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Doctoral thesis

Building trust in startup communication : exploring the interplay of arguments and stories in the case of the Nikola corporation

  • 2023

PhD: Università della Svizzera italiana

English Startups play a crucial role in driving economic progress, but investing in them is fraught with significant risks due to their short history and lack of reliable data. To mitigate this risk, it is essential to develop analytical methods and tools that can detect early signs of misrepresentation or even fraud in startup communications. This thesis offers a linguistic perspective on this problem by examining the interplay of arguments and stories in startups’ strategic communication to attract long-term funding. The study focuses on the case of Nikola Corporation, an Arizona-based zero-emission transportation startup that went public before generating significant revenue and faced a fundamental trust crisis triggered by a short seller attack in the year it went public. This exploratory research employs a mixed methods approach, drawing on concepts from argumentation and narrative theory to analyze publicly available sources such as press releases, interviews, and newspaper articles. The thesis also extends to corpus linguistics to examine how the short seller attack changed perceptions of the startup in selected financial media. The Nikola case study provides a valuable opportunity to analyze both the mechanisms of trust building and the crucial role of the founder in startup communications. As the study reconstructs, Nikola’s founder combined rational arguments and emotional stories to create a narrative that resonated with investors but also left his startup vulnerable to accusations of fraud and deception. Entrepreneurs and communications professionals can use the insights from this study to critically scrutinize their communications, making them both more effective and crisis resistant. By doing so, startups could contribute to economic progress more reliably. The research introduces an analytical framework for examining the interplay of arguments and stories that can potentially be applied to a wide range of contexts in which building trust is crucial. Overall, this dissertation offers a new perspective on strategic persuasion and provides implications relevant for both the theory and practice of startups, particularly those that rely heavily on novel technologies.
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