It isn’t very often that the CEO of a $100 Bn fund (who’s been called “the most powerful person in Silicon Valley“), makes a public presentation, just a month after his biggest investment has suffered an embarrassing debacle.

The stakes don’t get higher than this.

What does the iconic Masayoshi Son do? Beat around the bush and ignore the core issues? Or come up with a detailed nuts-and-bolts plan to fix the issues?

He does something in between.

This post is my attempt at deconstructing the recent SoftBank earnings deck (released on 6-Nov-2019).

Going past the initial shock …

I got to know of the deck through an IIMA Whatsapp group (one of the fastest news dissemination sources of our day).

Like many others, I was taken aback by some of the slides.

Here are 4 of them bunched together in one image:

Select Slides from the SoftBank Earnings deck

My first reaction: ‘Really, is this how the CEO of a $100 Bn fund presents? These slides seem like the work of a first-year MBA student!

I searched online for reactions and found that some news articles concurred. For instance, this one from Vice (‘These Delusional PowerPoint Slides Show How SoftBank Wants to Save WeWork‘) and this from NY Mag (‘Here Are Some Insane Slides From SoftBank’s Presentation Explaining (?) How It Will Fix WeWork‘).

But then (after a friend’s contrary reaction) I realised – I shouldn’t pass judgement without examining the entire picture. And so, I ended up watching the presentation by Mr Son himself, online.

(He’s speaking in Japanese and a voiceover is translating. Here’s a transcript I found later).

Having seen the presentation, I did see some merit in the slides being so utterly simple. (But also found some areas of improvement).

So here goes: My take on the 3 things that I liked about this deck and the 3 things that could have been better.

(Note: To keep this simple, I’m only reviewing the ‘WeWork Business’ portion – slides 48-61 – and not the entire deck).

3 things that were good

1. Start from Point A: Take the bull by the horns

For SoftBank’s investors, the over-arching concern was clear: WeWork.

And Son takes it head-on.

In storytelling, I call this ‘starting from the right Point A‘. You may have a thousand things to say – but you need to acknowledge the first/biggest question in the audience’s mind, at the beginning itself (you may answer it later – but at least acknowledge it).

2. A simple, clearly articulated plan

Instead of a confusing mass of plans and action-items, Son utterly simplifies the recovery plan into three initiatives: Pause new offices, reduce expenses and terminate unprofitable businesses.

In fact, this entire ‘symptoms-diagnosis-cure-outcome’ part of the deck really simplifies, what undoubtedly must have been some complex number-crunching.

Here’s my summary using the Pyramid Principle.

The heart of the SoftBank Presentation – the WeWork turnaround plan

The above messages are delivered using the simplest visuals possible – such that anyone would be able to understand them*.

3. Use an analogy to combat another

Analogies are powerful tools for a business storyteller, as we have previously discussed. Great communicators make frequent use of this technique to simplify complex topics and situations.

In this deck, Son uses two analogies (interestingly, both are inadvertently related!):

i. Stormy / calm seas: In order to indicate that SoftBank is indeed facing difficult times, he likens it to being in a storm (in the first slide). He mentions the starkly negative media coverage… and uses that as a starting point to explain why things are not all doom and gloom.

Towards the end, he indicates that the storm is a perception issue (“We don’t see any storm, rough orders. It’s just a soft order, to be honest.“) and they they would continue along the same path (“But from my perspective, no change in the journey, no vision change, no strategy change. All we will do is to just keep going, keep moving forward.“)

I thought that it would’ve been better to acknowledge that “yes, we are facing stormy weather now, but don’t worry, we got this ship under control and will soon be sailing in clear waters“.

But honestly, I don’t know enough about the business/sector to comment (read disclaimers at the end!).

ii. Sinking ship or basket of apples: The other analogy that Son employs is to combat one used by the press – who liken WeWork to a sinking ship, which might take down the entire SoftBank fleet with it.

Son acknowledges that this maybe what the external world thinks, and then counters with his own analogy – about apples!

According to Son, WeWork’s portfolio is like a basket of apples. Some are red and ready for eating (the 40% of buildings which are more than 12 months old), but most are ‘unripe green apples’ which will take some time to become ripe and edible. His point: As they ripen, WeWork’s revenue and profitability will increase.

Analogies are tricky^ – if used well they can be impactful. In this case, they seem to work to explain the simple concept of early-stage assets. The important thing to note is that by changing the analogy (from sinking ships to a basket of apples), Son completely changes the frame of reference for the discussion.

Those were the good parts. What could have been better?

3 things that could be better

1. Two separate slide decks – one for showing and one to download

There’s a saying in Hindi – ‘Haathi ke daant, khaane ke alag, dikhane ke alag‘ (An elephant has two sets of teeth – one for eating, one for showing) – which essentially means, don’t go by appearances.

I’m twisting the original meaning here – but my point is that a storyteller also needs to have two sets of presentations – one for presenting (Presentation) and one for downloading/email (SlideDoc).

I’ve explained the difference between the two in this earlier blog post (point #5).

In SoftBank’s case, the same slides that were used to present were then uploaded by them on the website. When such slides are seen without the accompanying narration, they lack meaning (and in this case look ridiculously simple – almost insulting the audience’s intelligence).

Also in today’s age, one needs to anticipate that a deck as important as this will be disseminated all over through social media – again without the crucial accompanying narration. Leaving it open to criticism of this sort. And this.

So what could have been done?

Two options.

i. A SlideDoc: SoftBank could have uploaded a slide with some text narration (the ‘SlideDoc’ version).

ii. Disclaimer with link: Alternatively, a simple disclaimer could have been included (a bit prominently) in each slide: “This document is incomplete without reference to, and should be viewed solely in conjunction with, the verbal briefing provided by SoftBank” (I should know – as consultants, we used to include this disclaimer on every presentation!) along with a link to the video on the website.

2. More detail about the turnaround plan

Given the magnitude of the WeWork debacle, and the extent of the hit on the valuation (and reputation), I think SoftBank could have provided more details about the rescue plan.

Just saying “Give it time – and we’ll soon be profitable” seems a bit superficial…

I understand that WeWork is a private company and doesn’t need to disclose numbers (which is why the ‘Hypothetical’ tag on the slides). But given the context, some details (especially on cost reduction initiatives) would have added credibility to the presentation.

