The Important Art of Storytelling

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“the artful creation and articulation of stories constitutes a fundamental part of the leader’s vocation. Stories speak to both parts of the human mind – its reason and emotion. And I suggest, further, that it is stories of identity – narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed – that constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.”

Howard Gardner, John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

It is Oscar night and although I am indifferent to award shows, I love the movies and love a good story. But the best kind are the ones I share in person. Both my parents were great at sharing them. And more than myths and fables from ancient Hindu epics, we grew up listening to family stories. Amma’s always had a feminist theme about oppressed women’s subversive acts in the little village of Sattanadapuram, Tanjore, where she grew up. There was always a moral about showing courage and forbearance to triumph in the end. It featured women who slaved at home making and selling pappads while their husbands squandered away their manhood in their mistress’ homes. Amma never minced her words. She embellished for effect, delivered with punchlines often reducing us to tears and rousing our passion to take arms in solidarity with women-kind. No story was too adult for us. I knew about sexual molestation of widows in joint families and the taboo topic of marital rape early in my teens.

Appa on the other hand had goofy stories which had us in splits. I really could not get enough of his sleepwalking misadventures, his near drowning experiences and his embarrassment over emoting as heroes did in the movies, when he was asked to sing film songs in public. There were always tales about men who over-ate at weddings, uncles who failed exams and went to great lengths to hide the fact at home only to have some busybody break the news in front of all and sundry, sibling ribbing and rivalry. They were coming of age stories all light-hearted and entertaining.

My parents made me realize the power of the narrative and I have always used it to illustrate a point when interacting one on one or when making presentations. Even when confronted with a problem I ask myself this question “I wonder how this story will end?” No wonder I loved my solo practice in law when I had it. I would invite people into my life to share great stories with me. And I was actually paid to listen. Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction got it right. You could not make up some of the real life experiences people shared with an unflinching straight face. A particularly poignant one was from a blind woman who was accused of uttering death threats to her blind partner on the phone after he changed his mind about marrying her following a hysterectomy that she underwent on his bidding!

That wonderful tradition of plain old listening to stories for fun has been lost due to the distractions from electronic devices. Staring at our handhelds, we just do not make eye contact and share tales from our heart and mind that excite, entertain or exhilarate us.

However, in the business world storytelling is being seen as the ultimate leadership tool.

The world of business loves to talk in numbers. We are inundated with financial statements, income statements, balance sheets, and stock tables. Numbers are so prevalent that we have come to accept them as real. But numbers are abstractions from reality; the story is the reality.

Stories put a human face on success. They tell us that someone just like us can make it happen. They create organizational role models that everyone can relate to. They put the behavior in a real context and make standards more than statistics. Stories make standards come alive. By telling a story in detail, leaders illustrate what everyone needs to do to live by the organizational standards. They communicate the specific and proper actions that need to be taken to resolve tough choices. They bring people together around the campfire to learn and have fun.  So let’s park our devices, kindle our curiosity about everything around us and tell more stories.

Suggested Readings:

Wake Me Up When the Data is Over: How Organizations Use Storytelling to Drive Results by Lori Silverman

Let Me Tell You a Story by Tony Campolo

Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful by Craig Wortmann

The Story Factor by Annette Simmons 

Bhagavad Gita On Effective Leadership by Pujan Roka 

The Geeta And The Art of Successful Management by Ajanta E Chakravarty 

The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative by Stephen Denning

(Research and references by Geetha Manichandar, Chennai;   Cartoon by Uttara Sukumar (2000) )

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