Three Insights from India

BANGALORE, INDIA -- The moment I realized how far from home I truly was happened when the woman beside me got trapped in her airplane seat.

I was flying from Hyderabad to Bangalore, as part of a 12-day business trip to India, and the plane was packed with Indian folks. This was a domestic flight, a local affair. Unlike international travel, where Westerners are made to feel that the world revolves around them, the announcements and signs here all came in Hindi first. The meals were full of aloo gobi and butter paneer; no bland foreign options. (Yes, they served meals to everyone. And, yes, they were excellent.) Uniformly, the people were handsome, kind, and smaller than Americans.  

My seatmate wore a typical sari, an orange swath of silk flowing across her shoulders and down her waist. She was middle-aged and tiny, with a small red dot between her eyebrows. Her hair, jet-black despite her years, was pulled into a braid, which lay on the dark brown skin of her neck. She looked frightened as she took the middle seat beside me. She was so small and quiet that I nearly forgot she was there.

Early in the flight, however, she tried to stand up. Her seat belt, which I recalled that she had fastened with the help of the gentleman beside her, pulled her back down. She gave a small wail, then held the buckle in her hands, turning it over and around, trying to pull it apart. I could feel panic rising. And then I understood: she could not work the seat belt.

All those years of listening to idiotic flight-safety announcements, it never occurred to me that a person might not ever be able to operate this most basic of mechanisms. Yet, here I was.

I reached over and lifted the buckle where the word “Lift” was inscribed (instead of “उठाएँ”), and the belt broke free. She tumbled over me and marched down the aisle. I didn’t have the heart to point out that the captain had not turned off the “fasten seat belt” sign.

It’s moments like these where I realize how lucky I am to be able to travel. The experience of immersing yourself in another culture, of not speaking the language, of feeling the vulnerability and wonder of stepping out of your element, transforms and humbles you. And let’s be clear, it’s me who’s clueless here, far more than that lovely Indian woman encountering jet travel for the first time.

Lunchtime at the Microsoft Hyderabad Building One cafe.

Lunchtime at the Microsoft Hyderabad Building One cafe.

This small epiphany was just one of dozens I’ve had since leaving Seattle earlier this month. I am here at the invitation of the Microsoft India Development Center, working with a team of program managers, UX designers, and data scientists in the Experiences and Devices organization. The trip is a kind of call-back; in February, I visited Chennai to present Storytelling for Impact to the senior leadership of the organization, and it landed so well that they asked me to come and work with their entire organization. I spent five intense days at Microsoft’s Hyderabad campus, and am now preparing for three days in Bangalore.

The presentations, workshops, and one-on-one coaching I’ve done so far have all been especially gratifying. There’s a hunger for learning in India that pervades the culture, and that’s certainly the case with the Microsoft team’s I’m working with. It has amazed me to see first-hand the quality of work being done. Likewise, I’ve gained some great new insights on storytelling, which I felt worth sharing:

1)      Storytelling is central to international business

The Microsoft teams I worked with in Hyderabad were keenly aware that their success is dependent on other people being able to grasp what they’re doing. As one program manager put it, “If nobody can understand what we’re building and why, we might as not build anything.”

One surprise I’ve discovered as Storytelling for Impact has taken root is that the most important storytelling need in many organizations is to influence not customers, but rather internal stakeholders. Many times, a team’s most important stories are the ones they tell their peers and managers. Inspiring collaboration, winning mindshare, and procuring resources all are served by storytelling’s ability to generate immediate emotional and intellectual connection.

In India, there’s an even greater urgency: to be seen prominently and credibly. A massive shift over in the past decade within Microsoft – and every other global technology player – is the creation of powerful product development organizations in places like India and China. Not long ago, these were merely sales outposts. But now these nations have cultivated huge workforces of world-class technical professionals, on par with the best that America has to offer. And they’re building major pieces of flagship products, like Office.

Their challenge is to connect and be recognized in the proper light. Even if there’s no undue prejudice, a huge gulf between cultures invariably exists. It’s hard enough to get the attention of the developer down the hall. How do you win over the one that’s twelve thousand miles away? That leads to the next insight…

Too often, people are fixated on wanting to make others understand what they’re doing…The notion that someone might never care is hard to swallow.

2)      Empathy is everything

I’ve heard a lot of amazing stories since arriving in India, but the best outcome in my book is when I’ve helped people understand the nature and power of empathy.

Too often, people are fixated on wanting to make others understand what they’re doing. They look to storytelling as a sort of magic charm that will make people fall in love with their bullet points. The notion that someone might never care is hard to swallow. And sadly, it’s usually the case.

Empathy holds the key to finding and capturing your audience’s heart. It lets you locate the hot buttons that your audience will love – the things you’re sitting on that will delight them, provoke them, or inspire them to trust you. The implication here is that storytelling is a customer service function. You do it to make them happy first. The rest will follow.

In my workshop exercises, people often realize they understand woefully little about the inner lives of their audiences. And more important, they see the importance of knowing that information. This is useful in building bonds within the local workforce. It may matter more when working across continents.

3)      Story drives culture

The great pleasure of visiting a place like India is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture that is vastly different from the one you grew up with.

This is my third trip to India, and I am once again overwhelmed by the transformation happening here. Granted, I’ve mostly seen the cities, and even then from behind the glass window of a taxi or hotel room. But there’s no way to miss the magnitude of change. Back in 2009, when I first visited, technology was in the hands of an elite few. Today, even the most ragged of tuk-tuk drivers navigates with a smartphone. The nation is literally betting its future on tech.

Yet, the ancient roots of religion and culture remain cornerstones of identity. For example, virtually everyone I’ve talked to has lit up when I mentioned my visit this past February to the Mahabalipuram temples near Chennai.

This coastal site is home to four hundred ancient monuments and Tamil religious temples, dating back to the seventh century. One of them, called “The Descent of the Ganges,” is a rock sculpture carved into two huge boulders that stand more than four stories high and one hundred feet long. Within the sculpture are more than one hundred forty figures, from gods and elephants to headless teachers and monkeys doing yoga.

Wall of stories: A section of “The Descent of the Ganges” rock sculpture near Chennai, India.

Wall of stories: A section of “The Descent of the Ganges” rock sculpture near Chennai, India.

The sculpture is a compendium of many of the culture’s most important stories. Sculpted long before the advent of publishing, it was the perfect way to record and propagate the religion, the values, and the pure dazzling brilliance of the many Indian achievements of the time.

It worked then, and it works now. My tour guide spent nearly two hours telling me stories about what we were looking at, and we barely scratched the surface. Many of the Microsoft folks I’ve mentioned it to could probably do much the same. All this wisdom, embedded in story. It’s proof that, much as we might hope that technology will deliver a grand future, there’s nothing new under the sun. There probably never will be.

All the best,

मारिओ जुआरेज