3. Better preparation

Perhaps there was a time when a CEO could just land up on stage and share his/her thoughts extempore. Not any more. Since decades, business leaders (especially from Silicon Valley, led by Steve Jobs) have mastered the art of the scripted, rehearsed presentation. Why? Because they believe that the occasion, the audience and their company deserved the preparation. Otherwise, they would be doing a disservice to all the hard work that was done behind-the-scenes.

You could call Son’s presentation many things – but rehearsed and prepared would not be one of them.

Admittedly, he’s speaking in Japanese while a voiceover translates into English. If we go by the transcript however, there are many places where the lack of preparation is evident. For instance:

  • Getting basic numbers wrong (“Let me restate my earlier comment. Wasn’t that 4 out of 9? No? 5 out — so in final conclusion, it’s 5 out of 10. So sorry, let me restate once again, it’s 5 out of 10 Board seats.“),
  • Ad-nauseam repetition of some points (he narrates the logic of the impact of increase in occupancy ratio, twice!)
  • Mix-up of analogies (mentioned in footnotes)

Definitely you’d expect better from a senior leader for such a high-stakes presentation.

Overall take: This apple is neither ripe nor unripe

Overall it’s tough to give my take on the deck. I have very little context of WeWork and other investments of SoftBank, the business numbers, valuation details et al; and so, I cannot say if this deck does a good job of answering all investor questions. (On face value, it doesn’t seem to do so though).

In sum, it’s like a half-ripe apple? Some aspects to admire, and some to avoid.

All in all, good learning no?


* (About the need to keep the slides so simple) Honestly, I didn’t understand the need to make the slides so simple. What was the target audience here? Savvy investors can surely understand more complex slides. Was this made for a layperson audience? I’m not sure.

^ (About analogies being tricky) Incidentally, Son gets tied up in his own analogies here. In his fruit analogy, green apples are unripe (bad) and red apples are ripe (good); his slide visuals are exactly the opposite. In the slides, red stands for the ‘unripe’ assets (which are ‘in the red’), while green is used for the older ripe ones (with yellow indicating an in-between stage). He acknowledges the mismatch during his talk (“Green apples will turn. Actually, the color indicates the opposite, but green apple will be in red…“) Perhaps he could’ve used another analogy – maybe, using a traffic signal analogy?

Featured Image: From Wikimedia Commons by nobihaya [CC BY 2.0]

Some disclaimers (I’m a CA after all):

  1. This is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire deck – it only covers the WeWork Business portion.
  2. I haven’t been following the news/analysis about WeWork or SoftBank’s investments and so I don’t understand the investment, business context as well as I’d like to! Happy to know your thoughts in comments!

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

What is wrong with the below slide*?

The slide from hell

Everything right?!

Let’s start with the most glaring issue – it has no ‘message’ on top. A neutral header does nothing to tell the audience what the slide is actually saying.

Now, in a previous post, we have seen the importance of crafting clear, surprising messages from your data. Messages that get the audience’s attention using the principle of norm and variance.

When you attempt to do this, however, you may get stuck at the next hurdle: choosing the right adjectives.

Adjectives? Do you mean like ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’? Well… yes, but slightly more nuanced. Consider the following messages – especially the italicised adjectives:

  • Sales have shown whopping growth (whopping – too dramatic)
  • Our performance has been super impressive (too informal for a corporate presentation)
  • Attrition rates have been bad (Really? ‘Bad’? That’s really nuanced…)

The issue here is that we tend to gravitate between two extremes when it comes to choosing such adjectives:

  • We use a small set of ‘standard/banal’ words to describe these metrics (e.g. revenue went up, NPS is the same as last quarter, profitability is lower than competitors etc.), or
  • We go for dramatic words, that may work in informal settings or in news headlines (tremendous, super-high, the pits etc.), but aren’t appropriate in a formal corporate setting^.

We are essentially using a very limited vocabulary for a very wide range of performance phenomena. Wouldn’t it be good to have a readymade list of potential words, to choose from, to describe various performance scenarios?

A bit like that scene in The Matrix, when Keanu Reeves says – “Guns, lots of guns” and immediately he’s in this cavernous room filled from floor to ceiling with every kind of firearm imaginable.

(I know – even I wanted to watch that scene again, after writing this. Here you go:

One of many iconic scenes from The Matrix (Produced by Joel Silver)

What. A. Swag.)

Imagine saying “Words, lots of words”, and having a rich collection of words to choose from…

The Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet

Presenting the ‘Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet’ – a ready reference guide for you to choose from, based on two factors inherent in your message from the data:

  1. The type of comparison factor in your message
  2. The intensity of the performance difference (low, medium, high)

What do I mean by comparison factor? Well, there are three basic types of comparisons we can do with data – over time, across other items (competition, internal teams etc.) and as a component (share) of something.

Here’s a quick overview.

Three most common comparison parameters

So then, based on the comparison factor and the intensity of the change, you can choose from the following set of words, to describe your key finding:

The Descriptive Words Cheat Sheet (by Ravishankar Iyer)

Now, a couple of disclaimers for the above:

  • The comparison factors can be more complex (you could be looking at more than one factor – such as increasing share over time). Use your judgement in such cases.
  • Also, this is clearly not a comprehensive list of words – feel free to keep adding to the list.

If you’d like a PDF copy of this to print and stick on your soft-board, I’m happy to share the same. Please drop me an email at ravishankar@storyrules.in.

Happy describing!


* Incidentally this is a slide from my first presentation during my consulting years. Let’s just say I’m happy I started rock-bottom – the only way was up.

^ A disclaimer – formal corporate setting doesn’t mean the use of stifling jargon and global corporate-speak such as ‘synergistic’, ‘value-addition’ and ‘paradigm-shift’. Plain, informal speak is great, especially in internal conversations. But often with clients, one needs to maintain decorum of speech. It’s a fine balance!

Featured image by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

The phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’ returns an inordinate 75M hits on Google. The reason? Many users just consider PowerPoint as ‘MS Word plus Headers and Bullets’ and end up creating dense, soul-draining slides.

