A stupendous achievement…
Recently my dad was chatting with his cab driver in Mumbai.
“Sir, yeh Kejriwal kuch sahi kar rahe hain”.
“Mere chacha Delhi mein rehte hain – unki har mahine 10,000 rupaye ki bachat ho rahi hai – kyunki unhone apne bachchon ko private school se government school mein transfer kiya”
(My uncle in Delhi, is saving Rs. 10,000/ month, mainly because of shifting his children from a private school to a government school).
Yes. To a government school.
When taxi drivers in Mumbai are talking about Delhi’s improving education (instead of the nonsense peddled by our news channels), then you know something is right in our country.
Something is also right when the government which did this work, comes back with a resounding majority, beating anti-incumbency and a vicious, divisive opposition campaign.
But what was the story of this achievement – especially the transformation in education?
…with stupendous storytelling
Atishi is one of the highly-committed leaders of the Delhi government, whose exemplary, painstaking work has led to this miracle.
But an achievement so remarkable deserves great storytelling too. Which is where Atishi, and her team, deliver fabulously.
They deliver, not by using drama – there’s no chest-beating, there are no dramatic pauses or flourishes, there’s no showmanship. You don’t need those to be a good storyteller.
Instead, there’s oodles of sincerity, warmth and humour. Having said that, this is no meandering ‘adda’ discussion. This talk thoughtfully employs some powerful storytelling principles.
In this blog post, I have decoded these storytelling principles for you.
Story Principles in Atishi’s talk
These are the top 5 story techniques used in the presentation.
1. Using personal anecdotes
Atishi peppers her talk with anecdotes and visual descriptions, in place of abstract language.
For instance, she could’ve started her talk by saying “We faced a Herculean task in improving Delhi’s education”
Instead, she starts with a relatable personal anecdote. She’s having dinner with friends and happens to mention that they aim to make government schools better than private schools. An old friend’s brother laughs so loudly that he chokes on his food. A simple, visual anecdote to evocatively demonstrate the unending scepticism and doubt that their team faced initially.
The rest of the talk has many such stories:
- Her unforgettable first visit to a government school – when from the gate itself, she could smell the toilet from 50 metres away.
- The relatable inside joke when talking about the focus on clean toilets – “I felt that I’m working in the sanitation department, rather than education”
- The School Management Committee which physically locked in the teachers to prevent them from leaving early
- A dedicated SMC member attending a meeting with her 3-month old child
- A 12-year old offering advice to her father on how to reduce his stress!
What’s remarkable about these anecdotes is the visual (and sensory) detail. In the dinner story, we don’t know how that laughing gentleman looked, but we can picture a middle-aged chap guffawing and choking on his food. We didn’t accompany Atishi on her first school visit, but we can imagine how bad that toilet must have stunk. We can’t see the SMC Members, but we can visualise the padlock on the gate and the irate teachers complaining.
A good personal anecdote paints a vivid picture of the incident by revealing relevant details and allows us to ‘time-travel’ to experience the event ourselves. For instance, Atishi could’ve just said that they provided the teachers with a more professional training experience. But what is ‘professional’ is open to interpretation. Instead, she paints a vivid picture – “white tablecloth with four chairs, every teacher getting a Bisleri bottle, spiral notebook, gel pen and a nice packed thali lunch.” That is visual.
A good anecdote can be more impactful than a thousand abstract words. For instance, the short incident of the 12-year old girl does more to explain the benefits of the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ than a 50-slide presentation can.
2. Norm variance
I’ve talked about the importance of surprise powered by norm-variance before. Atishi’s talk masterfully uses data and images to paint a picture of ‘then’ and ‘now’. Clearly there has been a vast improvement in the schools. But kudos to the storytellers for clearly showing the ‘norm’ – or the situation that existed before the intervention.
|Norm (old)||Variance (new)|
|17000 classrooms built since independence (68 years)||20,000 additional built (8K done and 12K under construction) in just 5 years|
|Children sitting in corridor outside toilet, peeling walls, broken windows and fans||Spanking new world-class classrooms|
|Stinky, dirty toilets. Earlier could smell stink from 50 metres away||Clean and hygenic, granite flooring! Now can only smell phenyl.|
|Kids would break stuff||Reduced – since they have pride in the infra|
|Teachers not interested in undergoing training. Poor facilities. Samosa for lunch.||Gave them sense of pride with better training facilities. Packed thali lunch.|
3. Clear overarching structure:
The talk employs a clear overarching structure – that you can decode using the Pyramid Principle. (For past instances of this decoding, please see these links: Amazon Shareholder Letter, SoftBank Presentation, Warren Buffett letter)
In this talk, she makes the following points:
4. Visual slides (like a Billboard)
There’s hardly any text on the slides. The ‘text’ content is being narrated by Atishi – the slides just offer visual aid.
For such presentations, slides should be like billboards. Visual with minimal text, such that you can ‘get’ it in under 5 seconds.
5. Starting from the right Point A:
Atishi is cognisant of her audience here. They are affluent, English-speaking folks who’ve probably never stepped inside a government school in their life. So at the beginning, she states that “most of you would have heard about government schools for the wrong reasons” and goes on to list the key news themes such as kids falling ill after eating mid-day meals, teachers making students cook, wash dishes etc.
In other words, Atishi starts with the right Point A – the point where the audience already is.
Summing up: Great Storytelling deserves a wide audience
When the achievement is so stupendous, it deserves great storytelling. And when the storytelling is so fabulous, it deserves a wide audience. Do share and widely disseminate the link to the TEDx talk, so that it can inspire many more Atishis.