The Telegraph
| Sunday, August 31, 2014 |

7days

Tell me a story, says India Inc

One of the hottest trends in the corporate world is — surprise — storytelling. Companies are banking on storytelling to convey messages to people, says Kavitha Shanmugam

  • Corporate culture: Geeta Ramanujam (above, extreme right)

A new dairy company sets up shop in Ahmedabad, the backyard of the mother of milk brands in the country, Amul. How can it get across its story to the public of how it creates milk by tending to its 800 scientifically procured cows in its sprawling, 500-acre dairy farm?

How does an Indian aircraft company get employees to understand its vision of becoming a global player?

Or how does the Singaporean government convince its 18-year-olds to sign up for compulsory military service?

They do so by telling stories — through modern-day "storytellers". The business world, scrounging for ways to grab the attention of customers weighed down by information overload, is slowly banking on the intrinsic power of storytelling to transport facts, figures and messages to people.

It's the hottest new trend in the corporate world these days. And the reason companies are making a beeline for storytellers is the simple fact that stories work — and linger on long after they are told.

Research in the West has shown that brains are wired to absorb narratives better than dry facts and figures. An American study done on nurses revealed that wrapping up information in story form helped make a story stick over facts, says Dr Margaret Read MacDonald, a US-based storyteller, who visited Chennai to participate in the Kathai Kalatta Storytelling Festival 2014 held last week.

Flourish Pure Foods, the Ahmedabad newbie in the milk industry, seems to think so too. Having seen the effective use of storytelling in a school it also runs, it sent its team leaders and HR staff for a storytelling workshop in Bangalore in January.

  • Ameen Haque at workshops

"When I tell our story to new recruits it rings true to them and they want to join our company," says Krishnadas J., a workshop participant and head of HR, Flourish Pure Foods. The workshop helped him to "internalise the story of how the company was born", enforced by visits to the company's farm. Krishnadas feels that they need to get their story out in the market to beat established competitors such as Nestle and Amul, whose stories are known.

Like Flourish Pure Foods, many corporations — including Bharat Petroleum, GE Healthcare, Deloitte, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Mahindra Comviva — are using storytelling as one more corporate training route for their employees.

Everyone remembers and empathises with the Steve Jobs story and thus with Apple. Nobody remembers the Microsoft story, says Roger Jenkins, a drama teacher-turned-storyteller from Singapore, who says that storytelling is in "vogue" among corporations in the US, Australia and UK.

The stories are used to communicate brand identity, company values, foster leadership qualities, promote team spirit, implement change management or resolve conflicts. Storytellers prepare employees for change by making them do things they have never done before — such as writing with the left hand or using chopsticks.

Storyteller Geeta Ramanujam, founder of Kathalaya in Bangalore, recalls companies approaching her to make effective presentations with facts and figures to clients nearly seven years ago.

That's changed. She used voice exercises, animal noises or visualising images like a "tall coconut tree dancing in a breeze" and stoking the imaginations of participants at workshops with posers such as "how the hell did porcupines get their spines?" to help them think imaginatively.

Ramanujam delves into her bag of folklore to underline allegories. "The author of the Panchantantra taught the king's dull sons strategies through captivating animal stories to help them become able administrators," she says. The same simple principle works in business.

Stories of the envious fox, the cautious crow and the persevering frog have morals about enemies, behavioural traits such as perseverance, playing to win and developing team work.

Corporate storytelling workshops have been on a "huge upswing" for four years or so, holds Ameen Haque, corporate story trainer and founder of the Storywallahs in Bangalore.

"Increasingly, cut-throat competition is forcing companies to go back to a simple narrative to connect the facts," adds Haque, who has conducted workshops for Greenpeace, GE Healthcare, Bosch, HAL, Gokuldas Images and the National Association of Software and Services Companies, which represents the software industry's interests.

Business, the former advertising professional adds, relates to the power of persuasion. And storytelling is the art of persuasion. For this, Haque relies on real life stories of courage and inspiration to make his point.

The experience of mountaineer Edmund Hillary and his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, for instance, works well when the storytellers seek to emphasise team spirit and leadership qualities. "When Hillary attributed his success to his team, saying that the sherpa was the first to reach the top, he was displaying the qualities of a true leader. But the sherpa stepped forward to correct him. His team spirit prompted him to give him credit as a leader," he says.

He also relates the story of K�roly Tak�cs, a Hungarian army sergeant pistol shooter, who lost his right arm before he could participate in the Olympics. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he focused on training his left arm and waited out World War II before becoming a two-time Olympic gold champion. "These stories are meant to motivate staff and keep their morale high," he says.

Sometimes, it is the turn of employees to tell stories. This is done to make them understand the "values" of the company they work for, says Jenkins, who conducted a corporate workshop along with Chennai storyteller Jeeva Raghunathan for Bharat Petroleum.

He cites the example of a story narrated by a country manager of insurance company Allianz during a workshop. After the destruction of an orphanage in the 2011 tsunami-quake in Japan, Allianz got its major clients to donate money and rebuild the place for the little orphans.

"The manager was all choked up when he told the story but it was a powerful one to create pride in the employees about their company," he explains.

Storyteller Kiran Shah, who held a workshop for the Singapore military, asked young participants to relate personal stories that invoked patriotic feelings.

To promote team spirit, during a Procter and Gamble workshop, Jenkins asked participants to bring personal objects. One brought a photograph of his cycle. It triggered a discussion on fitness, leading to a cycling expedition during the weekend.

Some of the stories double up as practical advice as well. Saurabh Kale, a learning consultant with Intel Security Group (the former McAfee), says that it helped him to understand firewalls and viruses in computers through the story of the Trojan horse and the impenetrable fort.

There is a legendary story of an interaction between the janitor at NASA and the US president before man stepped on the moon. The janitor introduced himself to the President, saying that he was part of the moon mission. "That shows the company's vision had percolated down to the employees at the lowest rung," a senior faculty member at the HAL training centre in Bangalore stresses.

HAL, she adds, has been experiment with different modes of learning and storytelling is one of them. "We find it effective because the stories remain with us long after the workshop," she says. "It helps us open one more door and develop a new perspective."

Good company

Among those using storytelling are

Bharat Petroleum

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited

GE Healthcare

Flourish Pure Foods

Mahindra Comviv

MORAL OF THE TALE

To introduce change

Employees asked to eat with chopsticks

Write with left hand

To infuse team spirit

Example of Hillary and Norgay related

To stress strength of mind

Story told about an Olympian shooter who lost his right arm

To trigger the imagination

Asked why a porcupine has quills

To loosen up

Asked to sway like a coconut tree in the breeze