The Story Rules Podcast E07: Praveen Gopal Krishnan: Writer of India’s largest paid newsletter (Transcript)

Praveen GopalKrishnan
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E07: Praveen Gopal Krishnan: Writer of India’s largest paid newsletter (Transcript)

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Intro hook:

“What was really getting me frustrated and angry was that India was going through the largest and the greatest technological transformation in its history. And there was no one telling the story of what was going on. And that got me really angry”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Praveen Gopal Krishnan, COO at The Ken – India’s foremost subscription-based business-news publication.

The Ken is a great example of a habit-forming product for me. I became a subscriber just before the pandemic and very soon it became a habit. Every weekday morning at 7 am, I look forward to their daily newsletter, ‘Beyond the First Order’ then at 8 am is the email introducing their long-form article of the day. 

But the email I look forward to the most is one called The Nutgraf. Unlike the others, it comes on the weekend, on Saturday. And unlike the others, it lands at a not-so-early time of 10 am. And most unlike the others it is not written by a journalis, it is written by a Product guy.

But it is so, so worth the wait. Written by the Ken’s COO, Praveen Gopal Krishnan, the Nutgraf is a fresh, in-depth and fascinating analysis of a critical issue that’s been dominating headlines. 

And it has a bit of a crazy origin story, which we explore in this episode. 

In fact, when I heard Praveen’s process for writing the Nutgraf, I had one overwhelming thought: you remember the disclaimer you get at the beginning of an action reality TV series? “These stunts are done by professionals and must not be tried at home”?

Well, Praveen pulls off those kinds of stunts every week. He’s a bit of a maverick genius.

In this conversation, Praveen talks about the early influence of reading (especially re-reading) on his life, the impact of theatre, his strong belief in the three-act story structure, his love for Aaron Sorkin and most fundamentally – why is his newsletter called the Nutgraf!

Let’s dive in.

Ravi 07:27

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast Praveen.

Praveen 7:29

Okay. Thank you, Ravi. It’s really nice to be here.

Ravi 7:32

I want to start with the comment that I hear that I heard you make, in an interview at given some time back where you said that, you know, email today has become you know, this thing of, you know, people look down upon it, it’s too spammy. I keep getting random promotions. But there was a point in time when we used to actually look forward, oh, my God, I got an email. And maybe late 90s, early 2000s was when this was there and what you guys are trying to do at the Ken is to bring that feeling again, as a user, that is a feeling that I have. So, it’s fascinating that you kind of managed to do that. Because every day, I have that small itch in the morning that Oh, it’s not yet seven. Okay, now, I get ‘Beyond The First Order’ at seven. At eight, I will get the piece. My only complaint is that you have gotten me used to a seven and an eight timeline on weekdays, on weekends. I maybe when I was younger, I used to wake up much later. But now I wake up, unfortunately, you know, with age, you start getting a little earlier, then I’m like, I have to wait till 10 o’clock for the Nutgraf. I think you should consider pushing it a little early. So, I think great job that you have done on that.

Praveen 08:45

Thanks for the kind words, Ravi. I think part of the thing that makes the Ken special is this idea that we always knew that email was the best way in order to get in touch with our subscribers. And the only reason we did that is because we are deeply suspicious of any kind of intermediaries. We don’t like social media channels that have algorithms. We don’t like going and trying to do some kind of SEO which is obviously harder if you’re a paywall publication, we like email, email is intimate, email is direct. Although one could argue that there are a lot of algorithms in Gmail that decide whether the email gets to you or does not get to you. Thank you so much. I really, so that is a reason why we do email because and the reason was that we wanted a certain habit we have sent emails apologizing to subscribers when we have sent emails at 805 or 810 saying that “Oh, we’re really sorry that we got a little late” because people did write back to us and saying that I’ve been waiting where the hell do you think you are? Point noted about the Nutgraf going a little earlier. If I tell you what my schedule is like during the week, then probably it will make sense why the Nutgraf goes out at 10 it’s mostly because I’m working literally on the seat of my pants. Everything is on fire and 10 o’clock is the latest I can push it without getting into trouble.

