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In front of 50,000 raucous spectators and millions more tuning in, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic speech to Indians and the world on 22nd September 2019 in Houston.

Acknowledged as a stirring orator, Modi used all of his rhetorical flourishes to mesmerise the audience.

But apart from his oratorical skill, what impressed me was the speech’s content itself.

Sure it had the usual suspects: the playing-to-the-gallery lines, the too-clever-by-half puns (“Energy at NRG stadium is a witness to the growing synergy between the two nations…” Groan) and the exhortations for standing ovations…

But if you look beyond these (essential) crowd-pleasing manoeuvres, you would find a solid, structured talk, with five clear points made – each supported by clear numerical evidence^.

What are these five messages? Let’s find out.

Using the Pyramid Principle to decode the Howdy Modi speech

In the past, I’ve used the Pyramid Principle to analyse letters by business leaders – such as Jeff Bezos (2019 and 2018) and Warren Buffett (2019). This is the first time I’m applying it to a political speech – and it’s surprisingly robust.

Here’s my take on the speech:

The 1-slide summary – best viewed on a big screen!

Just to clarify: All the ‘higher-level’ messages in the slide above (the ones numbered 1 to 5), have been ‘derived’ by me – as per my reading, these are the over-arching points that the speech is making (without actually spelling them out). When you read them though, you ‘get’ the clarity of thought.

3 things that impressed me about the writing:

  1. Clear flow and structure: which is apparent – whether you read the five messages ‘horizontally’ or delve deeper into them, ‘vertically’.
  2. Strong use of norm-variance: Almost no number was given without a relevant norm. I have written earlier about the importance of this critical storytelling principle.
  3. Balancing multiple audiences (with the need for editing): The speech was addressing 3 audiences at the same time – the Americans, the NRIs and most importantly the domestic Indian audience. It managed to masterfully engage each of them. In doing so, it could have become a long, unwieldy mess – instead, the content was sharp and focused. Great editing!

What could have been better?

Tough to say – but one area where they could have elaborated more is message 4: on the Way Forward.

I would have liked if the speech had a point on “These are the 3 big areas where we would focus our attention going forward” (for e.g. infrastructure, health and education/skills).

(Incidentally, my choice of these three areas has nothing to do with my past experience of having worked in the infrastructure, healthcare and skills sectors!)

Anyway… overall, I found the speech-writing stellar.

In a gloomy global scenario, India has a relatively good story to tell. This speech ensured that it was told well.

*****

^ A disclaimer: This post is not attempting to endorse the speech’s content or verify the accuracy of its claims. Assuming the points are accurate, my endeavour is to study the storytelling principles used.

Featured image credit: By The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Bezos published Amazon’s much-awaited annual shareholders’ letter on 11th April. It made the headlines for one particular inclusion: his ‘challenge’ to retail competitors, to match Amazon’s $15-an-hour minimum wage and employee benefits.

Looking deeper into the document though, there are some critical storytelling lessons that can be gleaned. Here are my top three:

  1. Make it Surprising
  2. Make it Structured
  3. Keep it real and relatable

Let’s examine each one.

1. Make it surprising

I have blogged earlier about the value of surprise (using the principle of norm-variance) to get the audience’s attention. Bezos uses it multiple times in the letter:

  1. Start with a surprising fact (almost shrouded in mystery): He starts with a startling fact of how their third-party business has grown at a 52% CAGR (compounded annual growth rate), more than double their first-party business. That surprising fact gets our attention and we are curious to know the underlying reason.
  2. Continue to use norm-variance throughout, to make facts stand out
    • eBay comparison: While the 52% CAGR sounds impressive, what if that was the standard industry growth? In order to make that number stand out, he had to give a norm. And what better norm than the growth rate of eBay – the original third-party marketplace. eBay’s CAGR number turns out to be just 20%, making Amazon’s third-party growth rate massively higher. (Incidentally, Amazon did get a snarky response from eBay…  but that’s how these things get more fun right?!)
    • Busting myths: To show how much headroom is available for growth, Bezos states that “90% of retail remains offline; more in other countries”. While there’s no ‘norm’ given in this case, it isn’t required. It is a surprising finding since many of us would assume that online retail is in a dominant position compared to offline.
  3. Failure needs to scale too: On the face of it, this statement is surprising. Which leader would openly state that they will increase the scale of their failures? Bezos does. And then goes on to justify the same with clear arguments.

