Spin me a tale

Story tellers from the Chennai Storytelling Association. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Jaideep Ramdas, a social media entrepreneur, wanted to make sure that every tweet or Facebook post of his counted. Alex Jacob, a behavioural trainer, wondered how to make his clients open up, and Priya Rajesh, a homemaker, simply wanted to communicate her everyday experiences better with her family. A storytelling workshop, as it turns out, was the solution.

The core idea, Jaideep learnt, is to engage people in what you have to say. “For example, if you tell someone, ‘Tell us about yourself’, most answers are the usual — about their place of birth, parents and profession. However, if you are a storyteller, you would talk about interesting incidents from your life, situations you handled, and your future plans,” says Jaideep, who has attended workshops by the World Storytelling Institute, among others. “Once you do that, people remember you; which, in turn, makes you more employable, and also helps you connect better with customers,” he adds. Today, there are customised storytelling workshops for college students, to train them in group discussions and design their resumes, for women who want to get back to work after a break, for media professionals, fashion designers, visual artistes and even doctors!

Storytelling, which for ages has been associated with only tales for kids, is finally being embraced by adults, to mould their personality and streamline thoughts. So much so, that corporates, including Cognizant and Cisco, are hiring professional storytellers to train their employees to sell brand ideas. “We train employees at the mid-level to make catchy PowerPoint presentations. A set of slides with just facts is of little interest to the audience. It’s a given that facts tell, stories sell. At a more senior level, the responsibilities involve reaching out to stakeholders and gaining their juniors’ trust; we train them on how best to do that,” says Indu Divya, founder of The Narrative.

Corporate storytelling is very popular in the West, with schools of business storytelling, like Get Storied (started by Michael Margolis) reaching out to nearly 2,50,000 firms every month, and blogs like ‘The Authentic Storytelling Project’ by Christoph Trappe being recognised as the best blog in the Community Engagement category (2015) by Internet Marketing Association.

In India, the trend is picking up. Human Resources departments are now using storytelling, role play and drama (collectively called Alternative Training) to teach communication, soft skills, and conflict management. “Storytelling provides a platform for dialogue, and encourages people to experiment with different strategies. When you role play, you put yourself in a particular situation, you get an idea of how to handle a particular situation better,” says Eric Miller, founder of the World Storytelling Institute, who has trained over 300 people. The sessions use epics heavily, as they present cultural ideals. “I think the leading person in India who talks about the value of stories in business is author Devdutt Pattanaik. He is wonderful at identifying stories and comparing them with real-life situations,” adds Miller.

When it comes to behavioural training, Jacob asks participants to trumpet like an elephant or snort like a hare if the story demands it. “Most of them cannot. This shows that they are not flexible to new ideas, be it in their personal lives or the business world. In another test, I ask them to talk about one problem they faced in the city in the last one month. A few of them glorify the issue; that is an indicator of a negative trait,” says Jacob, whose clients include Bosch, Manipal Group, ANZ Bank and more.

In a week, Jacob is off to Kochi along with London-based motivational speaker David Ferrers, for a seven-day workshop on self-discovery through storytelling — a concept that lets people introspect, and talk about the void they are dealing with. ‘Experiential storytelling’ is about speaking your mind in front of strangers. “When they do that, they realise that it is comforting to know that there are others who have gone through tough times as well; it is therapeutic,” says G. Lavanya Srinivas, founder-director of Katha Kamamishu. That’s probably why the ongoing Chennai Storytelling Festival (on till February 14), which is into its fourth edition, has a whole session themed on the Chennai floods.

Today, there are many avenues for adults to share their stories. World Storytelling Institute, Katha Kamamishu, The Narrative, Kathalaya, Bangalore Storytelling Society, Katharangam, Parampara, Tale Spin, Storywallahs, Ever After Learning, Madras Story Works, Fables n Tales, Let’s Talk, Once Upon a Time – Tells a Tale, Pumpkin Chariot, and Genius Factory and Square Heads are just a few to mention in Bangalore and Chennai — the two leading storytelling cities in India. Most of them sprouted in the last four years as part of the storytelling revival movement that started in the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1960s.

Originally from New York City and now settled in Chennai, Miller explains, “We had lost the culture of traditional storytelling when television came in, in the late 60s. So a group of people began picking stories from around the world for the general audience, sometimes modifying it to make it a little more relatable.” That marked the storytelling revival, which came to India much later, as the culture of joint families, and elders telling stories to kids was already prevalent. “But slowly, nuclear families emerged, and traditional art forms like Harikatha dwindled, thus giving rise to professional storytellers,” he says.

Some of the first people to kickstart the movement were Geeta Ramanujam in Bangalore and Jeeva Raghunath in Chennai. What started with just a handful, slowly expanded to more than a dozen in a short time, and recently came together as a well-knit group called the Indian Storytelling Network. “We have come a long way from the ‘Do you expect to be paid for telling a story’ attitude,” says Vasugi Ram Manohar, founder of Madras Story Works. Today, many are taking it up as a full-time career. Like Sangeeta Goel, a chartered accountant, who decided to quit her job after eight years to become a professional storyteller, and Trupti, a manufacturing engineer, who worked with various IT organisations before tweaking her life’s story.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 9:39:34 AM |

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