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Story selling


Why telling tales at the workplace may just get you a good appraisal

Tucked in leafy corner of posh Sector 40 in Noida is a playschool. You can see toddlers running around, walls decorated with colourful cut-outs of rainbows and butterflies, and red doors. Behind one such door is a group of grownups being trained in the art of storytelling. Simi Srivastava, their trainer, tells them to lie down on the floor and gaze up at the ceiling covered with thermocol cut-outs of clouds and stars. She asks them to choose one star and then narrate a story to it. It's a bit unsettling to witness adults indulging in such a visibly childish pursuit. But as some of the participants will tell you, adults enjoy a good tale just as much as children do.

Richa Pant, one of the participants and an HR manager with the IT consultancy firm Steria, says storytelling is emerging as a new powerful communication tool in the corporate world. "Today people in the business world want everything to be grand. Your presentations, targets have to draw the big's like Bollywood. You have to engage your listener. And a good story comes in handy, " she says.

Giving your product, service or idea a tale spin helps you attract a very precious commodity in today's world - attention. "An effective CEO uses an emotional narrative about the company's mission to attract investors and partners, to set lofty goals, and to inspire employees, " writes Peter Guber in Harvard Business Review. Guber is a professor at UCLA, author of management how-to book Tell to Win, and was once top producer in Hollywood with films like The Rainman and Batman.

Pradipta K Mohapatra, CEO of executive & business coaching, Foundation India Limited, says that with the corporate world becoming "flatter", bosses can no longer adopt the age-old army method of shouting orders. "Now, their job is to inspire people. They are not bosses but coaches...and storytelling takes leadership to a new level, " says Mohapatra. For example, he says, to inspire beleaguered employees of Kingfisher Airlines their bosses can tell them stories of how British Airways and Air France revived their fortunes after running into rough weather. At times, tales of courage, perseverance and diligence from within the company, of people who work there, can help drive the point home. "In corporate culture leaders prefer speaking in monotones, without much emotion, because they want to appear dignified. But I tell them that in order to lead and inspire better they need to pick a strategic narrative and tell it with passion and honesty, " says Eric Miller who runs the Storytelling Institute in Chennai.

Miller, who has acquired his PhD in folklore from University of Pennsylvania, holds storytelling classes for corporate executives. In his training module he likes to dip into the vast pool of stories that make up the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The participants are asked to adopt a character from the story which is being narrated. "Most executives choose to be 'Karan' from Mahabharata because he placed the interest of others before his own, " says Miller, who has trained executives from Reliance Mutual Fund, Cognizant and Royal Bank of Scotland. While India's corporati is now warming up to this ancient craft, the skill of telling a good story has for long been considered the hallmark of business leaders in the West. The late Steve Jobs, for instance, was regarded as the corporate world's greatest storyteller. Many of the press interviews he gave used to start with "I'll tell you a story". During his famous commencement address for the class of 2005 at Stanford he said: "Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories. " Just as strong was his desire to hear a good tale. Apparently, employees at Apple used to dread getting into the elevator with Jobs because he always expected them to tell him a good story.

"If you got on at the 4th floor, you'd better have captivated him by the time you got off on the 1st. Jobs remembered you when you had a great story to tell. He also remembered when you didn't, " says Michael Dhuey, co-inventor of Macintosh II, in an interview to a tech news portal.

The power of storytelling lies in the fact that it can leapfrog technology. It's always easier to remember a good tale than information fed to you as PowerPoint bullets. The human brain is wired to assimilate messages in the form of a story. "The human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the implicit story to make sense of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain, " writes Pamela Rutledge, director of Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, as part of a blog post for Psychology Today.

Simi Srivastava who runs Kathashala, a storytelling school in Noida says stories are helping people connect and communicate better. "The downside of technology is that it has shrunk our attention span. We are limiting our expression to 140-character tweets or pithy texts in confounding SMSese. That's why people are going back to stories... to break down 'structured' communication and learn to let emotions, ideas and messages flow. "

It is with this objective that Priya Srinivasan quit her career as a media professional in Mumbai and took to training storytellers. She, along with Gauri Raje, founded The Pomegranate Storytelling Workshops in 2006 to help people explore their storytelling potential. Raje has a PhD in anthropology and is a trained storyteller from Emerson College, Sussex. She uses storytelling as a way of creating dialogues within conflictridden societies. "We get people from varied backgrounds - lawyers, doctors, managers and even school teachers. Some want to learn this craft for professional reasons and others just want to learn to let go, " explains Srinivasan.

For example, Rasika Dugal who participated in one such workshop says storytelling helped open up her mind and challenged her as an artist. "Gauri taught us how to tell an impromptu story, how to improvise on it. She would make us read a story and then recreate it on a page by drawing, " says Dugal, a theatre and film actor who played the female lead in critically acclaimed Kshay, a digital film.

Snigdha Manchanda Binjola, a professional storyteller based in Mumbai, says when people are marketing themselves or their companies on the Internet, their "about me" sections often lack a personal touch. "Your product or service cannot be the same as you or your company. But by adding stories about how the company came into existence or how you struggled to establish yourself can immediately draw the user to your brand, " she says. As she likes to point out in her seminars and workshops, borrowing from American essayist NassimTaleb: "Ideas come and go, but stories stay on."

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