How Do They Do It? Secrets of Great Storytelling

Twenty-five years after publicly announcing it, at a party in Cupertino, I’ve finally begun to work on my first mystery novel. The visit to Hampi, which ironically I did many years after I had visited Pompeii, was the catalyst to set my murder mystery in early 16th century Vijayanagara. If you think making daily sales calls is hard writing every day is harder still. And I’m not even talking about writing well, just putting words on paper.

As entrepreneurs, we have to be storytellers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about making stuff up. Each day, whether we are trying to hire a new person, motivate an employee who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, persuade an investor to make a bridge investment or trying to get a customer to buy or better yet pay us an advance, we are trying to persuade others. Make no mistake, persuasion is selling. In a manner of speaking, we are all sales folks. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we can get better at it.

It’s no accident that the best sales folks are good great storytellers. Here’s the good news, like most things storytelling is a learned skill. With a little attention to how others do it and a good deal of practice, we can all get better at it. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – and there’s no reason you can’t make a resolution or start a new habit on the 1st of November. Make improving your storytelling skills a goal. Notice I say improving, for we are all natural storytellers. Any time you’ve tried to lie to your mom, or a friend or fudged the facts with your spouse (none of which you’ve ever done of course!), you were telling a story—not necessarily well. Let’s get started. One of the simplest and most fun ways to do this is to join a ToastMaster’s club near you. Your storytelling will get better (mine certainly did) but at the very least you’ll make some new friends. It never hurts to have a life (and a few friends) outside of our businesses.

To make things easy for you, I’m sharing one video (below) and one article.- Get rolling.

Storytelling in a corporate setting – 11 examples

 

Crafting that Compelling Story – A 3-Point Cheat Sheet

Regardless of our job role, one skill every one of us needs is storytelling. The truth is we are all born with it, but let’s just say some of us are a little rougher around the edges. Having spent most of my time around tech folks, I suspect we probably beat this skill out of them which is why so many presentations we sit through or documents we read, make us at the very least drowsy — some even maybe put us in a coma. These same people, when you observe them talking to friends or colleagues can be great raconteurs. Some of this comes from just not having performance anxiety that presentations induce in all of us. So without having a few libations how do we spin a good yarn? And particularly in a business context how do ensure that we’ve provided our listeners or readers something of value – that elusive takeaway?

Here’s what I’ve learned.

A. Begin with the end in mind I’ll use the example of a seminar or webinar that you intend to host. Write down the one takeaway that your listener or audience walks away with – it could range from broad statements or highly specific

  • Entrepreneurship is hard – so you’d better be certain, what it is your passion? And why you are doing this?
  • Good leaders recognize strategy is as much about deciding what NOT to do, as it is about what it is you’ll do
  • Writing 1000 words every day is the key to finishing your book – then all you have to do is edit it
  • Measuring ROI on your GIS project can seem hard but it’s not rocket science – here’s how our customers are doing it

B. Use the power of three  While scientists and psychologists thought that the human brain can hold only 5-7 things at a time, newer research suggests that number might actually be (gasp) 4! So why risk it? I find if you break down things into three chunks, they are a lot easier to hold at least in my easily distracted mind. Now break it down into three chunks. Sticking with the entrepreneurship or leadership theme,

  • Context: Set the stage – often best set as a story – that usually illustrates or reinforces a widely held belief. How Steve Jobs had a mythical touch when building products or how Unilever or P&G were masters of strategy leading to their success; Or why government projects are always a boondoggle, like the Big Dig in Boston
  • Counterpoint – core premise: Is that really the case? Here are eight products that Steve Jobs launched with much fanfare and failed miserably at; here are the huge missteps P&G made and here’s what we’ve learned from NASA’s space mission, which has had minuscule failure rates – so here’s the takeaway – entrepreneurship is hard, there will be naysayers, you’ll fail before you succeed, so you’d better know what your passion is about, if you wanna be able to stick with it
  • Break it down: Offer an actionable set of things that they can do – how can they realize this core premise you’ve made? Maybe it’s a checklist – that helps them understand themselves better? It’s reading of case studies – of how other entrepreneurs succeeded (or better yet failed and recovered), followed by a checklist.

This can work, whether the topic’s losing weight, giving a speech, or how to measure the return-on-investment on a project.

C. Challenge your audience This is what we marketers term the Call to action!  This could be as simple as inviting questions that allows them to challenge your assertions or having them take the first step (“What will you do differently tomorrow morning, because of what you learned here”) The key here is that this doesn’t remain your story but one that compels them to action – ideally an action that benefits them. Of course, if it benefits you whether purely psychically (I did some good!) or professionally (lands you a consulting gig or job) that’s icing on the cake. As my father tried to teach me, “Give first before you ask.”

