Developing countries such as India can fast-track progress by embracing storytelling, argues business storytelling expert JYOTI GUPTARA
The first time I visited India, aged six, I remember being fascinated by the makeshift contraptions street vendors engineered to make their lives easier. (Washing machine-mixed lassi, anyone?) My father explained this was jugaad—ingenious little hacks in place of technology which some people couldn’t afford. We Indians, I learned, are an entrepreneurial lot.
But many of us do not have access to the education or resources that would help us develop our full potential. Some need a basic education. Others require seed funding. I believe storytelling can help the whole country progress and prosper in at least three ways.
First, stories can help grass-roots entrepreneurs mobilise resources and create jobs because they increase the perceived value of a product or idea. In 2009, anthropologists conducted the ‘Significant Objects’ study by asking 100 writers to buy an item from eBay. These cost around $1.25 each—totalling $128. After inventing a story for each object, it was put back up for sale. The same thrift-store junk that had sales worth $128 now had sales worth $3,612. Stories had increased the value of each item by an average multiple of 28. Storytelling is an entrepreneur’s best friend both starting and growing a business.
Second, on the global stage, stories can help position and differentiate brands. Brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, at Stanford and Duke universities, spent years researching what made various kinds of messages go viral. Their conclusion: well-constructed stories are the most persuasive and memorable form of communication.
Third, stories are wholistic education and can help develop India’s human capital. While many developing countries rely on rote learning, storytelling conveys content and creativity because it helps people think for themselves. The brain simulates stories, putting you in the story so that you naturally apply its lessons in different contexts.
Peter J. Daniels, for instance, was a virtually illiterate bricklayer in Australia. When he heard a gospel message by Billy Graham, he realised he did not have to be the sum of his past. Now he had the motivation to learn, means were no longer an issue. Daniels taught himself to read and overcame a series of business failures, going from welfare recipient to giving away millions of dollars to others. The story you believe can transform your life for better or worse. Human resources trump natural resources. That is why some nations without any natural resources (Switzerland, Singapore) have become wealthy, while other nations with huge natural resources (Brazil, Congo) remain poor.
This is all good news for India, because Indians are natural storytellers. But we often don’t recognise our strengths, or don’t apply them in a business context. If we recognise the fact that we could be world-class storytellers, and learn to hone that talent for business purposes, we could be even more successful in business than we are currently.
I dropped out of school at the age of 15 to pursue writing full-time. This worked out wonderfully when I published my first bestseller at 17, but posed a challenge later, when I was trying to get an entry-level job in my mid-twenties! Then I learned to reframe my own story and how I positioned my services. I suddenly found myself bagging lucrative assignments so that I didn’t need to be employed. Now, despite not having a degree, I teach master’s students and coach post-docs.
Stories, I have learned, can be the educational jugaad that empowers any person or business to overcome internal or external limitations and grow. That’s why I wrote my new book as a series of storytelling “hacks” for business and personal life, from strategy, marketing and sales, to reframing your own narrative and experiencing more success with less stress.
(Jyoti Guptara is a business coach, speaker and bestselling author. His new book, Business Storytelling from Hype to Hack: Unlock the Software of the Mind (Pippa Rann Books), hits shelves this month. www.guptara.com)