Birgitta Borghoff, MA
Citation: Borghoff, Birgitta (2023 i.V.). Entrepreneurial Storytelling – Business in Geschichten verdichten. zfo Zeitschrift Führung + Organisation. Fokus: Leadership und Kommunikation. 02/2023, S. 101-105.
Entrepreneurial Storytelling is a transdisciplinary practice that is used to design projects, products and services or to found new organizations. If you want to be perceived by the public, you have to tell what you do. Leadership, management, consulting and entrepreneurship thus become a communicative task. This explains why narratives are also of central importance in organizational practice.1
»Like a captain on a stormy sea
entrepreneurial storytelling seeks along you and me
while constituting a voyage by supportive communication
getting ready for higher vibration
leading each other confidentially
being proud of your own potential(ly?).
Growing out of children’s shoes
the story goes and flows.«
Birgitta Borghoff, entrepreneurialstorytelling.net
Communication in organizations takes place mainly through narratives. As patterns of language use, narratives link situations, events, settings, time, actors, their roles, motives and actions, conflicts and solutions, as well as perspectives into a meaningful narrative that contributes to the creation of publicity.
All social communities have their narratives.2 These shape not only our lives, but also our working world and the different roles we play in it.3 As a linguistic pattern of action, storytelling is closely linked to the concept of the story. In contrast to pure facts and figures, stories are more easily remembered and reproduced. We can only communicate with each other if we fall back on common, cross-system or organizationally anchored patterns of interpretation, so-called basic narratives4 , tie in with public stories or start a new narrative. Stories follow a narrative dramaturgy that contains a starting situation, a conflictual event, the resolution of the conflict, and finally the moral of the story (see Fig. 1).5 Organizations are characterized by a meaningful solution to complex problems. People are involved in the solution in organizational roles, as heroines and saviors with superhuman powers, but also as victims and losers. Narrative dramaturgy reveals the cause-and-effect relationship underlying the story and provides a context of meaning that links situations and settings, time, actors in different roles, their actions, perspectives, motives, and unexpected events.6 If such a narrative context of meaning reflects the identity of an organization and can be made tangible for others, such as customers, employees, the media and society, this is also referred to as storytelling as a narrative form of communication.7 This also includes the image and reputation of an organization, where public attention and sovereignty of interpretation must be ensured. Narrative self-portrayals are, for example, corporate stories. These feature traditional elements and structures of narratives that support the organization’s management of identity, attention, and interpretation.8
Fig. 1 Narrative dramaturgy according to Perrin/Wyss (2016: 244)
Why Entrepreneurial Storytelling works
As a narrative, communication and problem-solving method, storytelling is not only used in journalism or the therapeutic field, but also in the corporate context, for example in marketing/branding, in innovation development, in business development or in the ideation phase.Practical routines such as leadership, management and entrepreneurship are specific communicative tasks. Entrepreneurial Storytelling9 is therefore also used in the founding of companies or the development of business models.Entrepreneurial Storytelling is based on the “CommunicationConstitutes Organization” perspective10 , which states that organizations are created through communication. As individuals or organizational actors interact with each other linguistically, they construct social reality, e.g., in the form of new projects, business areas, start-ups, or unprecedented job roles.11Storytelling Organizations12, entrepreneurs, or start-ups show that and to what extent narratives are an important part of an organization’s business model, strategy, and learning processes. These stories are particularly powerful when they are told authentically by people who have experienced them. By interweaving spoken word, text, images, moving images, music and sound effects, people can be addressed and reached on multiple sensory channels – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory. This in turn triggers empathy, concern, identification and connection in potential target groups. Entrepreneurial storytelling proves to be very effective when pitching business ideas to potential investors or partners, in the context of product presentations to the press and customers, for conveying the company story as a corporate film, a company portrait on the website or as a founder’s interview on Instagram.
Designing Business Models with Entrepreneurial Storytelling
“Communication Constitutes Organization” perspective
This perspective demonstrates that communication is a process through which an organization is first constituted.Organization is thus an effect of communication.There are various approaches to this perspective, for exampleLuhman’s model of organizational decision communicationor McPhee and Zaug’s “description of the organization as a network of communicative ‘flows’ that have integrating, coordinating, positioning, and structuring effects”.