Here’s a great presentation on how one technical guy (Claudio Perrone aka AgileSensei) went from being just a dude to a compelling storyteller to even cynical technical folks).

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Be Empathetic – Lessons from my dad

My father was a great teller of tales. However, neither he nor I realized this for much of his life.  If I had asked my father tell me a story which I’ve don’t recall ever doing he’d have likely said, “I don’t tell stories.” However, he did. And darn good ones at that. Only they were narrated while we waited at railway stations or airports or while he was dressing up for work or waiting for dinner to be served. Many of them were just vignettes – episodes from his own life, that it took me many years to figure were stories – darn good ones – well worth repeating. And today as I share them with my daughters or at times with unsuspecting colleagues, I understand how they’ve shaped me.

My favorite story was my dad’s recounting of how as a young man he’d attended a village play  and particularly his re-telling of a specific scene from the play. My dad as with many Indians’ of the pre-WWII generation grew up in a small village. Entertainment meant the occasional village fair, a rare trip to town and most often a religious celebration which would include makeshift theater featuring song and dance. Plays, much like Indian movies of the early forties, were largely based on religious themes – often stories from one of the two great Indian epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. 

For those not familiar with the Indian epics, the Ramayana is the tale of the hero-king Rama, who is banished to 14 years of forest exile, on the eve of his coronation. His life in exile, including the search for his kidnapped wife Sita culminating in the epic good vs evil battle with the demon Ravana and his triumphant return to the throne, forms the arc of the story line. Rama’s father, the old king Dasaratha is forced to exile Rama, due to an IOU – a promise he made to his youngest wife Kaikeyi (he had three) who sought the throne for her own son.

Vanavas

Photo: Margarent Freeman

Village theater, even today in India, is often a makeshift stage, with a curtain or cloth draped to separate the backstage from the action up front. The actors heavily made up, rely on their costumes and loud voices to make up for the lack of scenery or other props. With stories such as the Ramayana, the audience which knows every scene needs little else.

As the curtain pulls back, the old king Dasaratha is reclining on the royal couch. My father’s voice chokes up as he narrates the scene. When I was much younger, I could never understand why dad choked up thus. We knew how the story ended! My dad’s eyes fill up and he’s not able to speak any further. With some nudging and prodding, he starts again. “Rama, Rama, Rama” the King calls out – loudly first, his voice filled with anguish and then softly. He gets off the couch and staggers forward as if wanting to go after his son. He continues, calling out “Rama, Rama, Rama” in a voice that breaks and gets weaker by the moment. And then he collapses and dies right there.

By this time, my father’s eyes, still wet, begin to twinkle – as though he’s thought of something naughty. “Then the crowd goes wild – they clap, cheer, hoot, jump up to their feet. “Encore, encore” a lone voice is heard. Then the crowd picks it up and shouts itself hoarse.” My dad is back in the crowd himself. Then the actor, playing the dead King, rises – steps back and begins again “Rama, Rama, Rama” and goes through the whole scene, crying, staggering, calling out and dropping dead. The crowd can’t have enough. By now my dad and I are both laughing out loud. I never tired of hearing this story and would ask my dad often to narrate it.

Yesterday when my younger daughter asked me, for a school project, to tell her what was happening in Palestine, I started to recount the tale of Israel. But in a moment, my own eyes were filled with tears – hot tears of anger and frustration at the real and perceived injustices. The same tears flow just as easily when I narrate the tale of Abhimanyu the young prince from the Mahabharata, cut down in his prime by eight great warriors, who trapped and ambushed him. While “sad songs say so much” as Elton John put it, it’s not just sad news or unfairness that brings me tears to my eyes. I could just as easily be watching Martin Luther King Jr. assert “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or listening to Eminem crooning “Mockingbird” to his daughter Haley. Like my father crying and laughing at the same time while recounting the encore rendition of the death of Dasaratha, I too find myself emoting easily.

Be empathetic” is the lesson my dad taught me that day and as my kids wipe my tears and try to coax me to continue, I realize how that one death scene has shaped me!


Five years ago today, my father passed away. The good news was that I got to spend a lot more time with my father, the last five years of his life – even as he and my mother struggled with his Parkinson’s Disease. The bad news is that no amount of time would have been enough. An earlier draft of this article appeared on Medium.

Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 5

Koothu - Chennai Sangamam

Image by Ravages via Flickr

Entrepreneurship 2.0

What should all of us who care about entrepreneurship and helping it thrive in the Indian milieu do? There are three simple steps I believe we can take.

