Storytelling is an ancient craft and humans are wired for story. Yet when it comes to telling the story of our work, we often fall short. My mission, through 'Story Rules', is to help you tell a better story of your work. I do that by tapping into the fascinating and wondrous world of Storytelling techniques. The Story Rules Podcast is a further step in that direction. In episodes of the podcast, we will have long, deep and meaningful conversations with some of the best storytellers in the world. We will explore their life story, discuss their storytelling philosophy and unearth the secrets of their craft. Listeners will get to learn, grow their own inner storytellers and finally, achieve better outcomes at work - by leveraging the power of story.
E19: Toshan Tamhane - Lessons from Mckinsey, Meetings and Marathons!
“Oftentimes people try to demonstrate how hard they have worked, so they try and show activity. You are expected to do that activity! If you didn’t do the hard work, don’t keep telling me “I met so many people” and so on. That’s at a very Senior level. Which is why, when you’re talking to people at a very senior level in Consulting like CEOs and others, their time is very precious. They don't want to know all the activity you have done or if your numbers are right, because they have to be right; because you can’t make stupid mistakes. You will be fired if you make those errors. All of that is assumed. Tell me what YOU really think. Which is why even when it comes to investing, the great founders have great stories.”
Today we speak with Toshan Tamhane, currently Chief Strategy Officer at UPL and ex-Senior Partner at Mckinsey and Co.
In storytelling, clarity of communication is a key goal. And one firm which has exemplified that in business communication is Mckinsey. After all, this is the firm that gave birth to the Pyramid Principle (through Barbara Minto), which is something I teach regularly as a part of my courses.
Now, I was always keen to speak to a senior leader from Mckinsey about how they view the art and craft of storytelling – and was I lucky to have the opportunity to interview Toshan Tamhane.
Toshan spent 18+ years at Mckinsey across 55+ countries advising leading companies and individuals. Currently, apart from his role as CSO at UPL Ltd, he is also an active angel investor and avid adventure enthusiast.
Across these years, Toshan has had a ringside view of several high-stakes communication events with senior stakeholders. Earlier it would have been as a presenter and now, increasingly as a reviewer. I thought it would be great to tap into his vast experience and get his insights on the best practices for storytelling at work.
In the conversation, we go through a wide range of topics - Toshan’s reflections from his IIM-Ahmedabad years, the lessons from Mckinsey, how he would solve business review meetings, his use of relatable analogies and his insane curiosity for deep conversations.
I should reveal here that Toshan happens to be a batchmate from my graduation college – the Podar College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai.
He was always a prodigious talent since early days – the rest of us at college would be in awe of his drive and clarity. It was great reconnecting with him after almost 2 decades… and I learnt a lot from this conversation. I’m sure you will too.
Lets dive in.
Connect with Toshan Tamhane on LinkedIn and Twitter
E18: Paul Smith - Bestselling author of books on storytelling
“And then something amazing happened – what I heard from the audience was, “Ohh!” and then right after that, all of my conclusions started coming out of their mouths. And after that, all my recommendations started coming out of their mouths. I never drew my conclusions, or made any recommendations, but every one of my recommendations got implemented. It was the most effective presentation (that) I (had) made in the whole 20 years at Procter and Gamble”
Paul Smith is the bestselling author of books such as ‘Lead with a Story’, ‘Sell with a Story’ and ‘The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell’.
Paul specialises in what I call as ‘human stories’ – which is narrating specific incidents from work and life that contain valuable lessons or insights.
Through his books, Paul teaches us how to use such incident stories to lead better and to sell better.
Now, you might think that the ability to narrate incident stories is a God-given one – you either have it or you don’t. But reading Paul’s books gives you the clarity and confidence that this is very much a learnable skill.
Look, I get it. As a skill, storytelling may seem esoteric, mysterious and difficult to break down into component parts.
But it is possible to do that… and of the many books I’ve read on the topic, Paul’s books are perhaps the best at achieving a neat, structured breakdown of this craft.
In this short but insight-filled podcast episode:
Paul talks about his life journey and how he used a mix of thinking clarity, determination and sheer hard-work to pivot his career from the corporate world to the world of storytellingHe also shares some great story examples that you can use immediately at your work. For instance:He narrates a story of when he made a presentation to P&G’s senior leadership, where instead of telling his findings upfront, he took the audience on a discovery journey and tapped into their curiosityHe offers ideas on how to elicit stories from your clients and other counterpartsPaul also mentions when should you use elaborate storytelling techniques vs just share the information requestedFinally he surprised me with what is he currently upto (you will find it hard to believe) and how he plans to 'go for the stars' in his latest innings.It has been a privilege for me to have such an accomplished author and storyteller on the podcast. I hope you find the conversation as insightful as I did.