2. Make it Structured

We had earlier dissected the structure of Amazon’s 2018 letter. The 2019 one is shorter, but a bit more ‘wandering’ (keeping with the theme!). Having said that, it does have a clear flow, with 5 main points being made. As always I have attempted to build the Pyramid structure for the same.

Here’s the detailed version of the same:

Amazon’s success is driven by listening to customers and wandering on their behalf; and taking care of employees with all heart

  • We’ve had some stunning outcomes driven by new initiatives
    • Third party sellers have grown at a stunning 52% CAGR; more than double our first party sales
    • AWS is now a $30 billion annual run rate business and growing fast
    • Thousands of customers are building machine learning models on top of AWS with SageMaker
  • This success is built on listening to customers…
    • E.g. Amazon Aurora: Companies felt constrained by their commercial database options and had been unhappy with their database providers for decades – these offerings are expensive, proprietary, have high-lock-in and punitive licensing terms
    • E.g Amazon Go: Checkout queues
  • …But more importantly, by guided wandering on their behalf
    • Some of our biggest successes are from guided wandering
      • Prime, Fulfilment were key drivers of the Third Party growth
      • Echo was a product of guided wandering
    • This is needed because customers don’t always know what they want
      • No one asked for AWS or the Echo
    • We had the ability and courage to innovate to give clients breakthrough products
      • Ability: A culture of builders
        • People who are curious, explorers, like to invent
      • Courage: Guided wandering needs heart
        • Programs like Prime and Fulfilment were extremely radical when launched and were taken up at significant financial risk and after much debate
        • The path is messy and tangential
  • However, as we scale, this policy would mean our failures would also scale
    • As we grow our failures will also grow – we will occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures.
    • We won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly; but not all good bets will ultimately pay out.
    • However, failures can be the stepping stones for success – e.g. the Fire phone’s failure gave learnings when building Echo and Alexa.
  • Finally, innovation is built on people; we take care of ours with all our heart
    • Current employees: 15$ min wage
    • Current employees:  Career Choice and Career Skills training programs
    • Future employees: STEM programs and Vets education

3. Keep it real and relatable

Just because you are making earth-changing moves, doesn’t mean that your language has to be a mystery to decipher. Bezos talks in conversational, everyday English and uses simple analogies where needed.

  1. Pithy, everyday language.
    • “Kicking our butt badly”. No MBA speak like “proving to be significantly challenging competitors”
    • “No one asked for AWS. No one.” Emphasising the point, like how we would do in a conversation.
  2. Analogy: Alexa compared to Star Trek’s first computer voice

By employing so many storytelling techniques Bezos vividly illustrates the thought and effort that goes into crafting this critical document. And by the way, he must have been really busy with the personal developments during this period. Despite these distractions, he’s put out a stellar document.

Having said that, what could be better…

As always we will look at what could have been better. Three things according to me:

1. Flow breaks down: The letter’s structure was fine for the first two points (success and its drivers). But the third one doesn’t really flow from the first two. It seems like Bezos just wanted to highlight those points (higher wages, impact on community etc.) for building some good PR. This article from Fortune surmises it could be because of the threat of ‘anti-trust’ legislation against the Big Tech companies. Whatever be the cause, the letter suffers from not having a clear one-line theme (as compared to last year’s letter – which had a clear connecting concept)

2. Way too much technical detail: In the discussion on databases, the geek in Bezos takes over. We could have used some editing there, as well as an analogy, to explain to us non-techies!