For the annual “ZHAW Startup Challenge “13 2020, I designed a workshop on pitching and storytelling together with a colleague. The Challenge offers students interested in entrepreneurship the opportunity to gain initial start-up experience during their studies and to design business ideas in interdisciplinary teams. The ideas are developed using the Business Value Concept Canvas14 , which was developed by the IIE Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW).For the workshop, I expanded the Business Value Concept Canvas to include narrative building blocks that make the key difference when pitching and telling business ideas (see Fig. 2)15. This was proven not least by the winning teams of the past Startup Challenges, who, true to the motto “Story tells, story sells,” convinced the jury with their business ideas by showing how they had internalized storytelling as a central aspect of entrepreneurship and successfully integrated it into the pitch. In doing so, the teams were guided by the guiding questions for the development of their story design that I created especially for the ZHAW Startup Challenge.
Fig. 2 Extension of the Business Value Concept to include narrative building blocks of “Entrepreneurial Storytelling” (own, further developed representation of the Business Value Concept)
Guiding questions for the development of the story design
Why?- What values and principles of action guide you? What adjectives do you associate with your business idea? (e.g., innovative,socially relevant, useful, altruistic, social,sustainability-oriented)- How do you justify your statements and what arguments do you make? Do you refer to authorities such as experts, studies, universities, specific values or reason?- What words do you choose when talking about your business idea? What are your favorite words and why? Do you use key words, specific expressions, metaphors, or other rhetorical devices? Or do you rely on strong verbs, embellishing adjectives, nouns, new word creations, and foreign language words. Why?- What excites and motivates you most about your business concept?What, where, for whom?- What conflicts or problems do you solve with your business or product idea? What situations (e.g., market, industry, event, conversation, public discourse) or settings (e.g., places, spaces, areas) do you see in your mind’s eye when you talk about your business model? How do you package the market opportunities and risks of your start-up idea into meaningful images or market maps? Where exactly do you see yourself in the market, in which areas, together with which people and in which roles?- How would you describe your key activities and the process of value creation in authentic words and tell someone else? What is the narrative of your value creation?- Who are your audiences? Who are the relevant figures on your entrepreneurial journey in the form of customers, suppliers, partners or investors? How would you trace, collage, or redesign them using personas or empathy maps?How, when?- How do you design and communicate the narrative identity of your startup project across phases, steps, and milestones (plan)? How would you describe the narrative identity of the business idea in your own words?Do you perceive how your entrepreneurial identity continues to shape and unfold based on your use of language?- What do you find exciting about your company, business model or team? What effect do you and your team want to achieve when pitching and storytelling your business idea?- What do you think makes you a good storyteller? How do you translate financial figures into value-creating word creations?
Who?- Who are the protagonists in your business concept? Which known or unknown actors do you involve in the story? Why? What and how will you tell about the different characters? How do you frame the individual characters, i.e. people and their role or function designations, linguistically (narrative frame)? Examples: “the brightest, most passionate and dedicated individuals inour industry”, “passionate team of roboticists from the bestuniversities of the world and specialists in diverse fields”, “brand-making people”.- Which basic narratives are hidden behind your story about the founding team, partners, investors, customers, etc.? Typical basic narratives are “good versus evil” (David versus Goliath), “savior or traitor” (Edward Snowden versus Judas), “the inevitable catastrophe” (e.g. Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine) or “feasibility overcomes fate” (e.g. development of vaccines against the Covid-19 virus).- Inspire by communicatively highlighting the strengths, passions and competencies of your team. Tell them what you like to do, what you don’t do and why, which activities are outsourced and which competencies are purchased externally.- Bring examples of already realized, similar, different or further business projects. Think about which words fit these “old” stories, how you can tie in with them, continue the story or rewrite it.What linguistically compatible catchwords, adjectives, verbs or metaphors come to mind to translate abstract or technical terms for your audiences?
Depending on the business idea and the founding team, the story is structured and communicated differently:- A strongly purpose-driven team will want to inspire its audiences with the Underlying Magic of its business model, communicating its own values and principles of action and starting the storytelling with the “Why”.- Problem solvers, on the other hand, focus on the “What” by illustrating the conflicting problem with examples in the sense of narrative dramaturgy. – Solutioneers or business innovators, on the other hand, focus on the problem solved in the form of a product or service (solution).- Team players present themselves as a strong crew by getting to the bottom of the question of the “Who” and assigning themselves narrative roles according to their strengths and competencies, e.g., with the help of personas or by studying the roles of notorious figures from film and television: By working on the “how,” they perfect the narrative identity and the unique selling proposition (USP) of their business model, i.e., the “what,” and reconstruct the relevant marketplaces linguistically and situationally.