Perhaps that’s why Amazon did away with the use of PowerPoint presentations in its meetings…

That’s a pity, because, if used well, PowerPoint is a great tool to tell a compelling, visual story. And you don’t need designer-level skills for that – these 10 guidelines are a great way to super-charge your presentation.

I have divided these ideas into 3 sections: Narrative, Visuals and Delivery

–      Narrative: Your story in words and messages – what it is that you are trying to say?

–      Visuals: Graphs, pictures, icons (and tables, text) that illustrate your narrative messages

–      Delivery: Your verbal delivery of the presentation (either face-to-face or remote)

A.  Narrative guidelines

1. Start with Pen+paper and Word: Don’t start off your presentation on PowerPoint. You read that right. Before even opening the application, you need to firm up your presentation narrative on paper.

What is your ‘narrative’? It consists of messages (insightful and surprising findings), that are strung together to form a written story. Here’s an example of a Narrative for a presentation.

The best framework to build your narrative is the ‘Pyramid Principle’ (illustrated in the above example). I have blogged about how leaders like Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet have used it.

There are three advantages of crafting your narrative on Word before starting work on PowerPoint:

–      You can review just the narrative with your boss/peers, test it for completeness and flow and get clarity on what is your overall story

–      With a robust narrative, the job of slide-making becomes much faster and simpler

–      You also avoid rework and extra work (making unnecessary slides for instance)

2. Use the headline space for your message: Once the narrative is done, you start work on individual slides. The most critical portion on a slide is the top-left header. Many slides leave it as a title or neutral header. Instead, you need to craft a clear message that distils the slide’s meaning into one line. The main principle to use here is norm-variance, as written about earlier. A good message does one of three things vis-à-vis the information on the slide

a.   Provides a one-line summary (or synthesis) of the slide’s contents

b.   Prioritises one or two key findings among several on the slide

c.    Calls out the implication/recommendation arising from the slide

The examples below show how a message adds value to a slide.

Slide (with modified title) adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)
Slide (with modified title) adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)
Slide adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)

3. Use Outline & Slide sorter views to ‘review’ the narrative: An underused feature of PowerPoint is the Outline view (View>Outline view). The feature is especially useful if you receive a presentation for review – you can use this view to quickly check the narrative flow. If you feel the there is no flow, or it is completely broken, then don’t bother modifying the slides – revise the narrative first.

From fictional case study presentation (C) Ravishankar Iyer

Another useful view is the ‘Slide Sorter’ view (View>Slide Sorter) – I use it to get a birds-eye overview of the slides and move them around to get a better flow.

From fictional case study presentation (C) Ravishankar Iyer

4. Use story tools to make complex concepts relatable: If your presentation has slightly complex, technical stuff that your audience may struggle to understand, you need to use story tools such as ‘human stories’ and ‘analogies’ to make it relatable. This earlier blog post would give you a quick primer. 

B.  Visual guidelines

5.   Know which mode to use – Presentation or Slide-doc: A key question to answer is – Would you be actually presenting your deck to the audience (face-to-face/virtually), or would you be just emailing it to them? If the latter, then your slides need to be self-sufficient, i.e. like a document. Most consulting presentations come under this category. Here’s a sample slide.

Slide adapted from the report Digital Consumer Spending in India by BCG and Google (Feb-2018)

But when you are actually presenting your deck, then, apart from the slides, there’s a crucial extra ingredient – your voice! In this situation, if whatever you are saying is also present on the slide, then you end up completely overwhelming the audience: Should they read the slides? Listen to you? Look at you?

And so, most often there’s a mismatch between what you are talking about and what the audience is reading. And then they get onto their phones. It’s a mess.

Which is why you need to have a different type of slide in case you are presenting it – visual, simple and with minimal text. Here’s an example of a slide under both modes.

(C) Ravishankar Iyer

Of course, this means that, when you present a slide, you will need to prep and know your material well. But the preparation would make it significantly easier for the audience to understand.

6. Make your slide comic-book style!

Would it be fun reading a comic strip like this?

Dilbert deconstructed (C) Scott Adams

Not really? But isn’t the material all there…? I’ve just mixed them up! You say, ‘But, we need to figure out which message fits with which visual, and what is the order… That’s a pain’

I agree. But then, why do we create slides like these:

Masked and modified from real corporate slide

In such slides, you are making the audience play ‘Match the following’. The poor guys are trying to figure out which message goes with which visual.

Comic books get it right.

Dilbert reconstructed! (C) Scott Adams

We need to replicate this style on our slides. Here’s how it can look:

Case study based on actual corporate presentation (C) Ravishankar Iyer

To do this, you’ll need to ignore a lot of non-critical messages and focus only on the most important ones… and then make them flow like a story. Not easy, but rewarding for the audience.

7. Use pictures and icons: There’s an old saying in storytelling: Show, don’t tell. Our brains are wired to comprehend visual information much faster than text. So, in your presentations, when you are tempted to use words to explain something, ask yourself: Can I use a picture or icon to explain or add-value to what I am saying? Icons especially are great, since they are vector images – which means you can change their colour to keep it consistent with your overall slide’s colour palette. I will do a separate post on the use of images and icons on slides, but for now, just keep this simple principle in mind: Show, don’t tell. Here’s a sample slide. 

Fictional case study (C) Ravishankar Iyer

C.  Delivery guidelines

8. Prepare a script for each slide: When presenting a slide, we normally tend to say the first thoughts that come to our mind when we look at it. It’s almost as if we are grappling with “oh man, now that this slide is here, let me figure out what to say”.

The moment you are unsure about what to say on a particular slide and hesitate (or worse, try to over-talk your way through it) you risk losing the audience’s attention. The best remedy: prepare a script for every slide. For the script you’ll need to consider 3 things:

  • What to say
  • What not to say
  • In what order to say

9. Ensure smooth transitions between slides: A presentation is a conversation that has breaks in between – the gap between two slides. In this gap, if the flow isn’t strong, you risk losing the audience. Observe the 3 slides shown below. Does it seem like it has a clear flow?

