The second commandment:
Win hearts & minds
by becoming a Chief Storyteller.
17th January 2019
I firmly believe that culture is essentially formed by two things; the vocabulary you use and the stories you tell. We will discuss vocabulary in another blog. Let’s understand how stories shape us.
If you look at the history of religions, they all have percolated through the stories that are being told since ages. Even today, we have the re-enactment of the Ramayana during Dussehra every year. That is a story which tells why Rama was the perfect human being. The story describes what his virtues were, how he sacrificed everything for his family and how his word counted above everything else. Something like the Hindi saying - Jaan jaye par wachan na jaye (If death is the price for keeping one’s word, then so be it). These are the values we all want to see in human beings. Similarly, there is a story about Jesus Christ in the Book of John which mentions how he saved a woman who was accused of adultery from certain death by saying, “Let that person who has not sinned be the first person to throw the stone”. That is a story which talks about the importance of forgiving others. In Islam, Quran is the word of god, but how Prophet Muhammad behaves is described in great detail in the Hadiths. The Hadiths are consulted alongside the Quran to determine what is right. How does Jesus, who is born somewhere in the middle east, go on to create a religion of over two billion people at a time when communication was excruciatingly difficult? How does Prophet Muhammad create a religion which is the fastest growing religion in the world? How does Krishna spread the concept of dharma (righteous conduct)? It is through stories! Religions have been able to sustain and propagate themselves across alien cultures through stories.
Just like commandments in religions, we have policies in corporate life. But policies cannot cover every type of behaviour. For example, ‘Prevention Of Sexual Harassment’ is a policy which defines acceptable & unacceptable behaviour and the action which law takes against someone who indulges in unacceptable acts. But not everything in a company is based on a policy. There are certain dos and don’ts which are not defined by a paper trail. Telling stories is a great way of reinforcing behaviour in such cases. Instead of saying “don’t violate company policy by committing expense fraud”, you can create a story about someone who was sent to jail because of the expense fraud they committed. And then you can talk about what happened to that person when they got out of the jail and how a violation from their past proved to be the biggest impediment when they tried to start over. And this was a relatively easy example because you can write a policy around expenses. But all possible permutations of what is unacceptable cannot be encapsulated in the written word. The only way to communicate the essence of ‘what is expected’ is through stories.
Leaders are also teachers, for they have a responsibility to pass on their skills. For example, Bruce Lee was not only a great martial artist but he was also a great martial arts instructor. The art of storytelling is closely associated with teaching and it plays a pivotal role in culture creation. Let us assume that the leader of an organisation says that he wants customer intimacy in his company. He can build messaging around it and repeat the message all he wants, but the term ‘customer intimacy’ means different things to different people. The way to communicate what kind of ‘customer intimacy’ is expected from employees is to show them what an ideal customer interaction looks like. When people see that interaction, they start having a conversation about it and that is ‘storytelling’.
Human beings are not rational beings. When you hear a story, it is more likely that you remember what that story made you feel. And it is more plausible that your behaviour changes as a result of that feeling rather than listening to a logical explanation. The art of storytelling helps reinforce acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Your emotional brain latches on to, remembers and influences behaviour far more than your rational brain does.
This tactic can have diverse uses. For example, nobody will take much note if you start telling people that popcorn is unhealthy because it has x percent of fat, y grams of salt or z level of cholesterol. But if you take a bucket of popcorn, put it next to a Big Mac with fries & Coke and say that the meal is equivalent to the popcorn, then that makes an impact.
Policies are good for the rational brain. But if you really want people to change, that can only happen through stories. Through stories, we connect. The reason you might know the story of Rama is probably because you read Amar Chitra Katha. You can talk a lot about the virtues & vices of man as long as you tell a story with role models like Rama, Prophet Muhammad or Jesus. You don’t need to explain to the people what is expected from them because they connect the dots after hearing the story. At the end of the day, the art of becoming a storyteller, is all about appealing to the emotion of the people so that they do the right thing without having to use their rational brain.