Bezos geeking out on databases

3. The human element: Like last year’s letter, this one too skips giving any anecdotes or human stories underlying the numbers. How about putting the spotlight on a third-party seller who exemplifies the impressive growth? Or an employee who’s maximised her potential after taking the Career Choice program? These stories make your data more relatable.

The final word

In sum, despite not being the tour-de-force that the earlier letter was, the 2019 Amazon Shareholders Letter packs in a mean punch in making its points… and leaves us with valuable storytelling lessons as always.

*****

Featured Image Credit: Amazon Go in Seattle from Wikimedia Commons by SounderBruce [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Warren Buffett may be one of the most envied guys on the planet – for his unparalleled wealth, that magic touch in picking stocks, and decades of consistent outperformance.

But he also has a most unenviable task: to write a 12-page annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

Why should that be so difficult you may ask? Consider the facts.

75 companies, 365 days, 12 pages

Berkshire Hathaway is not your normal investment company. It’s the world’s third biggest by revenues ($247B) that owns an incredibly diverse set of companies – seventy-five entities across insurance, manufacturing, utilities and services (as he puts it, making everything from ‘lollipops to locomotives’). Take a look at this list below:

Berkshire List of Companies (Page 135)

Now imagine writing a detailed document that talks about all these varied enterprises, and the overall economy, and the impact of key accounting/tax policies and the future outlook … and (here’s the really difficult part): making sense of it all to the average shareholder.

Not an enviable task? That’s what I thought.

Buffett’s approach: Storytelling

Warren Buffett employs two masterful storytelling techniques to take on this daunting task:

  1. Get the ‘Big Story’ right (think of this as the basic pizza base and sauce)
  2. Embellish the Big Story with key story elements (think of these as the toppings that add flavour, texture and colour to the pizza)

Let’s look at each one in turn.

I. Getting the Big Story right

I had earlier blogged about Jeff Bezos (just two steps higher than Mr. Buffett on that Forbes list) who used the ‘Pyramid Principle’ in constructing Amazon’s succinct annual letter. Not surprisingly, Buffett’s approach is similar.

While he takes some liberties with the format, the broad flow is clear, and he makes three key points:

Main message: Berkshire Hathaway has consistently outperformed, driven by its unique structure, approach and American tailwinds; it is likely to continue doing so

  1. Berkshire has consistently outperformed the competition
    • We normally use two measures to state this (net profits and Share Book value) – but both have lost relevance
    • On the measures that matter however, we are doing great
  2. There are three key reasons for our success
    • Our unique structure: We are a ‘forest’ of companies with five ‘groves’ – where the whole is greater than the sum of parts
    • Our approach: Long-term shareholder oriented; prudence in use of debt
    • The American economy tailwind: which has propelled us for the last 77 years and will continue to do so going forward
  3. (Unsaid) You should (continue to) invest in Berkshire Hathaway to enjoy outstanding returns
The Berkshire Letter ‘Big Story’ by Story Rules

In addition to this, he does cover a couple of additional aspects – e.g. a fond farewell to Tony Nicely (the retiring CEO of GEICO, Berkshire’s flagship insurance player). But these are add-ons. His Big Story consists of the key messages above.

Clearly a good Big Story is not enough though; you need the little elements – the toppings – to enhance your story.

II. Adding the Key Story Elements

1. Analogies: Explaining the performance of 75 companies across multiple sectors was going to be tough. Buffett brilliantly simplifies it using the analogy of a forest. Asking analysts to resist the temptation of doing a company-by-company analysis of Berkshire’s value, he likens their holdings to a forest filled with five ‘groves’. Here he goes:

“Investors who evaluate Berkshire sometimes obsess on the details of our many and diverse businesses – our economic “trees,” so to speak. Analysis of that type can be mind-numbing, given that we own a vast array of specimens, ranging from twigs to redwoods. A few of our trees are diseased and unlikely to be around a decade from now. Many others, though, are destined to grow in size and beauty.

