Q & A, the legendary book by Writer, Vikas Swarup, is an example of a story well-told and as a result, had tremendous impact on its readers. It achieved great success and was later adapted into a movie called Slumdog Millionaire. The book is engaging that it had me travel with Ram and his best friend, Salim Ilyasi, in the slums of India where they lived under harsh conditions. A story of a boy who mysteriously won the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire quiz show and the accompanying prize of 1 billion Rupees. The show’s producers couldn’t pay the participant because they hadn’t expected anyone to win the prize; the plan was to run for six months, recoup money from advertising spend and then be able to pay contestants. How the plan was flushed down the toilet by Ram Mohammad Thomas! Drama erupts when they try to avoid paying this hefty prize money altogether. They plot to pin their failure on this boy, falsely accusing him of cheating on the show. They stop at nothing to fabricate proof of this. So I call myself a Storyteller working in the communications and media space. For me, this title is a subtle yet critical difference in the way I see my role in the lives of the people and organisations I get to work with. And what seperates me from a multitude of people in the media business is the ability to walk a mile in other people’s shoes. My background and upbringing necessitated that I learn to connect with different kinds of people — from a young guy who grew up in a posh suburban area or an elderly person whose traditional ways make them who they are and even amajita who hang out in the corners ekasi. In communications this is important because to have impact in one’s message and marketing campaigns, context is crucial! (And so is cultural insight).
How you deliver the story to whomever you speak to determines (to some extent) your impact and therefore, your success. I remember after an interesting conversation with a friend studying toward a Bachelor of Arts degree at Wits University; it dawned on me that my being emotionally intelligent and perceptive (in part because of my background in the township) allows me to learn how people function and respond to things, which improves my ability to communicate eloquently.
A company’s ability to attract talent and clients and have them stay hinges on their story. Take Shoprite. They surpassed the R100-billion-a-year turnover mark in 2014. But what stood out for me was learning that first, it’s run by the longest serving CEO (of a listed company) in South Africa – from the late 1970’s until today. Stability. Consistency. The story behind their dizzying financial success.
Secondly, they decided to expand into the townships at a time when political tension was at its peak; because of political factions, many people were killed and infrastructure destroyed. So the indirect message — or direct, depending on how you interpret it — to white-owned businesses was: if you want to grow, don’t go into the townships! Whitey Basson didn’t listen, he went in. Today, many of their township stores rake in mind-blowing profits.
This story of tenacity and bravery that has seen thousands of people employed by the company today. It made me look at the business differently, over and above the numbers / cash they generate.
To make serious progress in what you do, you need to position your story in a compelling way in the minds of the people to whom you’re speaking. But the ability to tell a compelling story isn’t a skill emphasised enough at high schools — especially ones in townships — and even at some tertiary institutions. The idea then simply becomes: just be good at what you do! Which sees many people only mastering the technical bits of what they do. There’s tons of stories where I grew up (and still live) of people who are crème de la crème in accountancy; fashion design; maths and science; writing, and other things. But the problem is they can’t tell their story in a way that resonates with the people who have a certain level of power to make their dreams come to fruition.
A parallel example is what men’s suit designer and tailor, Linda Makhanya, often says: you’re addressed by the way you’re dressed. And what a South African global Professional Speaker, Vusi Thembekwayo, tweeted a few years ago stuck with me, ‘Many people can speak, but wait until you see me on stage!’ The sentence transformed the way I perceive him and his ability. The tweet added value to his narrative. Had I not been dead broke, hungry and perhaps owned a company, I would’ve booked him that very weekend to present to my staff / facilitate a strategy session.
Inasmuch as you make an effort to become technically savvy in your field, take time to shape your narrative, too. The way you tell and position your story will determine how it is received by your audience, and how they respond after that (just as I’ve responded to the novel, Q & A — re-reading it often for leisure and to get some insight into telling compelling stories).
Communicate Your Genius