Ravi 09:59

I’d love to get in that. But okay, so I then read up about your background. 

So, till I was reading, of course, we’ll get into the Nutgraf and I’m a huge fan of the way you tell stories. But to me, you were one of the journalists, one of the reporters who were writing stories, and then I looked up, (and I realised) okay (you work in) Product, maybe because he’s also, you know, probably doing some work on the product. And then I read that you’re actually the Product guy who happened to get into writing. So, what’s that about? You know, what is the Product guy doing writing stories?

Praveen 10:32

Yeah, this is actually a very long and convoluted story of how I got here. But here’s the short summary. The short summary is essentially this, that I’m an engineer. I mean, I did my engineering from Trichy. And I always tell people that I got my degree in engineering, I don’t say that I know engineering, because those are two very different things. So I got my degree in engineering. So one of the things that I did immediately after my engineering college was that I said, Oh, you know what, I think that I can actually write and there’s some history to this as well, because of how I was in school, etc. We’ll come to that later. But I just whenever I found myself in Chennai, I found myself with a lot of free time. And then I ended up freelancing and working for the Economic Times. And I didn’t do any of the fancy financial stuff I just wrote. They had a supplement back then I don’t know if it’s still there. It’s called ET Madras plus, which is fairly tame because all they did was, they just like you to go and attend some events, do some interviews, I interviewed people like Nagesh Kukunoor, I interviewed Mr. Prahlad Kakkar, it was wonderful.

Ravi 11:38

Hang on before we you know, go ahead on that you have completed your engineering, and this is in the time between you join your first job.

Praveen 11:44

This is actually the time when I was doing my first job.

Ravi 11:49

How are you able to find the time to do this on the side,

Praveen 11:51

Because I graduated at a wonderful glorious time in 2005, when there was a huge surge of service companies, and I’m not going to name the company that I worked at, but let’s just say it sounds like Flap-Decent, okay. Just like scaled up pretty crazily at the time. And they hired me in like one of those mass recruitment drives. And I had nothing to do when I joined. It turns out that I was, as they say, on the bench, and I had a lot of free time. And what actually happened was I was actually waiting at a bus stop and back then, and your listeners can’t see me but I had like much longer hair and I had this Iron Maiden black T-shirt. And this girl comes up to me. And she says that, Oh, do you play for a rock band? Because we’re looking for a bassist And I said, No, I don’t do any of that. And then she started talking. And then she said, I asked, What do you do? And she says, I’ve worked for the Economic Times. I’m a reporter. I said, Okay, that I can do. She said, Are you sure? I said, Yeah, she’s

Ravi 12:45

That’s how you got into the Economic Times; a chance encounter on a bus stop (with) a stranger.

Praveen 12:50

It was just serendipity, nothing else. But the interesting thing was once I started off there, I obviously did all of these little events. I did these few interviews. But at that time, there was this huge controversy. You probably remember this. Maybe some of your listeners don’t. There was a huge controversy about this Management Institute. It’s called IIPM. Yeah, yeah. Which is started by Mr. Arindam Chaudhuri. And at that time, there was a lot of controversy about this in the blogosphere. So that was what there was a word that we don’t use: the blogosphere. So, a lot of people were talking about it, and they were raising some questions about it. And what happened was, none of the mainstream newspapers were reporting about it. Now one theory that why the mainstream reporters were not reporting about it was because if you remember at that time, IIPM used to be one of the largest advertisers for many newspapers.

Ravi 13:36

Huge full-page ads

Praveen 13:36

Huge full-page ads, So, I’m not saying that’s the reason why they didn’t report it. But let’s just say that. It’s a happy coincidence.

Ravi 13:44

Circumstantial evidence.