From study by ‘Think with Google’ titled “The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision

It doesn’t right? Which is why you need to ‘prepare’ the audience for the upcoming slide. This is best done by ‘planting’ a question in their head, as to what the next slide will be covering. For e.g. here’s how I would transition between these three slides:

Adapted from study by ‘Think with Google’ titled “The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision

This simple act – of asking a question before moving on to the next slide – leverages the audience’s innate curiosity and prepares them to absorb the information on the next slide.

10. Know when to keep the slides off: A presentation is just a visual aid – the real objective is to have a meaningful discussion that leads to better decisions. If you find the audience engrossed in discussion with you or each other, feel free to switch off the presentation screen. There’s a simple hack to do that – when in full-screen mode on any presentation, just press the ‘B’ key. Go ahead, try it. The screen turns black. Want to bring the slide back? Just press B again – it is a toggle key. In my training sessions, I’m pleasantly surprised by how many folks don’t know about this (and they invariably find it very useful)!

Another cool under-used trick is the ‘Hide Slide’ feature (right click on the slide and select ‘Hide slide’). These hidden slides won’t appear during the slide show. It’s useful when you want to ignore some slides while presenting (without deleting them or pushing them to backup).


There you have it – 10 simple but powerful tips to super-charge your next set of presentations! 

Give it a ride and let me know how it goes. Happy to provide inputs if you need them.


Featured image credit: Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

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

Is there one Story framework to Rule them All?

You have a big presentation coming up – pitching your product to a prospect, sharing a project success story, or just convincing your boss to approve a new training program.

You have your standard credentials deck/project presentation, but have the feeling that it is more snooze-inducing than approval-winning. The slides are filled with information, the flow doesn’t seem right and there’s too much “me” and too little “client/you”.

In today’s attention-deficit times, that approach cannot work. You can’t just inform – you have to engage.

Is there a way to persuasively structure your story such that:

  • You position the client front and centre of the narrative
  • The story ‘flows’ seamlessly, and
  • The presentation retains the audience’s interest throughout

Inspiration from the movies

To answer this question, let’s take inspiration from another industry: movies. Surely we aren’t the first guys grappling with the issue of crafting a compelling story. Can we learn from good movies on how they do it? To put it in other words, is there a story formula/framework that is used by almost all successful movies?

Turns out, there is.

By applying this framework, your business presentations would become much more impactful, engaging and … what’s more – faster to create! A participant at a recent workshop told me “I wish I’d known this framework a few months back when I started work on my key presentation. I would’ve saved so much time”.

At this point you may be like: “Cut it out, just spill the beans”. I will, but not before asking you a simple question: Who or what is the Hero of your business story?

Who’s the Hero?

You are making a product presentation to a prospective client. Who or what is the hero of the deck? Is it:

  • Your diagnosis of the problem your product solves
  • The proposed solution (product)
  • The client outcomes
  • The underlying technology


The answer: None of the above.

A typical mistake we make in our presentations is to showcase ourselves as the hero, coming to the client’s rescue. This means the deck focuses on our history, our team, our experience, our reach, our outcomes – you get the drift.

But the client isn’t interested in our story – she wants to solve her issue.

We need to reframe our story by keeping the client at its front and centre – by positioning the client as the hero.

The Hero’s Journey

This brings us to a reputed, decades-old story framework: The Hero’s Journey1, by Joseph Campbell, an American Professor of Literature who wrote about story structures.

When I heard about it, I looked it up and came across this:

Hm, quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Not the easiest to understand.

So I decided to simplify it and adapt it for a business context: presenting the 7Cs Story Framework.

The 7Cs Story Framework – In Movies

The 7Cs are: (Client) Context, Change, Conflict, Challenges and Counters, Conclusion and Call to Action

Does that seem like a theoretical construct that might be present in an obscure presentation slide? Well let’s take some of India’s most successful movies  – Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, PK (and later Dangal) – and apply the model on them:

Isn’t it fascinating – these three blockbusters, which seem so different on the surface, all have a similar underlying structure? It’s like people having vastly different body types, facial features, hair… but a similar skeletal structure.

In fact, to explore this framework further, I’d like to dive deeper into India’s highest grossing movie: Dangal. They have shown a fascinating use of this construct:

The Goal: Engaging your Attention

Why do such diverse blockbusters2 follow a similar (not-so-secret) formula? The reason is simple: they want to hold your attention (in today’s attention-deficit-age). To do that, they use two devices:

  1. The Conflict: This is the binding thread that holds the entire movie together. In Bahubali it is: Will the son be able to reclaim his kingdom or not? In Bajrangi Bhaijaan it is: Will Bajrangi be able to get the girl back to her parents or not? And in PK it is: Will PK recover his device and get back to his home planet or not? The conflict ensures that you are interested enough to watch the entire movie. However just one question cannot hold our attention for so many hours. Which is where the script-writers introduce the other device: challenges.
  2. The Challenges (and Counters): In trying to solve the conflict, the Hero would face many challenges (e.g. Bajrangi getting arrested, PK unable to speak the local language, the father-daughter tiff in Dangal). Each challenge is a question to the audience – how will the hero solve this puzzle? Each ‘Counter’ is the answer. And after all the counters, (usually) comes the happy ending – the Conclusion or resolution for the main Conflict.

The 7Cs Story Framework – applied for business

Now while it’s all fun and interesting to see this construct in movies, you may be thinking – heck, how  can I use this at work?

For a business story, here’s how the 7Cs Story Framework looks:

Let’s explain each ‘C’ in brief using a small case example: Samira, a senior sales leader at Abacus Tech, a healthcare IT company, was presenting to CHS, a US healthcare client which was considering setting up an advanced Business Intelligence (BI) system to manage its burgeoning data requirements. CHS’s President however, was a patient-and-employee-focused medico who was sceptical about technology and the need for a fancy new system.

