Story telling as a communication tool

Written by Mahesh Bhatt | Updated: Oct 7 2004, 05:30am hrs
Do you know Mr Bhatt, story telling is being used now to bring about organisational change said an exuberant executive of a telecommunication company. He had approached me with a request to address his regional executives on their annual day in a five-star hotel in the suburbs. Our experience has shown that story-telling can be highly effective as a change agent, even in change-resistant organisations. Telling an appropriate story can stimulate people to think actively about implications of change and to projecting themselves into visions of the future. We have found out that story-telling enables people to better understand what it would be like to do things differently, rather than being given vague concepts about it. So will you come and talk to our executives about what makes a good story

For centuries, humans have used myths, fairytales and folklore to explain lifes mysteries and make them bearable. Even Jesus explained his complicated teachings through parables. But what is story-telling Merely a communication tool, which engages and inspires the listener by using language that is more authentic and pure fun. But it essentially seeks to share important insights and knowledge. It has always existed in organisations otherwise known as the grapevine.

It is also a skill, and one that draws from a number of other skills, most relating to inter-personal communication. A simple story can communicate a complex multi-dimensioned idea, by actively involving the listeners in co-creating that idea, said the head of UNICEF to me while we were conducting the Imagine Nagaland project in Kohima a few years before. I remember being brought to this conflict-ridden terrain to communicate the message of peace and harmony through stories.

A renowned ayurvedic doctor recently told me that in ancient Hindu medicine, when someone with mental or emotional difficulties consulted a doctor, the physician prescribed a story on which to meditate, thus helping the patient to find his or her own solution to the problem.

Story telling engages the heart and imagination in such a way that a deeper level of listening is activated, which opens the eyes of perception
A Hollywood film-maker tells me an increasing number of therapists prescribe movies to help their patients explore their psyches. Movies like art, books and music are becoming one more tool to help those in therapy overcome their hurdles.

In addition to getting award nods, stories can and will change the way we think, feel and deal with lifes ups and downs. Story-telling has also been used to build communities: there is something about stories that brings people together and fosters a feeling of togetherness. For, story-telling is non-hierarchical, it unlocks feelings and emotions, as well as thought processes. And, hence, it helps to build relationships and trust.

Story-telling is also a-cultural and, as an art form, it is not a solo performance, of one person telling and another just listening. It is reciprocol, it engages the heart and imagination in such a way that a deeper level of listening is activated, which opens the eyes of perception. I saw this at the Bite the Mango film festival at Bradford in the UK, where a large number of films about racial discord made by African film-makers was welcomed, embraced and celebrated by an all-white audience. I realised here that when victims of injustice tell their stories, they begin to reclaim their lost humanity. It is why it has been looked upon as a very dangerous art. Injustice demands we dehumanise our victims and story-telling makes injustice untenable. One of the first things a fascist regime does is to muzzle its story-tellers.

Those who do not have power over the stories that dominate their lives, power to retell them, rethink them, reconstruct them, joke about them, and change them as times change, truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts, said Salman Rushdie. People have always used stories to alter, develop or change their fellow human beings in some way. But the mother of all questions for us entertainers is, what can you call a good story

According to a senior writer, who has made his living teaching the art of story-telling, a good story has four attributes.

First, endurance. Good stories endure. They may change a little or even a lot, but the key lessons remain the same. They also need to be succinct enough for people to remember.

Second, salience. Good stories are relevant to their audience, they have a point, and they have an emotional impact.

Three, sense making. Good stories explain something, make sense of something. Perhaps they show you how to behave in a particular situation, how to resolve a problem, or why something happened the way it did. They have a prescriptive normative value.

Four, comfort level. To be effective, stories must makes sense within the context of the listeners experience they need to ring true.

As I made my way to talk on the skill of story-writing my host thought I was capable of, this thought hit me like a tonne of bricks. It was sad, indeed, that in the age of the communication revolution, the whole world was waking up to the importance of story-telling, However, one of the worlds largest film industries whose livelihood depended on it, Bollywood, didnt even realise its significance.

The writer is a Mumbai-based film director