Fortunately, it’s not necessary to evaluate each tree individually to make a rough estimate of Berkshire’s intrinsic business value. That’s because our forest contains five “groves” of major importance, each of which can be appraised, with reasonable accuracy, in its entirety. Four of those groves are differentiated clusters of businesses and financial assets that are easy to understand. The fifth – our huge and diverse insurance operation – delivers great value to Berkshire in a less obvious manner, one I will explain later in this letter.”

Analogies are powerful when they are:

  • Simple: Easy to understand and visualise for the reader
  • Deep: Have multiple connections with your underlying concept
  • Referenced multiple times: In the story, indicating depth and continuity

(For some more examples of the use of analogies – especially a dancing geologist – you can read this earlier post I’d written)

2. Aphorisms: These are concise sayings (told sometimes in the form of a story) that pack in a lot of wisdom. Buffett is a past master at such sayings himself (e.g. “Price is what you pay, value is what you get”).

In this letter, Buffett is critical of companies which don’t show ESOPs (Employee Stock Options) as an expense. Here’s how he uses an aphorism (from another famous dude) to make his point:

“For example, managements sometimes assert that their company’s stock-based compensation shouldn’t be counted as an expense. (What else could it be – a gift  from shareholders?) And restructuring expenses? Well, maybe last year’s exact rearrangement won’t recur. But restructurings of one sort or another are common in business – Berkshire has gone down that road dozens of times, and our shareholders have always borne the costs of doing so.

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.”

Someone described proverbs as “Short on words, long on meaning”. I concur.

3. Norm and variance: We have written about this powerful storytelling concept before (and how Steve Jobs and Elon Musk used it). Buffett uses it at multiple places – for example in the below instance where he talks about the right (and wrong) performance measures:

“In the first and fourth quarters, we reported GAAP losses of $1.1 billion and $25.4 billion respectively. In the second and third quarters, we reported profits of $12 billion and $18.5 billion. In complete contrast to these gyrations, the many businesses that Berkshire owns delivered consistent and satisfactory operating earnings in all quarters. For the year, those earnings exceeded their 2016 high of $17.6 billion by 41%.”

I’ve tried to represent the above through some simple graphs:

Using the right norm-variance

In another example, he extols the virtues of the American economy’s tailwind – that has propelled growth across sectors, through good times and bad.

“If … $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, (the) stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019.… (if you had) opted instead to buy 31⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75… You would now have an asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a simple unmanaged investment in American business.”

He then finishes with a flourish of wordplay:

“The magical metal was no match for the American mettle.”

4. Pithy, conversational humour: Buffett never misses an opportunity to poke some harmless fun – especially at himself and his business partner, Charlie Munger. Here’s his take on their age:

We continue, nevertheless, to hope for an elephant-sized acquisition. Even at our ages of 88 and 95 – I’m the young one  – that prospect is what causes my heart and Charlie’s to beat faster. (Just writing about the possibility of a huge purchase has caused my pulse rate to soar.)”

“In addition, certain shareholders will simply decide it’s time for them or their families to become net consumers rather than continuing to build capital. Charlie and I have no current interest in joining that group. Perhaps we will become big spenders in our old age.”

And that’s not all – there are more. For example, when explaining the reasons for why the ‘Share book value’ metric isn’t relevant anymore, he uses another storytelling concept: ‘The Rule of Three’ – and gives three reasons for why it doesn’t work.

(I thought of including it as a story element, but it was, well, violating the same rule, so I decided to keep it as an ‘extra’ item!).

Another striking aspect is the use of everyday conversational English, and not drowning the audience in business and financial jargon.

What could be better?