Here’s how Samira can pitch to CHS:

  1. Context: This is the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario that the client (hero) was living in, before the change or disruption hit them. In a classic story, this is the “Once upon a time, there was a _________ and everyday he would _______” line. E.g. CHS is a leading healthcare system known for its focus on a superior patient experience. It leads the industry in patient and physician satisfaction metrics; however lags in technology adoption. (what is unsaid here is that: so far this tech-laggardness was ok and did not impact CHS adversely)
  2. Change: The change is an event which impacts the client. Changes could be sudden and dramatic (e.g. demonetisation); or an event which is known to be launched on a particular date (e.g. GST rollout). But most typically it’s an industry trend/process that plays out over a longer time period (it could be a few years, such as spread of smartphones, or a longer time period, e.g. the use of digital payments). Technology usually underlies almost all change. Most people are aware of such changes, but they tend to ignore/underestimate its impact. In case of CHS, the key industry trends impacting them are: healthcare data-explosion; higher patient expectations of customised care and the rising regulatory reporting requirements. Change is what makes the ‘business-as-usual’ approach redundant, risky or costly.
  3. Conflict: This is the central question which the hero needs to solve to address the impact of the change. A key sub-question that needs to be answered for the ‘conflict’ is the cost of inaction. What are the stakes? What would happen if status quo was maintained? Why should the client bother doing anything at all? Answers to these questions broadly come under two categories: fear and greed. Fear talks about what the client can lose out on (existing market share, relevance, regulatory costs), while greed explores what they stand to gain (new markets, leadership in a virgin space, cost savings). In case of CHS, the President’s heart beats for patients and employees. So the Conflict can be worded as: How can CHS deliver better patient care and employee experience (and derive other key benefits) by putting in place a state-of-the-art Business Intelligence system? 
  4. Conclusion: Before describing the challenges and counters, it is useful to paint a picture of the ‘happy ending’ for the client. If the Conflict shows the cost of inaction (by painting a doomsday-ish scenario), the Conclusion draws the client towards itself and makes them want to undertake the journey. You need to show them the Promised Land. Make it as vivid as possible – tell it from the point of view of individual actors in the system, rather than at an overall level. A great example is this video for a bicycle store in the UK.  In the CHS example, the Conclusion can be painted in terms of a pre-and-post scenario of much better experience of individual patients and hospital employees because of better predictive analytics, easier data retrieval and faster processes. Of course you need to also back this up with hard numbers – cost saving, potential new business, etc.
  5. Challenges: Once you’ve ‘sold’ the promised land, this section brings the client back to practical reality. Clearly the journey is not going to be easy. There would be multiple challenges: technical, financial, regulatory, people-related… The client needs to be aware of these, so that they know that they just can’t undertake the journey with any partner (or on their own). To successfully address the challenges, they need to identify the right partner for the journey. Which is where you come in (notice how late your entry into the story is). Here’s where we segue into the next section – your strengths in the form of special skill sets that enable the client counter the challenges. In the CHS case, the challenges could be: Presence of a complex legacy system; the need for a faster-than-normal rollout, given the upcoming centenary celebration; and a need for a multi-skilled workforce.
  6. Counters: In this section, you’ll state the counters planned for the identified challenges. You should also mention here, why you are best placed to support the client in this journey. Case studies of previous projects (your strongest suit), impact delivered, awards received, client testimonials – all of these need to make an appearance here, against the right challenge/counter. In the CHS case, your counters could be: Abacus has rich experience in handling similar complex legacy systems, as also projects with tight deadlines (give case studies for both) and it has one of the widest-array of skills in the industry, given specialisation in healthcare technology.
  7. Call to Action: Finally after explaining everything, there’s one place where the pitch can falter: at the last step when it lands in the zone of “we’ll think about it and get back to you, when we do it”. Many problems get solved only when they become really urgent. In your case, this is the section to answer the question: Why now? What is the cost of immediate inaction/delay? What if the client postpones it by six months? If your project genuinely has such a cost, then point it out. In the CHS example, Samira could end by saying: CHS has been a leader in patient care for almost a hundred years. For the upcoming centenary celebrations, it would be befitting to have a patient and doctor inaugurate the new BI system that would vastly improve their lives. If we decide to go ahead in the next couple of weeks, Abacus can ensure that the project is ready for launch in time.

So there you have it. For your next sales deck/project success story, position your client as the hero and show how they can undertake the journey through the 7Cs with your support to navigate the rough waters.

Feel free to reach out to me for help on your story structures. Happy storytelling!


Featured image credit: Pixabay

Hero’s Journey: From Wikimedia by User: Slashme

All movie posters/images courtesy individual movies

Sanjay is the L&D Head at a leading data analytics firm. Business leaders at his company have a typical concern: their employees are great at working on various technical/analytics tools; but they struggle when it comes to telling the story of the insights (and the takeaways) that emerge from the analysis. Their slides end up being complex data-dumps and the audience struggles to understand what the presenter is trying to say.

Sanjay believes that this problem is addressable: data storytelling is a trainable skill and he is keen to organise a workshop on the same. But he has one concern: how to evaluate and measure the impact of such a program?

Before evaluating the impact of a storytelling training program, it is useful to figure out the objective of data-storytelling itself.

The Objective of Effective Storytelling with Data

Storytelling with data is the art of using insights and takeaways from data to persuade the audience of your point of view. When can you say that it was effective? Is it when the audience is ‘happy’ at the end of the presentation? Is it when they give you a ‘pat on the back’ for your work? No.

The gold standard of a successful data-story is when the audience takes a crucial step: acts on the recommendation/s at the end of your story.

What will make the audience act on the recommendations? They will, if they believe that they would benefit from implementing the same.

Why would the audience believe that? Only if they thoroughly understand the problem, your analysis and the proposed solution.

So an effective data-story must get your audience to:

  • Understand: your facts, findings and analyses
  • Believe: that your approach is right and they will benefit from your recommendations
  • Act: on your recommendations

Conversely, if you dump data-heavy slides at your audience, then (even if you have done the right analysis and have the right recommendation), they may not act on it – because they didn’t clearly understand it in the first place.

So, now that we know what is the objective of data-storytelling, let’s look at the next question: how do you measure your employees’ improvement on this skill, post the training intervention?

Two challenges that affect measuring training impact

Evaluating training programs has always been tricky, given two challenges.

