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A story worth telling at work

  • Startups and corporates are increasingly turning to storytelling to win over investors, hire the right talent, embed new values, understand employees and sell their products
  • ‘Storytelling is emerging in a big way, as entrepreneurs are realizing that they are not the only ones with an idea.’

Storywallahs founder Ameen Haque (in yellow shirt) at a storytelling workshop in Bengaluru.
Storywallahs founder Ameen Haque (in yellow shirt) at a storytelling workshop in Bengaluru.

Why pay for a buffet when you’re only going to have soup and salad?" That is how Ravitej Yadalam began his pitch to investors last week. He was talking about his company, Lightwing, which helps firms pay only for what they use on the cloud, thereby cutting their cloud spending by up to 70%. But just 24 hours earlier, his pitch deck said something like, “Consumption-based automation that optimizes cloud spend". The transition from jargon to a direct, engaging message was the result of a storytelling workshop he attended with Ameen Haque, founder of Storywallahs, a company that helps firms leverage the power of stories. The workshop was part of an accelerator programme at NetApp, a data management firm.

Like Yadalam, entrepreneurs are discovering that stories communicate business concepts better to investors, customers and employees, than gobbledygook on a PowerPoint slide.

So, on a Friday morning at NetApp Bengaluru’s office, Haque took apart Yadalam’s presentation. He teased metaphors out of dry data and applied experiences of bus journeys to buying cloud storage on AWS and Microsoft Azure. As a result, the investor meeting went “extremely well", Yadalam says. “We modelled our presentation on the workshop, and were told it was really good."

WHERE Words count

Haque has been helping entrepreneurs tell their stories for five years. “Startup founders often have technology backgrounds, and get stuck on the minute, transactional details. Sometimes, all you need to do is zoom out and help them tell the right story," he says.

Like in the case of Swapnik Jakkampudi, co-founder of Curl Analytics, a startup that is also part of the accelerator. The story of the company’s product Paras, which helps companies automate their artificial intelligence solutions with greater accuracy and easy setup (“machine learning on steroids", as Haque called it) was getting lost in the dense minutiae of “blockchain" and “noise complexity". “When you’re involved in a project for so long, you develop a tunnel vision. We were focused on Paras’ technical strengths. A fresh pair of eyes helped us see how to approach it from the customers’ point of view. We will now emphasize Paras’ functionality," says Jakkampudi.

Management schools too are training future leaders for a world where innovation can be backed by captivating communication.

Last September, during an alumni event at the Indian School of Business’ Mohali campus , leadership coach R. Ramkumar conducted a workshop on the scientific framework of business storytelling, something he says has been “emerging in a big way in the past two-three years". When students step out into the real world, he explains, they realize they are not the only ones with an idea. “Often, there are many people making similar pitches. To stand out, you need a compelling story," he says, adding: “It’s been seen bullet points and graphs fire up far fewer regions in the brain than a story. The latter helps us assimilate information better."

A story, explains communication coach Vinita Johorey, allows for emotions and memories. “Through them, an investor becomes part of the founder’s trials and tribulations. It is this connection that is likely to spark belief," adds Johorey, who, two months ago, facilitated a “Storytelling for Startups" session at NSRCEL, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore’s innovation and entrepreneurship hub.

The stage is set

There is theatre-based storytelling too, which Dr Rajshree and Sharath Parvathavani, co-founders of Bengaluru’s YouAndMe Theatre, have been using in their sales-theatre and behaviour traits workshops for companies such as Technologics and Brillio.

From content to body language, voice modulation and volume, the duo applies theatre techniques to storytelling. Elevator pitches, for instance, must be more causal. “Make it friendly, and gesticulate for impact," says Rajshree. On the other hand, a person making a boardroom pitch must modulate their stance, make eye contact and not shuffle uncertainly around the room. “Listening is very important in storytelling. We talk about interpreting the audience’s body language, and modifying the presentation accordingly," she says. Using emotions intelligently is another storytelling technique they teach, often through role play. “For instance, one of the consumers of an automatic cooker might be a senior citizen. But focusing on his/her age or frailty would be patronizing. Instead, play on their pride and the fact that they deserve a comfortable life in their silver years."

Whether big or small

It’s not just startups. Corporates are also realizing the importance of storytelling. Indranil Chakraborty, founder of Mumbai’s StoryWorks, works with corporates such as Accenture, to help them deliver messages that are “easy to understand, remember and retell."

“Connection stories", as Chakraborty calls them, are personal anecdotes that help the listener deduce something about the presenter’s character, relevant to the context of the relationship he/she is trying to build. “People have to buy you before they buy your product, idea or service. What will help employees and investors decide whether to invest in or join the company? It is not just the person’s credentials but who that person is, and what drives them," he says.

Such stories can even be used within a company. When a pharmaceutical firm needed to embed some new values, Chakraborty used a three-stage process. They collected stories from employees of what they thought was a demonstration of each of those new values. Then they taught leaders to share the stories orally. “In the third stage, we helped the company set up a process to collect, select and broadcast the best stories about each value being lived, monthly," he says. The impact? An ethics oversight committee noted there was a “difference of heaven and earth" between the understanding of and compliance with these values a year before and a year after the project.

Ramkumar says, “You have to tell stories within the company as well, to get employees enthusiastic about concepts such as workplace safety, which is otherwise relegated to a boring presentation that no one listens to." This assumes more importance today, with a millennial workforce that needs to be inspired and engaged. Haque says, “Merely telling them that there is a fortune to be made on the other side of the river won’t be enough for them to cross it. But if you tell them it’s a journey for the brave, and that those who cross the river would have made history, they will be inspired to do it."

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