At Virgin and Nike, stories of the past inspire the innovations of the future.
Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is a big believer in the power of ideas to change the world, and an even bigger believer in the power of storytelling to draw out those ideas.
“The art of storytelling can be used to drive change,” says Branson. “Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a storyteller.”
Branson is right. In the past ten years, neuroscientists have learned more about how the brain processes information than we’ve known in all of civilization. And the consensus is that the brain is wired for story. We think in narrative, we develop narratives about ourselves and the world around us, and we enjoy consuming information in the form of story.
Earlier this year, the website Virgin.com devoted an entire month to storytelling, one of Branson’s favorite topics. “I have always loved stories. Ever since I started in business with Student Magazine, I have been fascinated by the intersection between storytelling and entrepreneurship,” writes Branson. “Entrepreneurs who make a difference are, in effect, professional storytellers.”
Stories attract people to products
Branson says the Virgin story–its ups, downs, opportunities and challenges–is what attracts people to its products and services, as well as attracting employees to join the Virgin family. “We would be nothing without our story.”
Branson says it’s easier now to be a storytelling entrepreneur or brand leader than at any other time in history. “Thanks to technology platforms and social media, there are so many more ways to connect to people,” he says. “I used to rely on creating a splash and making the front pages to launch our companies and promotions. Now, while the written press is still important, there are a multitude of other methods for reaching potential customers.”
Storytelling, says Branson, is a great way to get your point of across, differentiate your brand, and work out new ideas. “It’s one of the reasons I blog so much. Storytelling is as old as the campfire, and as young as a tweet. Regardless of the medium – in person, on social media, through old fashioned letters, on the phone or via email – there is nothing more effective and affecting than storytelling,” Branson wrote in one his storytelling posts on Virgin.com.
Nike’s corporate storytellers
Every company needs a chief storytelling officer. At Nike, the story of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman’s invention of the waffle sole is legendary. It wasn’t as well known in 1980 when Nike went public. Nike founder Phil Knight accompanied a group of executives to New York for the so-called ‘dog-and-pony’ show when company leaders persuade investors that their vision and brand is worth backing.
In his book, Shoe Dog, Knight said he closed the presentation with story about Bowerman and how, on a Sunday morning, he looked over at the waffle iron on the kitchen counter and thought the gridded pattern would grip the track better on a running shoe. Bowerman poured rubber into the iron and ruined a few appliances in his experiment. Knight told the story as a metaphor for innovation.
“I talked about his brains, bravery, his magic waffle iron,” Knight recalls in his autobiography. The story had a point. “I wanted to let those New Yorkers know that though we hailed from Oregon, we were not to be trifled with. The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leave us.”
Today the Nike campus is history, “a living breathing expression of that vital human emotion…gratitude.” Buildings and roads are named for Nike’s “founding fathers.” Senior executives are designated as corporate storytellers. They tell the story of Phil Knight selling running shoes out of the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant. They tell the story of the magic waffle iron. They tell the story of Steve Prefontaine, the legendary Oregon runner who died in a car crash and who Knight speaks about in almost spiritual reverence
At Nike, the heroics of the past inspire the innovations of the future.
Nike and Virgin aren’t the only ones with chief storytellers. I’ve met Chief Storytelling Officers at Accenture, Microsoft, Google, SAP and Salesforce. These companies are hiring or designing individuals as Chief Storytelling Officers because stories educate, inform, illuminate and inspire. Tell more of them or hire someone who will.