  • Story telling Collect and disseminate stories of entrepreneurial success at every forum and opportunity. Blog about it, write it up in a newspaper, share it at meetings. Just as the story of Dhirubhai or Karsenbhai inspires, stories such as Girish’s or Balan’s can ignite others to follow them. We need more stories of success, small and big, to make entrepreneurial success a realizable dream for more Indians. Every time we read a story of someone who’s made it big, we better find and tell stories of five others who have made it small. Demand that our newspapers and magazines celebrate the little guy as much as they do the big guy.
  • Encourage During and just after the Kargil war, there was a spurt of public appreciation for soldiers and the men (and women) in uniform. Even today when I travel in the USA, I see strangers walk up to soldiers in uniform, in airports or shopping malls, and thank them for doing their job. When was the last time we did that with any entrepreneur or business owner? The gentleman who runs the tyre shop with its six employees may well be tomorrow’s Kishore Biyani with the right breaks. Ask how their business is doing, listen to their story and appreciate them openly and explicitly.
  • Educate Each of us has skills that if we share with entrepreneurs will help them get ahead. It could be teaching them how to raise capital, hire senior staff, make better presentations, manage their cash flow or land major accounts. This education is best accomplished by doing. “Show – not tell!” as good writing coaches say. We can do this even by creating forums for bringing entrepreneurs together. Just by sharing each others experiences they can learn from one another and most importantly gain the insight that they are not alone.

Now as three of us embark on our latest entrepreneurial journey at Zebu, we are once again those little guys starting out (though not in a garage but in a small house). I know we could certainly use all the encouragement, education and story telling to stay the course.

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Storytelling and Culture in Companies

Storytelling

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight

I was lucky enough grow up with a paternal grandmother, a maternal grandfather and even his mother, my great grandmother (GGM), who were always ready with a story. My GGM’s life story itself is worth a whole separate post – widowed at nineteen, while pregnant with my grandfather, she raised him, through a polio attack (when he was two, that left him crippled in one leg), saw him through college, then when he was widowed with ten kids, she then in her sixties, raised the kids, (and the first grandkids) while managing the household, ten cows and a small farm sized garden.

Some of my favorite memories of my GGM are from dinner time. Six or seven of us kids, cousins and siblings, would be sitting in a semi-circle, on the floor of my grandfather’s dining room. GGM would be seated with her back to the wall, at the center of the half circle, with a large stainless steel bowl of mixed steamed rice and yoghurt. Each night, she’d narrate a story as she fed us dinner. She’d scoop up one handful of the rice and drop a dollop in each of our outstretched hands, going clockwise. And with each handful or mouthful, she’d narrate what happened next, in the tale for the evening. Oh, on so many nights, we’d have to stop eating and console her, as at particularly poignant moments in the tale she’d stumble, stutter then sniffle before a stream of tears would run down her wrinkled face. At other times, she’d have to stop the story to urge us to continue eating or close our mouths as we’d listen to her all agog, our food and outstretched hands totally forgotten.

Those local tales of lions that came as bridegrooms and sparrows that stuffed themselves and the longer tales from the Indian epics have not only stayed with me but taught us the values that my GGM held dear. In a very small way I have tried to share that with my own two children. However, the larger lesson I have learnt is the value of stories and storytelling to imbibe culture in families and companies.

There is a large swath of didactic and somewhat intimidating academic research done in recent times on the role of storytelling in business. Leaving that to the experts, in every company I have worked with, there has been storytelling – of dream deals that were saved or won by heroic individual or team efforts; customers from hell or my own favorite, of a customer who insisted on paying by Sep 30th ahead of our delivery milestone, as his budget would vanish on Oct 1st, but wanting a handwritten personal note from the CEO assuring that we’d still deliver on our commitments; our own story of how we asked engineers and managers to have their pay raises deferred and then to take a pay cut and my wife’s favorite, of how I was a zombie the day we lost that truly big, already-in-the-bag and company-saving quarter million dollar deal and the mourning we went through (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – all in a day.)

Of course storytelling need not be just in front of the fireplace, over dinner or by the water cooler. Books, emails and memos can just as powerfully share stories and values. The best examples I can think of include

    • Memos from the Chairman” by Alan C. Greenberg, former Chairman of investment
      banking firm Bear, Stearns & Co. In a series of memos, many at less than 150 words, he has shared his views, thoughts and narrated tales (with a fictional protagonist) in an informal and easy style
    • Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work” by John Cowan – a collection of fluid essays that narrate tales from John’s personal and work life and lend tremendous insight into our own lives, without hitting us over the head

I’d recommend both these books for a hearty good read, even if storytelling and organizational culture are not your favorite topics!