Superlative as the letter is, it could still be better in … three ways (there you go):

  1. Spell out the Big Story more clearly: As of now, I am inferring some of the bigger messages. It would be nice for Buffett to clarify those himself
  2. Reduce the preponderance of accounting terms: These may be a put-off for the non-financially savvy reader. I could get most of what he was saying (I’m a CA, guilty as charged), but someone who doesn’t understand financial analysis may struggle in some sections.
  3. Some visuals: The letter is worded evocatively – but perhaps some visuals/charts would make comprehension easier (such as the norm-variance one).

Unenviable task, Enviable result

Buffett may have a tough storytelling ask, but he sure proves his ‘magical mettle’ at it. I’ll be looking forward to many more such letters from him.

*****

Featured image credit: From Wikimedia Commons by USA International Trade Administration

In a recent storytelling training program I came across an interesting case-study of a business unit leader called Ankit (name changed).

Ankit was excited to present his division’s quarterly performance numbers – given that they had delivered a whopping 4X YoY  revenue growth.  He was also sure of the reason driving the growth – the new dynamic pricing policy that they had adopted. He should know – after all, he was instrumental in implementing it.

On that count, however, he was utterly wrong.

We all do this

Once every quarter (or month) the leadership of every reasonably-sized company gathers for a time-honoured ritual: the review meeting. Which is, let’s face it, not the most anticipated day of the month for most of us.

We’ve all been there. Sitting through slide after slide of badly formatted tables, truckloads of text, the occasional (ill-chosen) chart or visual. The day seems unending, the coffee ineffective. The whole exercise seems like an inevitable punishment that everyone has to go through.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s get back to Ankit and his presentation.

A data-heavy set of slides

Ankit’s division was in the cargo movement business. Despite not introducing any new products, or tapping new geographies, the division had seen the 4X sales spike. He believed it to be driven by a better ‘dynamic’ pricing strategy (earlier, pricing was fixed and no attempt was made by the division to modify the same based on the demand-supply situation). Ankit’s team had changed that this quarter and were rightfully proud of the move. But was it the key factor impacting the sales growth?

Before we look at the underlying data, let’s look at the slide formats used by Ankit to showcase the data (slides blurred to mask the words, but you get the sense):

Some of you may be able to relate with slides like this – data-heavy, lacking a clear set of messages and devoid of visuals. While the slides definitely need a signifiant repair job, before we do that, let’s find the story first.

Analysing the data underlying that 4X sales growth

Here is the (masked) data underlying the sales growth: The cargo division’s last year Q1 revenue was Rs. 47 Mn, which has grown to Rs. 183 Mn in Q1 this year.

The first step in understanding the reason for the change always has to be the simple equation: Revenue = volume * price. Let’s look at the breakup of that revenue growth by volume and price, across the two main segments – International and Domestic.

Clearly you can see there’s growth on both the underlying factors: Volume and (weighted average) price. But how much has each factor contributed to the increase? When you start working on that, you realise a third angle comes into the mix: the mix.

The ‘mix’ refers to the change in the ratio of sales in each segment. This factor becomes especially important if the average price varies significantly across segments (as it is in this case). In this quarter, there seems to be a positive movement on mix too, with a higher proportion of high-value ‘International’ segment sales being made.

So, all three factors seem to have positively influenced the revenue growth? But which one was the most prominent? Is it pricing, as believed by Ankit? And can we exactly quantify the impact of each factor? Let’s find out.

Deconstructing the revenue increase using a cost-accounting tool: Variance analysis

When I was using first-principles to deconstruct the impact of the three factors, a thought hit me like a bolt of lightning: I was using an age-old cost-accounting technique called ‘Variance Analysis‘ (under ‘Standard Costing’), that I had learnt during my CA days!

For those who balk at anything to do with Accounting, fear not – this is a simpler, more intuitive part of accounting. Let’s dive into it, and you’ll see why.

Underlying variance analysis is the concept of isolation – the impact of each factor driving revenue is isolated, by keeping other factors the same as before. We need to isolate the effect of the following three factors on revenue:

  • Volume increase
  • Change in mix
  • Price increase

Let’s start with the first one – volume increase. Going by the principle of isolation, we will only look at how much has the total volume increased by (since any examination of the split of volume by segments would come under Mix variance).