  • The Isolation of Factors Issue: All training programs aim to make employees more productive; however there are so many factors that drive an employee’s performance, that it becomes difficult to isolate the impact of training.
  • The Reinforcement challenge: Training is usually a one-time (sometimes with multiple touch-points) event; however, for entrenched habits to change, the employee needs to be driven by the right mix of incentives, guidance and reinforcement from seniors. Sometimes that may not happen

Despite these challenges, it is possible to evaluate the impact of data-storytelling training. And that’s because the outcome of the training is simple and clear – to enable employees tell more effective stories with data.

Measuring impact of training in storytelling

Employees in ‘knowledge jobs’ are persuading with data all the time – while writing emails, over informal conversations, during phone conversations… But there’s one category of work-events that has a disproportionate impact on productivity: high-stakes presentation situations.

Some examples of such events are: a project deliverable report, a quarterly Board review, or a key investor pitch presentation. In each of these events, the presenter has a clear objective – which can be articulated in the form of what he or she wants the audience to understand, believe and act on. Let’s take the following example project:

To evaluate the impact of storytelling training, one needs to measure and track how employees are improving in achieving objectives such as the above. Here’s how you can do the same:

At the end of every high-stakes meeting, take a dipstick measurement from the audience members for how well it achieved the three goals – of understanding, belief and action.

1. Understanding: This can be measured by asking a simple question to the audience at the end of the presentation (or maybe the next day): On a scale of 1-10, how clear was the presentation in conveying the findings, insights and recommendations? And if you would like to measure performance in more detail, it could include the following sub-questions (along with the answers on a scale of 1-10):

  • Was the presentation comprehensive?
  • Was it in the right flow?
  • Was it visually simple and clear?
  • Was it delivered impactfully?

2. Belief: On a scale of 1-10, how much do you believe that the recommendations would help you achieve your objectives?

3. Action: This would be measured on actual action taken on the recommendations. Since there could be multiple suggestions and some may have been partly acted upon, the presenter could ask this question (say, after a couple of months) to the audience: On a scale of 1-10, what score would you give to the actions taken on the recommendations and the resultant impact?

Of course these scorecards could be made more detailed and nuanced, but it might be better to keep them simple and easy to implement. The idea would be to see how the scores are moving, for the same person or team, over time – so the business/L&D leader should maintain individual scorecards for each individual/team which delivers high-stakes presentations. Ideally there would be a general upward trend over time, till it stabilises at a desired high score.

Sanjay may not know how effective the proposed storytelling intervention would turn out to be; but at least now he has a tool to measure it.


Featured Image credit: Photo by Dan Lohmar on Unsplash

It’s the big day. Wearing your best formals, you reach the venue 20 minutes before time. You make small talk with the interview co-ordinator, take a few deep breaths, and when it’s your turn, stride purposefully into the meeting room. A firm handshake, initial pleasantries – you’re all set to rock the stage.

And then trouble starts. First up is that infuriatingly innocuous question, “Tell me about yourself”, followed by “Can you walk us through Project A” and then the dreaded, “Can you give us an example of a situation when you showed leadership”…

For most of these questions, you start off well, but inevitably find yourself in the “Rambling Zone” (RZ). The RZ is that chakravyuha that you can enter – but are unable to exit, finding yourself stuck in the maze.

Surely, there’s got to be a better way.

There is. It’s called storytelling.

Four types of questions

Let’s categorise all interview questions into 4 types:

  1. Professional achievements/Experience: Education, work experience, flagship projects.
  2. Behavioural events: Specific instances to showcase your strengths, attributes, personality traits
  3. Technical competence/problem solving: Questions about your subject matter, domain or typical problem-solving questions (e.g. estimate how many petrol pumps in Mumbai)
  4. Personal questions: Straightforward questions such as place of origin, your interests, extra-curricular achievements etc.

While categories 3 and 4 may also need some storytelling intervention, for this post, we will focus on 1 and 2 above – specifically on three frequently asked questions:

  • Tell us about yourself/give an overview of your professional career
  • Take us through a specific project/major work related achievement
  • Narrate an instance when you demonstrated Trait A

Let’s dive into each one and see how you can improve your responses with better storytelling.

1. Professional overview/’Tell me about yourself’

This innocuous question presents the biggest risk of falling into the Rambling Zone – especially if you answer chronologically. There’s the dreaded possibility of the interviewer getting into a most random alleyway of your career (for e.g. that inconsequential internship you did at a media company, when you were 19) and spending 5 precious minutes asking inane questions about it. Why give such an opportunity? You need to control and steer the discussion towards your strengths.

Ah, your strengths. Let’s dive into that a bit. Take a piece of paper and write down the following:

  • The most critical abilities, skills and traits (let’s call them competencies) that the role requires
  • Your competencies
  • (If possible) Competencies of other candidates for the role

Once you have the lists, categorise them as below:

The objective of your answer to the introductory question (or even other questions for that matter) should be to nudge it in the direction of Zone S above – your unique strengths. Lets take an example. Say Swara is interviewing for the post of an L&D Head at Abacus Tech. Here’s how her three lists look like:

Clearly Swara needs to highlight her excellent planning skills apart from the other competencies the role needs. Of course this has to be done subtly, especially as an answer to the “Tell me about yourself” question. For instance, it could go like this:

“I’ve grown up mainly in Nagpur and Pune and graduated from Symbiosis in 2010. I joined ABC Analytics from campus and it’s been a great 7 years so far. I really enjoy the process of connecting with business, understanding their learning needs and putting together impactful programs. One flagship program which I anchored was the annual Analytics University – in which all the 200 employees gathered at a common venue. It was like Woodstock for learning! The logistics were crazy, but I really enjoyed it”

With that opening, guess what’s likely to be the follow-up question: “Hm, tell us more about this Analytics University”. Aaaaannd, snap.

Note that it must be a competency that is essential for the role. You may be a great ‘creative thinker’ but that may not be critical for a ‘Quality assessment’ or ‘Accounting’ type of role. So choose wisely.

2. Big project/major work related achievement

When it comes to speaking about your ‘greatest hits’ you may assume that you don’t need any preparation. You’ve worked on these projects for several months – surely you can speak extempore for a few minutes on it? You can, but guess where it’s likely to head – the RZ.

