ancient storytelling art of storytelling

The oldest & hardest thing humans do!


Last week Jeff Bezos was in Mumbai visiting investors, customers and a group of content stakeholders for Prime Video. When he was getting interviewed by SRK and Zoya Akhtar, Mr. Bezos mentioned a very interesting point about content-making. Referring another form of it as the oldest and hardest things that we have been doing. Allow me to explain.

From the dawn of life on earth nearly 4 billion years ago, the only way to transfer the information was through re-production. Whatever the evolutionary knowledge your DNA has got, it used to and still gets passed on to the descendants via re-production, yet another form of survival-instinct at the gene level. This miraculous yet inefficient form of knowledge-transfer played a key role in the creation of bio-diversity we all witness today. But it were human genus, between 2 million to 200,000 years ago, who started communicating through signs and primitive talking (imagine 2 dogs barking at each other in some code language and understanding it). Since then the more advanced forms of knowledge like ‘don’t eat a particular tree’s fruit’ or to ‘not to go near some pond’ or ‘to store food deposits for the upcoming winter‘ were passed down successfully. It is around this time the above mentioned phenomenon arose. The oldest and hardest thing humans are doing for thousands of years – Storytelling!

Don’t believe me? Just try to recall the number of hit vs flop movies from 2019.

Humans like stories, even before the dawn of civilizations. But the art of storytelling still remains a mystery to many. And in Bezos’s words, the catch is that the moment you come up with a formula, it is not fresh anymore. Coming from the data science background I can surely tell you that industry giants spend lots and lots into data visualization and storytelling tools and yet this data based storytelling is nowhere near it means to be!


Why is it hard?


Can you quickly tell me what the outcome will be when an oscar winner director, oscar winner actress and two times oscar nominee actor come together to . make a movie based on the life of one of the most celebrated personalities ever? It sure would be a hit, right? I’m afraid to disagree but Danny Boyle’s 2015 film Steve Jobs was a box-office flop. Meaning even the great combination of director, actors and writers couldn’t save it and it failed miserably.

On the other hand, The Shawshank Redemption. It sure didn’t make much at the box office the time it came out but now tops IMDB’s best movies list and holds a cult following due to a strong narrative. And they managed this feat without having to cast the most sought-after actors.

What makes these two narratives so different?

The main point of storytelling being hard is embedded in the fact that the greatness lies with listeners as much as with tellers. And finding what exactly resonates with your audience is indeed a hard feat. In product management perspective it is about personas of your potential customers. The better the persona you come up with, greater are the chances of them buying your product or service. And it will take you lifetime to know others’ lives, what they go through, what problems they face on daily basis, what kind of solutions they will like, what will they hate, what will they feel empathy towards, what are their opinions, what are their deep fears or what kind of colour their hair have.. on and on! To find answers to these questions on a granular level, to be honest, is really really hard.


Where can great storytelling take me?


Well it can make you a prime minister of the largest democracy on the planet. It can make you win The Oscars. It can help you break the collection records at box office. It can bring your idea a breakthrough fundraise on kickstarter. It can get you your dream job. It can make your words last through history.

Now storytelling doesn’t mean only one way transfer of some fiction. It could be a constructive argument you are having with your friend or could be a thesis presentation you are giving to your university professor. Storytelling is what, how and why you put your thoughts into the words you are delivering. Do it the best you could and you stand a chance to win the hearts and minds. And O boy, the politician cum storytellers do own the minds of people. Just for a small fun exercise, carefully observe and note yourself the next time you are trying to make a point in some discussion!

For more clarity, let’s take an example. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi understood the listeners and took their pulse like no one did! He knew what issues the Argumentative Indians give their prime attention to. He knew what they hated. He knew that re-electing National Congress Party could be perceived as a potential fear in the voters’ minds. He did his homework and the rest is history.


What makes up a great story?


Around 2 years back when I was pursuing my masters degree, I read a research paper on what things actually make up good movies. As a film-buff it immediately caught my attention. I don’t exactly remember the content of the paper but after analyzing hundreds of movie screenplays, the authors had found that the successful movies always had one among the three to four audience emotion graph types. Basically, any successful movie could be related to one or more of the 4 basic graphs. For example, one graph looked somewhat like this..

This paper was an attempt to formulate the recipe for great movies. I pitched the same idea for a software which predicts the movie success based on the relative quotient to these graphs in an international business competition, sadly nobody bought it 😐

The point is existence of such patterns does not mean that you have found the secret sauce and you are good to go. No. Because there still exists a critical constant in the equation – The Audience which has the random value!

There have been numerous attempts to hone the art of storytelling. Though they are not cracking the formula, we could still learn a lot from the trials. The nine act structure by David Siegel or the Clues to a Great Story give us the insights needed. But what I have found most useful and resonating with most of the attempts from Modi to Obama and to David Fincher to Rajkumar Hirani is following:

“Unique yet Relatable”

If you think closely about every speech, every movie, every book, every great story you ever liked, it was kinda different from commons yet it was relatable to you in some or the other way. Every art of great storytelling converges here. That’s the point. That’s the key!


The next time you tell a story..


When I was writing my Golu series of stories, I had a defined audience of college students which usually encounter the situations mentioned in the episodes. Yet I tried to put all of that with an uncommon sarcastic narrative. Guess what, it worked 🙂

Whenever you are giving your next talk, getting into an argument with a friend, making a client presentation, writing a book, going on stage, proposing your crush or signing up a candidature for a political seat, be sure to know your audience. What are the things they are boringly familiar with and what might spark their interest? What are their demographics and what personally is more relevant to them?

I would like to leave you with a little food for thought: Why do you think Avatar was the highest grossing movie of all the time?


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