Fig. 3 Reciprocity of Entrepreneurial Storytelling practices and design strategies (own representation).
What we gain through Entrepreneurial Storytelling
Entrepreneurial Stories contribute to entrepreneurial value creation by significantly shaping the narrative identity of companies through the design of business models. This makes storytelling an entrepreneurial design process. Entrepreneurial and linguistic action together form the basis for the emergence of strong communicative entrepreneurial designs in a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). These designs only become visible when professional practitioners tell what they do, not only among themselves, but in public communication arenas and communities. This is how the narrative identity of business models becomes tangible – business condenses into stories.
Notes on the concept boxes
“Communication Constitutes Organization”-Perspective – Stücheli-Herlach, P.: Wertschöpfung als Wortschöpfung. Zur Modellierungdes Sprachgebrauchs in der strategischen Organisationskommunikation. In: Schach, A./Christoph, C. (Eds.): Handbuch Sprache inden Public Relations. Theoretische Ansätze – Handlungsfelder -Textsorten, Wiesbaden 2017, p. 123.
Narrative – Stücheli-Herlach, P./Perrin, D.: Schreiben mit System. PRText planning, drafting, and improving. In: Stücheli-Herlach, P./Perrin, D. (Eds.): Writing with a system, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 15-38;
Perrin, D./Wyss, V.: Telling into stories. The analysis ofNarration in public communication. In: Meyen, M./Averbeck-Lietz, S. (eds.): Handbuch nicht standardisierte Methoden in der Kommunikationswissenschaft, Wiesbaden 2016, p. 244.
Borghoff, B.: Entrepreneurial Storytelling: Narrative Practices and Design Strategies in Project and Organizational Development.In: Perrin, D./Kleinberger, U. (eds.): Doing Applied Linguistics. EnablingTransdisciplinary Communication, Berlin/Boston 2017,pp. 175-184.2
Barthes, R.: Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives. In: Barthes, R.: Image, Music, Text, Glasgow 1977, p. 97.3
Perrin, D./Wyss, V.: In Telling Stories. The analysis of narration in public communication. In: Meyen, M./Averbeck-Lietz, S. (eds.): Handbuch nicht standardisierte Methodenin der Kommunikationswissenschaft, Wiesbaden 2016, p. 244.4
Perrin, D./Wyss, V., op. cit, pp. 241-255.5 Perrin, D./Wyss, V., op. cit., p. 244.6
Perrin, D./Wyss, V., op. cit.; Stücheli-Herlach, P./Perrin, D.: Schreibenmit System: PR-Texte planen, entwerfen und verbessern. In: Stücheli-Herlach, P./Perrin, D. (eds.): Schreiben mit System, Wiesbaden: 2013, pp. 15-38.7
Stücheli-Herlach, P./Perrin, D., op. cit.; Fröhlich, R./Szyszka, P./Bentele,G. (eds.): Handbuch der Public Relations, Wiesbaden 2015,p. 1148.
Krüger, F.: Corporate Storytelling. Theorie und Empirie narrativerPublic Relations in der Unternehmenskommunikation, Wiesbaden2015, p. 100.
Borghoff, B., op. cit.10 McPhee, R. D./Zaug, P.: The Communicative Constitution of Organisations.A Framework for Explanation. In: Putnam, L. L./Nicotera,A. M. (Eds.): Building Theories of Organization. The ConstitutiveRole of Communication, New York 2009, pp. 21-47.11
Borghoff, B., op. cit.12 Boje, D. M.: Storytelling Organizations, Los Angeles 2008.13 ZHAW Startup Challenge, (www.zhaw.ch),https://tinyurl.com/mpc3jyv2 (last accessed: 04.12.2022).14 Startup Accelerator, PDF at https://startup-accelerator.org,https://tinyurl.com/bdd5eb6r (last accessed: 04.12.2022).15 Startup Accelerator, op. cit.
Brandes, U./Erlhoff, M./Schemmann, N.: Designtheorie und Designforschung,Paderborn 2009, p. 188.
Borghoff, B., op. cit.18 Stücheli-Herlach, P.: Wertschöpfung als Wortschöpfung: Zur Modellierungdes Sprachgebrauchs in der strategischen Organisationskommunikation.In: Schach, A./Christoph, C. (eds.): HandbuchSprache in den Public Relations: Theoretische Ansätze – Handlungsfelder- Textsorten, Wiesbaden 2017, p. 121 f.