Stories and Storytelling: A Business Enabler?

Storytelling is increasingly becoming a buzz word in the world of knowledge management. Pioneering work is being done by individuals and organizations to deal with organizational challenges using stories as a business tool. A case in point is anecdote, which has an apt tagline ‘putting stories to work’.

It is a bit surprising that for us in India, where stories and storytelling have been part of our culture and life from time immemorial, the technique is not often perceived as a viable business tool. There are wonderful organizations like Kathalaya, whose vision is ‘To establish storytelling as an effective educational and cultural tool in all spheres of education’ but instances of using stories as a business enabler are few and far between.

What also surprises me as a knowledge management professional is the fact that it does not require much effort to find good story tellers in our country. The next time when you travel by train, keep your ears open. More likely than not, you would find an expert story teller. It could be the hawker selling ‘jhalmuri (please bear with me as I do not have the faintest idea of what this Bengali snack should be called in English; try it the next time when you are in Kolkata if you haven’t had it before)’. One of the best storytellers I have come across is an unknown Indian travelling in the Delhi Metro probably for the first time with his grandson. The little boy was inquisitive about everything pertaining to the Metro and the old gentleman tried his best to quench his thirst for knowledge. It was so riveting that I got off at a station before my destination just to continue to listen to their conversation. What had enthralled me about the conversation was the fact that the old gentleman effortlessly mixed his knowledge about the metro (nuggets of knowledge probably picked up from his conversations with peers in his village who had availed the services of the Delhi Metro before) with his imaginations. I am sure that the little boy will be able to filter the information passed on to him quite soon, but I have an uncanny feeling that his association with the Metro will be somewhat different, thanks to his grandfather, the master storyteller.

My childhood (which did not have access to Harry Potter movies and video games) was largely shaped by the stories that were told to me by my maternal grandmother.  Folk tales, legends and epics became part of my life and as I grew up I started to appreciate that while much of what I had interiorized was actually unreal, some of it could actually be mapped to what I was learning in school, university and finally at work.  I also started realizing that stories tend to have a lasting impact on us. It is much easier to remember something when it is shared in the form of a story in comparison to a formal lecture and a discourse (I have always considered Steve Jobs’ Stanford speech as a story rather than a lecture).

During the course of my professional career, I have come across business leaders whom I have started classifying into two categories: story tellers and statisticians. When I look back at the interactions that I had with the two sets of leaders, I realize that often they were conveying the same kind of message with similar data points. The difference however lies in the fact that I remember what the first group shared with me and my colleagues even though it has been years since I heard it. That, my friends, tells you about the power of storytelling.

I wanted to share a small story which I came across on the net a few months before. It is a small story which is so powerful that it has got featured in the blog of a person who has redefined storytelling and whose stories have touched millions of lives across cultures and geographies. Yes, I am talking about Paulo Coelho and the same story which I am about to share can be found on his blog.

I did a little bit of research on the story which appears on multiple websites (with slight variations).The author of the story is unknown but the message that it portrays probably touches all of us trying to find success through whatever we do.  I first saw it here. Hope you enjoy reading it.

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An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long it took you to catch them?” The American asked.

“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.

Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.

“But,” The American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

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2 thoughts on “Stories and Storytelling: A Business Enabler?

  1. Anirban, when you say “stories” I am sure you mean classical works of fiction as well. Knowing your reading habits I am sure you would have read this but for those who have not and often suffer from a sense of inadequacy during the course of their career here is a story which should help. I will not try to expound on the “lessons learnt” and all that but I have the strongest of conviction that if you give your 100 per cent you will definitely emerge victorious (not necessarily by way of promotions and financial reward but mostly certainly in terms of recognition as a consummate professional)- I have. Please read http://www.accuracyproject.org/t-France,Anatole-OurLadysJuggler.html and have a box of tissues handy!

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  2. Thanks Ujjal da! Yes, I did mean classics as well. And many thanks for sharing the link. I read it a long time ago but certainly did not relate to it as I can do now. Really appreciate your comment and probably that’s the crux of what keeps people like us going.

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