Your major achievements deserve their story to be told well. Prepare and script the same, by following this structure – I call it the 5Cs:

  • Context: A quick context of the key stakeholders (clients, your company, key people) involved
  • Conflict:  What was the problem or conflict faced and more importantly what were the stakes? Read this post on how the principle of showcasing the conflict was used to perfection by Bollywood’s biggest hit.
  • Challenges and Counters: The initial plan, the challenges faced during execution and your response. It might be useful here to give a specific example of a challenge faced.
  • Conclusion: The outcome and the key lessons learnt
  • Condense: Finally, craft a one-line summary for the narrative, which could be your story’s starting point.

Using this structure, let’s get back to Swara and see how she could answer this question:

“Well, my most difficult project was the Analytics University organsised in 2017; given the project’s sheer size and complexity, I had to rely on meticulous planning to ensure its success.

After a successful first edition in 2016, ABC Analytics wanted to organise a bigger Analytics University in 2017. Everyone – from the junior-most analyst to the CEO, 202 folks in all – were to participate. A venue was chosen at a popular resort in Goa, and the CEO sent the invite email two months in advance. Expectations were sky-high and all eyes were upon us – the L&D team – to deliver now.

As you might expect for an event of this magnitude, we faced many challenges. The three main ones were: defining the right agenda, managing logistics and ensuring sustainability.

  • For the agenda, our main concern was to ensure full ownership by business. So we formed four teams with representation from different business groups (with one L&D person to anchor each team) four months in advance. While four months seems a lot, we were wary that if we tried to match team members schedules for each interaction, it could result in a lot of email ping-pong and little progress. So the L&D reps did two things: whenever the team met, we would gently but firmly push for closure on key decisions. In addition, we did a lot of one-on-one calls with the members to get buy-in.
  • For logistics, the key issue was Murphy’s law! Missed flights or malfunctioning projectors could have derailed a key session. Here our approach was to build redundancy or have Plan Bs where possible. For example, during one key external speaker’s session, with all 200 employees in attendance in the ball room, the hotel’s projector conked off. Thankfully we had a portable projector from office, which saved the day. The look on the CEO’s face – when he saw the presentation back on the screen – was priceless!
  • For post-event sustainability of learnings, we had chosen anchors in key business and functional groups. They would organise internal meet-ups once a month for the next 3 months to share experiences of implementation of the sessions’ learnings. The CEO would be present in these meet-ups.

Overall, with the right planning and support from business, the event was a resounding success. I still remember the thunderous applause when the Chairman presented our team a special memento for our work.”

3. Behavioural event questions

The behavioural event questions are subsets of the ‘Big Project’ question. It is typically worded as “Can you tell us an instance when you demonstrated Competency X”. This type of question is a favourite with many interviewers who want to see evidence of specific competencies.

Typically our approach to such questions is to think on our feet or request for some time to dredge our memories. Don’t do that. It is difficult to remember the right story in the heat of the interview; and even if you do, it is difficult to impactfully articulate it and avoid the RZ. Instead do the following:

  • Start preparing a bank of stories.  Note down remarkable work events (that demonstrate desired competencies) as and when they happen; or as and when you remember some from the past. I recommend Evernote to jot down these stories  – the stories remain in one place, you can tag them by the specific competencies, and you can organise your stories using the nifty ‘Notebooks’ feature.
  • While noting down, edit the stories for impact – with a balance of brevity and detail. The brevity needs to come in the context setting and the detail should come in the challenge and how you responded. You can use a shorter version of the 5Cs structure described above. Especially focus on any aspect which was surprising or norm-breaking.
  • Before a big interview, go through your ‘Story Bank’ and rehearse the relevant ones. You might surprise your interviewer with how well you recollect an incident that happened years ago. (if they ask, go ahead and share your modus operandi – it’ll only increase your stature for being prepared and organised)

Other tips

Some additional questions you may have:

  • What if I’m just starting out and don’t have any unique strengths?

You haven’t thought hard enough! If you are a fresher and fret about lack of experience, remember, others are in the same boat. Maybe you don’t have standout grades, but look deeper. Perhaps the job requires someone with initiative, and you demonstrated tons of that when you did a fund-raising internship for an NGO. Go beyond your standard academic achievements and talk about times when you shined in life – which showed any traits that your employer may value.

Also, it is useful to be self-aware. Take a personality test to know yourself better. We used to take the MBTI, but Adam Grant frowned upon it, so the recommended ones are the Big Five or the HEXACO.

  • What if the discussion veers to Zone W – the weakness area?

If Murphy is active on your interview day, you will get that question on your area of weakness. Fret not, you can still save the day by putting the factor in perspective, juxtaposing your strength and citing an instance from the past when you overcame that (or another) weakness.

For instance, in our example if Swara is asked about her lack of experience in Healthcare IT, she could say, “I understand that, but I think given my experience in a related but different domain, I can bring a fresh perspective to solving your learning needs. Also you’ll find my other strengths would make up for any teething issues due to my lack of domain experience. Finally, I have shown to be a quick learner. In my previous job too, I understood the industry dynamics in quick time.”

Summing up

An interview tests two things:

  • Your competencies for the role
  • How well you can communicate them

So, for your next interview, let your inner storyteller rise to the occasion. Think through the most likely questions, script answers for them and then practise.  Best of luck!


Featured image credit: Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

For many startups, soon after the initial launch euphoria, comes the first trough. A series of daunting, crazy challenges, when the founders end up wondering: Is this what I really signed up for?

Akansh Khurana

Akansh Khurana, the thoughtful, articulate CEO of THB (India’s largest clinical data intelligence platform), reached that juncture fairly early – within just 8 months. But Akansh and his team persevered, pivoted and within 2 years had gotten investor validation of their achievement: a $2.1M fund raise in February 2018. How did they do it? I decided to find out.

Over a long phone conversation with Akansh, I discerned five key storytelling lessons from their fund-raising experience. I categorise two of those under the ‘Find your story’ heading, and three under ‘Tell your story’.

I. Find your story

1. Know your purpose and DNA

Akansh, along with two friends – Rajesh Pachar (a tech geek) and Rohit Kumar (a data nerd) – founded THB in September 2015 driven by a personal need: to give patients the benefit of their own clinical data. You see, Akansh is a Type-1 Diabetic, and has been giving blood samples since he was young. Trouble is, he hasn’t gotten something that should naturally belong to him: access to his own clinical data. Applying the right analytics to such data, he can derive insights to improve his health. So can we all.

Think about it – you have detailed access to your financial data. But something far more personal (and far more critical) – your clinical data – remains in the black box of the healthcare system, out of your access.

Akansh wants to change that. At first (as a consultant with Bain and Co.) he thought he would advise healthcare providers on how to leverage clinical data for their patients’ benefit; but then he realised that it would be more impactful to do it himself. And that’s how THB was born.

Initially THB started off as a platform through which consumers could book their lab tests. So they tied up with a few lab providers in NCR and started on that most arduous task for a new business: customer acquisition.

To start with they acted only as a conduit between the patient and the lab, but soon they started having their own staff and equipment to collect samples. While the initial outcomes were promising, the THB team confronted many challenges: issues relating to operations, manpower, customer complaints etc. Things were not easy.

And that’s when Akansh came up with a critical insight. Over a conversation with a mentor, he realised that he personally, and THB by extension, did not have the DNA of a B2C company.

To give some context, a startup broadly has two choices (although midway variants exist): to be a B2C or a B2B business. A B2C company has greater long-term valuation potential, but it takes much longer to build and is also challenging from a day-to-day operations point of view.

The key insight for Akansh: their purpose was to enable patients to benefit from their health data. To achieve that they needn’t become a healthcare provider themselves; they could work with other healthcare providers and enable them to offer this benefit to their patients. And so THB pivoted, wound up its direct-to-consumer operations and started focusing on building partnerships with leading healthcare providers. After a ton of path-breaking work on their tech platform, they found admirable success with this approach, which strengthened their investment case.

So that’s the first lesson for upcoming startups:

  • Know your Purpose, keeping it as a north star, especially during critical business junctures; and
  • Know your DNA – whether it fits the key skills required by your business model.

2. Know your market globally

Self-awareness, as described above, is critical – whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee. However for an entrepreneur, market-awareness becomes equally important. In THB’s case they did three things which were impactful:

  • Focus on the potential: When talking to investors Akansh focused on what the market could become rather than what it was. To explain that he gave the analogy of e-commerce in India in 2007. The market then was peanuts, but it was going to explode. By analogy, a similar case could be made for the market for clinical intelligence.
  • Learn from global benchmarks: He backed it up with a ton of research, at a global level. (B2C may not be in Akansh’s DNA, but high-quality research, analysis and presentation is a massively strong suit!). He says, “I must have spoken to at least 10-15 people outside India (working in clinical data intelligence) on what were the various pieces they were working on…. The idea was to learn from better and smarter business models. Of course India’s healthcare market dynamics are very different. You can never copy models, but you can take inspiration from specific practices.”
  • Solve it for yourself: Also, their reason for gaining global market awareness was not to fill a couple of slides in their investor deck. It was for their own understanding. Here’s Akansh: “Frankly I never wanted to solve this for the investor. I did this (research) to understand what’s happening out there. Sometimes in building a good business, you end up focusing in a very small niche. (It’s important to ask yourselves) Are we focusing in the right direction, and is it large enough? Solve it for yourself, be honest with investors and the right investor would understand.

II. Tell your story

3. Perseverance

The last line in the previous point was important – the right investor would understand. With his work experience in Bain and his alumni network, Akansh had access to a lot of investors; so getting a meeting was not a problem. But the meetings still had to be fixed up. So he persevered. Just for the recent fund raising round, THB met as many as 50 investors. Of these only 3-4 said an outright ‘no’. Most of the others wouldn’t commit either way, keeping the founders hanging.

Well that’s the nature of the game – no use complaining. Just because Investor #48 refused, does not mean you give up on your venture. Keep meeting more folks. (Caveat: If most of them point blank refuse, then you may want to reconsider!)

4. Look Ma, no slides!

When I asked Akansh tips on what kind of slides he presented during an investor meeting, his answer was surprising: I don’t use any slides during the meeting. Do note: This is an ex-Bain consultant, trained to think in PowerPoint slides!

He elaborated, “Storytelling best happens face to face. Slides can become boring. Of course I did send a teaser deck before-hand if needed and a detailed presentation after the meeting.” But during the meeting it would strictly be a no-slides conversation.

Of course in some cases, you may have evocative visuals that form a key part of your pitch (e.g. a customer connect program you ran which saw 500 attendees in a small auditorium; or a video demonstration of how your product works in the customer setting). You could have simple slides with just these visuals. But all your talking points should be from you and not written on the slide.

5. Tell four categories of stories

Finally if we are doing face-to-face storytelling, what kind of stories work well? Akansh had a superbly insightful answer on this one. (As an aside, for most questions, his structured mind would typically start the response with “There are 2 reasons” or “There are 3 ways to look at it… no wait make that 4”).

No wonder, he mentions four types of stories that every startup must articulate:

  • The Origin story: The backstory of the founders, why was the company started, what is its purpose.
  • The First Win story: How did the startup get its first (paying) customer?
  • The Conflict story: Most startups would’ve overcome at least one major challenge. Unfortunately when telling the story, they tend to underplay the difficulty they went through and the ingenuity of the solution. As we had discussed in this earlier post of the storytelling lessons from Dangal, it is important to evocatively tell your ‘struggle-and-victory’ stories.
  • The Future story: Finally it is important to paint a vision of where the future could take you and the investor. It needn’t be speculation though. You can talk about successful pilots and promising experiments.

Quick note: While it is important to tell these stories, you need to craft them well so that they are brief and impactful. No investor would tolerate a droning founder!

Summing up

Ultimately all good storytelling can be broken into two steps: find the story and tell the story. Akansh is a great example of someone who’s successfully demonstrated both skills.

Here are the key lessons from THB’s fund raise:

I. Find your story

1. Know your purpose and DNA

2. Know your (global) market

II. Tell your Story

3. Persevere: keep meeting investors till you meet the right one

4. During investor meetings avoid slides (or keep them light and visual)

5. Practise and tell the four types of stories that define your startup: The Origin story, The First-win story, the Conflict story and the Future story

Hope you found this post useful. If you have any stories or tips to share of your own, please share in the comments section.


Featured image credit: THB