You would see a volume variance of Rs. 47.6 M computed above. Let’s understand the two steps to arrive at the number:

(A) The revenue at the previous year’s total volume: Rs. 47.0 M

(B) The revenue that would’ve resulted if we had only changed total volume and nothing else (isolation). So we take the total volume figure of this year (275 tons) and multiply that by the weighted average realisation of last year (since we don’t want any mix or price factors vitiating this analysis): Rs. 94.6 M

Thus the volume variance is (B) minus (A): Rs. 47.6 M – in other words this is the ‘lift’ for the revenue purely because they moved more tonnage.

We now move onto the next one: Mix variance.

This is a bit more tricky – here’s how the mix variance is computed:

(A) Step 1 is to compute the new volume of 275 tons with the old mix (Why new volume? Since we’ve already accounted for the increase in overall tonnage from 137 to 275). So we split 275 in the old mix ratio (i.e. 14:123)

(B) Step 2 is to compute the revenue if we had sold all the 275 tons in the old mix. Here it is important to note that we still haven’t come to price increase – so we use the old prices (last year prices of 1200 and 250)

(C) We then compute the revenue under the new mix. Now we use the 275 tons in the new mix ratio (90:185) and again multiply it with the old prices (remember, price variance comes later)

And that’s how we get the mix variance (C minus B): Rs. 59.7 M

Finally we come to the price variance:

This one is straight-forward.

(A) First we compute the revenue with new volume, new mix but at old price (which comes to Rs. 154.3 M)

(B) Finally we come to the last step: the revenue with new volume, new mix and new price: Rs. 183.1 M

The price variance is Rs. 28.9 M

Visualising the impact of revenue growth drivers

Let’s put this on a chart – given that this is showing movement across two time periods, the water-fall chart works best.

There we have it – a simple visual that shows the most important driver of the revenue growth was not the dynamic pricing strategy, but actually the change in mix from domestic to international; followed by the increase in volume. A simple analysis that completely upended the key message from the original review presentation. Imagine the impact on decision making!

Transforming the Internal review meeting through better storytelling

While cost-accounting tool we used (Variance Analysis) may seem to have transformed the original presentation, we believe that it was the underlying science of storytelling, which asked the right questions which led to the usage of the tool in the first place.

If you would like a Chartered-Accountant-MBA-turned-storyteller to examine how you can improve your own internal review meetings, you know who to reach out to 🙂

*****

Featured Image credit: Pixabay CC0 Creative Commons

Two ways

There are two ways to make facts interesting to the audience:

  • Come up with new, surprising facts through research or analysis
  • Come up with a new, surprising way of looking at known facts

The master of the latter approach, in my mind, is a lecturer at the Department of History, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Professor Yuval Noah Hariri. If you haven’t read his ‘Sapiens‘ (or the latest one, ‘Homo Deus‘), just drop everything and order a copy now.

In his book ‘Sapiens’, he looks at human history with a radical, worldview-shattering lens. Apart from his revolutionary (sometimes controversial) views, what I also love is the way he puts historical events in the right perspective. Let’s look at one example – about the ruler Cyrus the Great of Persia.

 

An all-conquering emperor

Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for Cyrus the Great reads:

“Cyrus II of Persia commonly known as Cyrus the Great, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen. Under his successors, the empire eventually stretched at its maximum extent from parts of the Balkans (Bulgaria-Paeonia and Thrace-Macedonia) and Eastern Europe proper in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east.

Cyrus the Great respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. This became a very successful model for centralized administration and establishing a government working to the advantage and profit of its subjects. In fact, the administration of the empire through satraps and the vital principle of forming a government at Pasargadae were the works of Cyrus. What is sometimes referred to as the Edict of Restoration (actually two edicts) described in the Bible as being made by Cyrus the Great left a lasting legacy on the Jewish religion, where, because of his policies in Babylonia, he is referred to by the Jewish Bible as Messiah (lit. “His anointed one”) (Isaiah 45:1), and is the only non-Jew to be called so.”

