Telling stories - a lengthy, but effective way of communication

2020-04-07

Recently, I came across a TED talk on storytelling1 and I forwarded the link to my friend. His response to that was in the form of a question, “Bala, why do you like stories?” This post is a reply to his question describing the reason I like stories. I won’t disappoint you, I do have a story in there…

Why do I like stories?

When Rama’s feet touch a stone, it turns into Ahalya. A scene in the Hazara Temple, Hampi, Karnataka, India. Ramayana is a great example of using story within a story writing device

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, in Varese, Italy, in a meeting, I was given the task of presenting about presentations. I was a research fellow at the time. The meeting had about 10 members who were listening to me. Every single one of the members had a laptop screen in front of them. I was sure that my audience was sincere. They would indeed listen to me and take down notes on their laptops.

However, I didn’t like the idea of looking at the sides of their heads to present. Also, would my message stay in their head for a long time, when presented this way? I didn’t think so.

I needed a way to make them look at me the whole time. I had to think differently. I only had one shot in which to deliver this presentations on presentations. If I failed, then no one would ever take presentations and skills associated with presenting so seriously.

What was I to do?

I glanced out of the window to calm myself. It wasn’t a serene setting. It was an industrial complex with big heavy machines. However, it was close to lunch time and hence everyone was moving towards the cafeteria. Then, it occurred to me as to what I was supposed to do.  So, I cleared my throat and I said, “Gentlemen2, I am going to start this presentation with a story. An old Indian story about a cat.”

As if on cue, all the heads which were glued to the screens turned to me and their stares begged to answer the question, “Seriously? A story about a cat?”

As if to answer the question, I said, “This was no ordinary cat. This was a cat which refused to drink milk. Let me tell you the story.”

I think I had nailed the members’ attention. I proceeded to tell the members about the story of a cat in Emperor Akbar’s court.

And here’s the story within the story3:

One fine day, Emperor Akbar petted his cat and called out to all his ministers. He looked around and ordered all of them to own a cat. The ministers reluctantly agreed to the strange request. In order to make sure that his orders were followed, he announced that he’d conduct an inspection to find out how well they, the ministers, were taking care of their cats. Birbal, the clever, was also part of the council of Akbar’s ministers.

A week later, all the ministers were summoned to the council hall with their pets. Akbar looked at all the cats and was quite pleased. His happiness though was short lived, when he looked at Birbal’s cat. The cat looked weak and itchy.

Akbar was curious and so he asked Birbal. Birbal confessed that his cat was one of the strangest cats. Birbal revealed to everyone that his cat refused to drink milk.

Refusing to believe Birbal’s tall tales, Akbar asked for milk to be served to the cat. When the milk was served, the strangest thing happened that the cat did indeed refuse to drink his milk.

In private company, Birbal later revealed to the Emperor the secret. A week ago, Birbal had given the cat some piping hot milk. The cat having burnt its tongue sipping the hot milk assumed that all milk was exactly that - unpalatable.

Of course, the point of the story was to convey that first impressions are important. If we didn’t make a good first impression in our presentation, it’d be difficult to get our stakeholders’ attention back. This is what I wanted to communicate to my audience at Varese.

Ok, the point of the story of the story is that storytelling is a lengthy way to communicate, but is excellent at gaining and retaining audience’s attention. If you have indeed read this far, I have been successful at getting and holding your attention.

And, this is why I like stories :)

Anyway, enjoy and stay safe!


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbV3b-l1sZs ↩︎

  2. Yup, no ladies were present in the meeting ↩︎

  3. Depending on where you grew up in India, you will hear a different version of the same story. I grew up with Tenali Rama being the clever minister and Krishna Deva Raya being the cat-loving king. ↩︎

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