Building a story repertoire

Here’s how you can create your own, easy to recall catalogue of stories for every business context

Indranil Chakraborty

[Image by Bonnybbx under Creative Commons]

Two monks were walking from their monastery to another one nearby. One was an old wise monk, the other a novice.

As they walked in silence, they came across a river. Unseasonal rains had caused the river to run a bit high and on the bank of the river was a young lady wearing a kimono, not sure whether it was safe for her to cross. When she saw the two monks, she looked relieved and asked for their help.

The young monk was aghast. He exclaimed, “Don’t you see that I am a monk? I took a vow of chastity!”

“I require nothing from you that could impede your vow, but simply a little help to cross the river,” replied the young woman with a smile.

“I will not…I can…do nothing for you,” said the embarrassed young monk.

At this point the elderly monk said, “Climb on my back and I’ll help you cross.”

On reaching the other bank, the old monk put the lady down. She said “Thank you.” He said “Welcome.” And he started walking to the other monastery in silence.

But the young apprentice was agitated. He asked, “How could you do this? This is against our order. You are supposed to be my mentor. You are supposed to show me the way.” He went on and on till the gate of the next monastery.

On reaching the gate the old monk looked at the young monk and said: “You know, you are right. I did carry the lady, but I put her down on the bank of the river. It seems you are still carrying her.”

This is a beautiful parable that can be used in a business situation to make a point about carrying baggage and losing perspective, letting go of the past, confusing the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, etc.

A year from now if I asked you whether you know the story about the two monks, I am certain you will all say yes. That is because stories stick.

However, even a few weeks from now, if you were looking for a story to use in a business context, when you want to make a point about confusing the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, it is highly likely many of you would not remember this story. Not unless you have found a way to catalogue stories and find an easy retrieval system.

During my workshops, many people ask me, “How do you remember so many stories ?” This question usually comes up around tea time on day one. By then the participants have become convinced that stories are important in business, they are memorable, they help you connect with your audience, and they have all the other benefits we have been speaking about in this column over the last year or so. But how do you remember the right story when you need it? I must confess that I don’t have a very sharp memory and hence need a process.

Of course, there is nothing better than to be able to illustrate a point with an example on the fly and having these stories in your head would make a huge difference. I don’t think I have been able to keep too many. But the ones I have are there because I have done two things: One is that I have paused to think and verbalise what a story I have loved really means and the second is I have discussed the story and what it means with a friend or a colleague.

While that works for a few stories, maybe 20 or 30, what about the hundreds of other stories I love and have used in presentations, speeches and discussions?

That is where the process comes in. First, identify the key elements of the story. In the case of the story above they would be ‘two monks’, ‘river’, ‘woman’, ‘carry on the back’, ‘you are still carrying her’. I am sure you will all agree that even a decade later if I gave you those five elements, just 13 words, you will be able to recall and retell the story about the two monks. You may forget some elements like unseasonal rain or the fact that the woman was wearing a kimono. Neither is essential to the message of the story. You will remember more than enough to get your point across.

The next thing you need to do is create tags of subjects for which you may use this story. Perhaps they will be ‘putting down baggage’, ‘letting go of the past’, ‘letter and spirit of the law’. A great way to add tags is to tell the story to a few colleagues and ask what it meant to them. Someone may say ‘removing biases’ or ‘missing the ability to observe because you are stuck on an idea’—after all, the young monk did not enjoy the journey in the beautiful location. The interpretations that resonate with you are the tags you add.

Now you need a notes application like Evernote that lets you tag your notes. You need to create a new note. Use a labelling system that works for you. I love the way the episode titles of the soap Friends used to say, ‘The one where Joey moves out.’ Then put down in the body of the note the key elements. In this case five. Then using the tagging option you key in the different tags. The story is now yours forever.

Sure, you may not be able to use all the stories in your catalogue on the fly, but if you are preparing for a speech or a presentation and looking for a story on say the difference between the letter and spirit of the law, you open your app and search the tags for ‘letter and spirit’ and the ‘two monks’ story will pop up.

Yes, this little bit of hard work is required to claim ownership on the stories you love. But the effort pays back many times over in the form of being recognised as an inspirational, engaging speaker who connects with the audience whenever you speak. 

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About the author

Indranil Chakraborty
Indranil Chakraborty



Indranil believes Business Storytelling will be the number one leadership and communication skill of the next decade. Using storytelling in the right manner, business leaders can connect, engage and inspire their teams. We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than disconnected facts. This is how he believes we can harness the natural power of stories to communicate strategy, make them stick, bring values to live and develop the communication capabilities of leaders.

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