Paul's website, YouTube channel, LinkedIn, Twitter
Paul's books on storytelling:
- ‘Lead with a Story’,
- ‘Sell with a Story’
- ‘The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell’
E17: Sajith Pai - Foremost thought-leader of India's Startup Ecosystem
“Whether It’s a start-up or not, narrative building is important. I think of it in terms of ‘lines, not dots.’ Whenever you see someone do a great presentation, sell a great story, etc., I don’t feel there’s an overnight success; that person has put in a lot of work to shape something (from nothing). Typically, the people who have (good) narrative skills, (are the people who) are using it all the time. They would have had preliminary communication going out; they would have articulated it; some bit of self-selection of the audience would have happened over time.
Success happens when there’s a fit between the audience, the product, and the content.”
Sajith is a VC at Blume Ventures and arguably the most astute observer and thought-leader on India’s vibrant start-up ecosystem.
So I’ve been a fan of Sajith’s writing for several years now. He has the rare gift of being able to discern patterns which are unseen-yet-obvious-in-hindsight. He’s able to then label them making them easier to discuss and analyse.
For instance, he created the Indian consumer stack as 4 parts – India 1 Alpha, India 1, India 2 and India 3. Sajith is a prolific writer on his blog, on LinkedIn and on Twitter.
Over the years as I followed his writings, I almost always found them sharing something new and insightful, in an easy-to-understand yet engaging manner.
In short, to me Sajith was a rare leader – an accomplished business executive turned successful investor, who was also a gifted storyteller.
I’d been wanting to have him on the podcast for a long time… and I must admit – it was not easy getting him. But I persevered and he was patient and receptive to my request.
I’m so glad that I put the fight – this is perhaps the most insightful conversation I’ve been a part of.
There are so many gems across such a wide range of topics. For instance, Sajith shares with us:
- Why you should ditch newspapers and instead focus on curated newsletters and podcasts
- How everyone can sharpen their thinking, learn from others and form better connections by doing one simple thing: writing online
- Why it is critical to choose the right metrics in measuring and rewarding performance and in telling data stories
- How data presentations should be about “lines and not dots”
It's a fascinating conversation - I hope you learn as much from it as I did.
Links to show notes:
Sajith's website, newsletter, LinkedIn and Twitter
The article on Indo Anglians
E16: Santosh Desai: Pre-eminent chronicler of India's culture
“The only thing I would say is ask fundamental questions; ask stupid questions; insight lies in interrogating the obvious. It lies in asking the obvious. It’s not new knowledge, it’s in the old knowledge. It’s in asking 'why' to the most basic questions. The most basic questions are the ones that I think will give the most interesting answers.”
That is Santosh Desai - a leader who wears many hats. Santosh headed an ad-agency, currently heads a brand consulting firm, is a published author and a long-time columnist for the Times of India.
His weekly column City-city Bang-Bang - which he has been writing for 17 long years - paints a vivid, relatable yet surprising portrait of India’s fascinating culture. Some of these columns have been compiled in a book called 'Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India'.
I’ve always been a fan of Santosh’s work. Specifically, his stellar observational skills (which to my surprise, he says are not that great!), his ability to see the unusual in the usual and his almost poetic writing abilities.
In this conversation, we dive into the secrets of how Santosh Desai does his magic. How does he view the world with his unique fundamental questions. How he finds patterns and mental models that help him interpret and understand this world… and how he finally brings it all on paper with his lucid and lyrical prose.
It is an eye-opening conversation, especially for left-brain-heavy folks like me who tend to over-rely on data, logic and structure!
Santosh's website and Twitter handle
Santosh's essay series 'City City Bang Bang' in the Times of India
His book: 'Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India'.
The Bharat Darshan reports on the Future Brands Consulting website
E15: Crafting Data Narratives with Pramit Bhattacharya
“No data exists on its own; there has to be a story, or a theory, or a hypothesis which connects that and everything else that we know about the world or the subject matter of your story. When you say that these two states in northern India have developed, is it reflected in the GDP per capita numbers? Is it reflected in the unemployment numbers, that government data itself is collecting? Is it reflected in the other development indicators?”
