Life Hacks: What kind of storyteller are you, asks Charles Assisi
After accepting an invitation to deliver a talk on effective storytelling last weekend, an unfamiliar feeling swept over me — the jitters. In a not-so-distant past, I would have given the talk while standing at a lectern, able to see the audience’s body language, gauge their response. If there were murmurs in the room, I hear them. If a challenger narrative lurked in a corner, I would know. I used to be in charge.
Minus the lectern, seated in a corner of my home, I knew I’d be just another box on everybody’s screen — one click away from being muted. How does a speaker talk about storytelling in the midst of a pandemic that has flattened the very hierarchy that would normally set him before his audience?
Much thinking later, I finally logged in and submitted to everyone that storytelling in the post-pandemic world is an even more vital life skill. It can help us learn how to reach beyond the frames that literally now box us in, to share truths that matter in ways that matter and leave an impact.
There are some people who do this so well already that it is impossible to disengage with the stories they tell. Take Nandan Nilekani. The co-founder of Infosys who led a team to create Aadhaar, the world’s largest identity project, thinks big. While there are many people who do that, there are very few who can articulate their vision as clearly and yet passionately as he can. He is an example of what I call the Grand Storyteller.
But you can only be a Grand Storyteller if you have a remarkable tale to tell, and a life of experiences rich in texture and detail. I would submit that I have neither. To aspire to be a storyteller like him would then be foolish. What kind of a storyteller can I be? Before attempting to answer that, one must consider what one ought not to be like.
The government has many bureaucrats attempting to morph into technocrats. They appear routinely on TV and like to be seen at public gatherings. They speak well and dress well. But there is no inherent truth to the tales they tell. These are Flashy Storytellers, who believe that substance can trump form. It can’t. That simply isn’t what good storytelling is about.
This point is lost on Wannabe Storytellers too, many of whose voices can be heard in the venture-capital space. Their narratives have it that they are at work to change the India story. But dig a little and their vision turns out to be as shallow as their accents. Theirs are stories lacking in substance and belief. And you cannot cook up a good story without those two ingredients.
The Flashy and Wannabe storytellers aim not for impact and engagement but for fleeting glances and impressions. They yearn for the spotlight. They assiduously track hits, follower counts and other vanity metrics.
Back to the good guys. In addition to the Grand Storytellers, in my book, are the Precise Storytellers and the Authentic Storytellers.
Rahul Matthan, a founding partner at the Bengaluru-based law firm Trilegal, is my idea of a Precise Storyteller. His focus is on substance. Each piece in each of his stories always falls into place. Each tale is compelling, holds truth, and stays with the listener. It is a fine narrative reflective of deep thought, polished to remove all superfluity. Just how does Matthan manage to craft such fine narratives? I assumed it had to do with his training as a lawyer, but it turns out it has also to do with an interest in the performing arts. His college-era love for theatre has stood him in good stead.
An Authentic Storytelleris Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder of Naukri.com and co-founder of Ashoka University. The stories he places in the public domain resonate because he does not shy away from sharing his vulnerabilities or speaking of his failures, and this makes his stories rich in truth and lived experience.
I would seem to be a long way off from my ideals of storytelling. The wife informs me I am a Dramatic Storyteller, like the stand-up comic Kunal Kamra. But where his stories leap out of the box spectacularly, apparently mine fall flat on their faces. I must work harder. After all, I believe this to be an even more essential life skill now, and even my captive audience is demanding better material.