of storytelling came after I drifted away from my film path and came to lead a not-for-profit organization. Still telling stories, yet this time not to temporarily immerse someone in a fictive universe, but to create a long lasting impact. When starting a new project, a startup, a not-for-profit, we are challenging the status quo. We are confident we can do better than the world has done so far. For instance by pushing the understanding of a field of knowledge, for the academics, or building something that was not there, as is the case with entrepreneurs. Fundamentally, everyone is challenging in small or substantial ways the current worldview. Incorporating stories in a speech or a presentation is a powerful way to move audiences towards our desired outcome. Understanding how is a key success driver for any entrepreneur.

What’s the relevance of stories in a globally connected world? After all, anything can be shared and be known instantly by the majority of the world’s population, and soon by all members of the species. If something happens in South Korea, it doesn’t take months or weeks until the news reaches Europe, but a few seconds. We do not need the village elders siting by the fire to pass on knowledge to future generations, today we have Wikipedia, and public education widely available.

Yet, the importance of storytelling is immense. We need stories for their primary power: to drive a group of people to action.

Our species has gained beyond magical powers through a mix of human intelligence and technological progress. All of these were fueled by the human courage to wonder into the unknown, and our hope that there is something to be found there. To broaden our understanding, to leave the world a slightly better place than we found. Yet courage and hope are neither the result of progress, nor of intelligence. The spark of our progress, of everything that we represent today, is always based on a powerful story. Leaders use and craft stories that will challenge the way we see the world. Successful leaders manage to change the current worldview to their vision. Kennedy, King, Jobs, Obama, were as powerful as the stories they told. And through their story, they changed the world.

I do not mean to say that great oratory is these leaders’ supreme achievement. Leading by example, executing rather than talking about an idea, is as important as it gets for entrepreneurs. What storytelling accomplishes is to acknowledge publicly that alone we can do good, but only together can we achieve greatness. The crowning achievements of the greatest leaders of our history required moving masses towards one uniting goal, under one vision. This type of worldview change requires building hope and courage in people, and the best vehicle for that is storytelling.

How does this translate to entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurs are storytellers: they look at the world as it is (the situation), they see an imbalance, a huge problem, an imminent crisis (the conflict) and go ahead to overcome the great challenge for the betterment of many individuals (the resolution). It follows naturally that an entrepreneurs’ first big challenge is not to write a business plan or prepare his pitch deck, but to figure out what story is he sharing with the world.

We can talk about any entrepreneur or company in the world based on our simple definition of a story. The key ingredient behind every good story is contrast, a clear difference between good and evil, right and wrong, present and future. Contrasting concepts keep audiences engaged. In addition, contrast precedes conflict: both in the movies and in the real world people love to reach the end of a problem, release the tension of a situation-conflict sequence. Audiences want to cheer for a hero or be united to fight towards a common threat.

And don’t be fooled: we, the entrepreneurs, are not the heroes of these stories. In the opera, the conductor of the orchestra makes no sound, yet it is his lead that makes others powerful, and ultimately puts people together to create something they could not achieve alone. We are Dumbledore, not Harry; Yoda, not Luke. We must guide, inspire action, lead the way to make others powerful. This should be reflected in our stories. We must make our people, both the team behind an organization and our community, the heroes of our mission. Because it is true: without them, we cannot succeed, we depend and root for them.

Understanding storytelling, from a traditional and a startup perspective, will empower entrepreneurs to convince more people to join their journey. Not only pitches and keynotes should incorporate stories. Everything from the budget to the website can share a story, and it is important they do. Because without great stories, we will lack the hope and courage to move forward to the next leap.

This article was inspired by the lessons I learned from Restart Network and Turing Society, and based on my presentation ‘Entrepreneurs are storytellers’ at Venture Cafe Rotterdam