It’s not half-bad actually. In fact the key message that we’ll talk about soon, has been laid out loud and clear. And yet, it doesn’t stand out. If I were to ask you – what exactly made Cyrus the Great stand out among emperors of his time or before him – you may have to re-read that extract and take an educated guess.

Not so with Prof. Hariri. Let’s see how he tackles this episode from history.

The ‘Sapiens’ take on Cyrus the Great

Just before talking about Cyrus, we start with some context setting about some of the first empires of the world – which emerged in the Middle East. The first one was the Akkadian empire of Sargon the Great (c. 2250 BC), in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq and Syria). On to Prof Hariri (emphasis added):

“Sargon began his career as the king of Kish, a small city state in Mesopotamia. Within a few decades he managed to conquer not only all other Mesopotamian city states, but also large territories outside the Mesopotamian heartland. Sargon boasted that he had conquered the entire world. In reality, his dominion stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and included most of today’s Iraq and Syria, along with a few slices of modern Iran and Turkey. The Akkadian Empire did not last long after its founder’s death, but Sargon left behind an imperial mantle that seldom remained unclaimed. For the next 1,700 years, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite kings adopted Sargon as a role model, boasting that they, too, had conquered the entire world. Then, around 550 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia came along with an even more impressive boast. 

The kings of Assyria always remained the kings of Assyria. Even when they claimed to rule the entire world, it was obvious that they were doing it for the greater glory of Assyria, and they were not apologetic about it. Cyrus, on the other hand, claimed not merely to rule the whole world, but to do so for the sake of all people. ‘We are conquering you for your own benefit,’ said the Persians. Cyrus wanted the peoples he subjected to love him and to count themselves lucky to be Persian vassals. The most famous example of Cyrus’ innovative efforts to gain the approbation of a nation living under the thumb of his empire was his command that the Jewish exiles in Babylonia be allowed to return to their Judaean homeland and rebuild their temple. He even offered them financial assistance. Cyrus did not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare. The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling.

Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human. In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does the word Nuer mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of kilometres from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’.

In contrast with this ethnic exclusiveness, imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasised racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world, the existence of a single set of principles governing all places and times, and the mutual responsibilities of all human beings.”

You may disagree with the conclusion at the end – of imperial ideology being inclusive and all-encompassing (just think of how the Europeans treated Native Americans and their colonial subjects) – but the contrast between Cyrus and his predecessors is brought out very effectively here.

What can we learn from this?

  1. Use contrast: Facts in isolation (“Cyrus the Great respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered.”) struggle to stand out among a sea of other facts. For your key finding/message to stand out, you have to use contrast. (the contrast between Cyrus and the Assyrian rulers for example)
  2. Show the norm, show the variance: The best way to show contrast is to find and show the ‘norm’ for your key finding/message. Sure, Cyrus respected the customs of his subjects, but what was remarkable was that he did so at a time when it was just not the norm. Prof Hariri uses a few evocative examples (apart from Assyrians, the Dinka, Nuer, and Yupiks) from across the globe to show how far removed from human evolutionary norms Cyrus’ radical policies were.
  3. It takes effort to find the norm: In many situations, norms are well-defined (for example your sales performance has many ‘norms’ – last year performance, target, competition). But in quite a few situations, norms aren’t clear – it’s incumbent on the storyteller to find the right norms (for e.g. in this case, the vocabulary of the Dinka, Nuer and Yupiks) and then showcase the variance/contrast from the same.

Our eyes and mind are naturally drawn to contrast and variance (not just visually, but also in textual content). Leverage that to make your key message stand out.

We will see the application of this principle in a real-life business scenario – in a later post!

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Featured Image: Public Domain Pictures

Cyrus the Great: By Ernst Wallis et al (own scan) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons