It was the final day of a conference featuring student start-ups, and just after 2pm, the keynote speaker rose to address a restive audience. The average age of the audience, despite my presence, was just under 21. Nearly half of them had rushed from another working session and had to skip lunch. The rest had probably partaken heavily of the fine fare served for lunch. The grand finale, the declaration of winners and prize-giving were all that remained in the conference. Not exactly the ideal set-up for a speaker to hold his audience. Not surprisingly a rather loud buzz, as though several hornets’ nests had been poked with one or more sticks, filled the hall and made it hard, for even those of us sitting in the front rows, to make out what the speaker was saying.

It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It: Robert Fulghum, Ivy Books

Growing up, one of the most intriguing things for me was to hear my father tell me a story from the Ramayana. My father was not given to telling stories often, mostly because he travelled a lot. And between one great grandmother, a grandfather on my mom’s side and a grandmother on my dad’s, there were plenty of folks to regale us young ’uns with a variety of tales.

What made my father’s tales of the Ramayana special was that he rarely got beyond the first few lines, before his eyes would water, his throat would choke and the storytelling would stop. I recall being flummoxed at his reaction. Many of the tales—the departure of Rama on exile was a favourite one—were ones we’d heard from the grandparents and we knew that the story had a happy ending. So why would a tale, the ending of which we knew, choke him up before he even began was a great mystery. One that I did not understand or appreciate while a kid.

A little after I turned 40 and began telling stories to my own two young daughters or even reading poetry (O Captain! My Captain! or Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead)—I was no better—all choked up and teary even on line one. No wonder these stories and poems have had a long run.

Storytelling is back in vogue in business literature. Yet, as with stand-up comedy or spoken poetry, not everyone can do it well. Anyone who’s tried to imitate the TV comic Seinfeld or cartoonist Scott Adams knows how hard it is. Can our businesses and lives create such compelling stories?

Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, demonstrates once again in his follow-on book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It that in each of our lives and businesses lie powerful stories and life lessons. His light touch and humour makes it seem easy for each of us to tell such stories. The soft and subtle may after all inherit the earth!

K. Srikrishna is the executive director of the National Entrepreneurship Network. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers face and books that could help.

Close