That is Pramit Bhattacharya - the ex-Data Editor at Mint and currently a freelance data columnist based in Chennai. He writes the 'Truth, Lies, and Statistics' column for Mint, and 'Simply Economics' column for the Hindustan Times.
Data is the core raw material with which we build a story.
If the quality of your sand or clay is rubbish, then the bricks, and the house that you build with it, will also be rubbish.
Pramit has spent several years tracking macro data in India - from various government and institutional sources. He deeply understands the storied history of India’s statistical infrastructure as well as some of the recent troubling developments in that space.
Over the years, he has written several detailed pieces arguing for what needs to be done to improve our data foundation.
He has also written data-driven investigative pieces which have shed more light on key sectors of the economy.
In this conversation, Pramit shares some of the techniques that we can all use when working with data:
1. The importance of validating your data.
- How do you know what data sources (especially from the government) to trust?
- How the use of transparency - especially concerning the raw-data and collection methodology - can engender trust in data?
- And how you can check the credibility of one metric by triangulating data from other related sources?
2. Hypotheses vs bias: Pramit also shares the technique he uses to avoid getting swayed by his own hypotheses and biases when he's investigating a data story.
3. Counter-factuals: Finally, he talks about the importance of the counterfactual - a key technique to ensure that we don’t get too influenced by alarmist headlines. By asking ourselves - 'Ok, X looks bad, but what is the counterfactual? What is the norm for a similar context?' - we can be better placed to come to an informed judgement about X.
It’s a conversation filled with practical nuggets of wisdom that you can use to improve your own data stories.
Unfortunately, we had to cut this conversation a bit short because of an unforeseen commitment that he had. I definitely hope to continue my conversation with Pramit sometime in the future!
With that, let’s dive in.
Pramit's columns in Mint
Pramit's columns for Hindustan Times
Pramit on Twitter and LinkedIn
Pramit's article on reading budget data
Pramit's article on the pitfalls of night lights data
E14: A curiosity masterclass with J Ramanand
"I think the message that I wanted to leave people with was “Can you swap anxiety with curiosity?” This is something I’ve been trying to do for myself: when you’re in an anxious situation, can you take a curious approach and say “What is going on? What can I learn from this?”, whether you can postpone the anxiety to when it is more useful to be anxious, is something that I was keen to get out in this piece"
That is J Ramanand, the Co-Founder and Upleveler at Choose to Thinq, which enables organisations and individuals become future relevant.
Ramanand is a master quizzer, quizmaster and an expert at using the power of curiosity to help others uplevel themselves in a 'shape-shifting' world.
So here’s a confession. I’ve always been in awe of quizzes.
For one, the sheer thrill of quizzing.
Even though I’ve participated in just a handful of quizzes throughout my life, I still remember the memory of the dopamine hits when I would get an answer right. It must be amazing to get these hits much more often in life!
The second reason relates to the skill of quizzing.
Now, many of you may know this, but for those who don’t: Good quizzes are not reliant on memory. As Ramanand says, they have 50% of the answer hidden in the question itself… and the participant can use the powers of deduction to arrive at the answer.
Now, while the ability to deduce an answer with the given clues is one key quizzing skill, the real skill for me is the craft of creating good quiz questions. And it is this craft which has several parallels with storytelling. Both skills use the power of surprise, familiarity and curiosity to deliver an engaging experience to the audience.
Ramanand is uniquely placed to shed light on these two related skills:
- He is a die-hard quizzer - incidentally he was the youngest winner at BBC's Mastermind India and has appeared as an expert on the show Kaun Banega Crorepati (India’s version of Who wants to be a Millionaire)
- He’s a sought-after quizmaster: for the last couple of decades he’s been setting questions on an average of at least one a day. That’s thousands of questions!
- He’s an engaging and thought-provoking writer
- He works closely with the leadership at different organisations in helping them navigate the ‘shape-shifting world’ as he calls it and stay future relevant
I had a ton of fun geeking out on quizzing and storytelling techniques with Ramanand.
Finally, make sure you listen to the fabulous, fascinating story about the Indian flute maestro, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia.
Let’s dive in.
J Ramanand on LinkedIn and Twitter
Choose to Thinq website
Posts by Ramanand on the CTQ blog:
- Three lessons on Managing a remote team
- How Fouls Changed Football
Quora posts by Ramanand:
- A favourite question he created
- Favourite personal moments from quizzing
A piece Ramanand wrote for Mint:
The Computer History Museum