Praveen 13:46

Yeah. So at that time, so what I said was, I said, Oh, I think we should write about this and my editor was quite nice. And she said, Yeah, sure. And so it came in the front page of the Madras Plus, which usually just covers like wine tasting events and stuff like that. With my byline under it, and things got quite ugly. I got sued for defamation,

Ravi 14:04

So you’d actually gone and done some research at the IIPM in Chennai, and you’ve questioned, people and what was your

Praveen 14:11

Yeah, I don’t remember the details. All I did was actually quite honestly, I just reported what was happening online. I just said, Look, this is happening online. There is some controversy here.

Ravi 14:19

That’s it?

Praveen 14:20

It wasn’t anything investigative. It was more than a 400-word story, quite honestly. It was just something that just came up there. And I may have called them to ask them for the comments or something. And I don’t think they gave me any. But yeah, but things got quite ugly after that. And I think I got, I mean, I got sued, or I got threatened to be sued. And my editor handled the whole thing. I think the newspaper published some kind of a clarification/ retraction. But from my standpoint, what happened was two things happened. One, the newspaper made sure that after that they sent me to like really, really tame stuff. Send me to like, go to this college and cover this event over there. Don’t write anything controversial. But from my standpoint, I was quite disillusioned with the whole thing. And I just walked away from the whole thing and said, “Look, this is not really my forte”. It was fun while it lasted. And then I came to Bangalore. And then I continued into tech. And then I went to B school. And then I graduated from B school and I got into Product (management). And because at that time, product management was very new back then. The joke that I always say is that in 2011, the time when I graduated, you could take all the Product Managers in India and put them in one WhatsApp group. It’s literally like unicorns in a jungle when you were like Product Manager in 2011, I would meet people who would say, oh, you’re a Product Manager, I know, a friend of a friend or something. I’m like “who’s he, can please talk to him?”. So it was that and I was, and it was fun. It was great. And I did that for several years. But quite honestly, the thing never went away. I always genuinely wanted to be a part of a media company that was profitable, that did well, because I also felt that India deserved it. Part of my anger and frustration also emerged from the fact that the period from 2011 onwards, I would see what media, how media would report about tech companies and (it) was always about funding or it was about layoffs, or it just didn’t make any sense whatsoever to me. Can I tell you about the standard format template for a tech story by a newspaper since we are talking about storytelling. So, here’s the standard template, the headline is always something new is happening. This template does not change by the way. It happens in 2011, when say people are selling books online. (And) it’s even happening 2021 when schoolchildren are buying crypto. It doesn’t matter what it is, (the) headline is something new is happening. first paragraph summary of something new is happening. Books are being sold that was there offline are being sold online, there is this thing called crypto it is being bought paragraph two is a quote by a CEO of a company who is benefiting from this new trend who’s helping that and is basically saying, “Oh, this is a great new trend we are this if we can get only 1% of the market, we will be this many billions is the size of the market”. Paragraph three is supporting that saying, Oh yes, this is correct. This is India’s internet population is growing, etc, etc. Paragraph four is by some analysts who is generally like some third party, impartial person who’s saying, yes, of course, this is true. But let’s also remember, ABC some caveat doesn’t matter what the caveat is, paragraph five is what is going to happen, time will tell …this (is the) template

Ravi 17:20

The ‘time will tell’ is so common, oh my god, totally yeah, whether this will happen or not

Praveen 17:24

This template has never changed. It was there in 2011. Again, 2021, it is still the same. And this used to make me really angry. Especially, because I was in the tech industry. And I was able to see that. Yes, there were a lot of things that were some of them are good. Some of them are bad that didn’t matter. What was really getting me frustrated and angry was that India was going through the largest and the greatest technological transformation in its history. And there was no one telling the story of what was going on. And that got me really angry. And so I waited for a long time. I don’t think I had the guts to start something on my own. And it wasn’t like fashionable to like run newsletters back then. So, I waited. And finally, ‘The Ken’ came along and I told myself that when The Ken got established, there are things I really loved about The Ken First they said that they were unabashedly saying that look, we are subscription based.

Ravi 18:17

How did you discover them, may I ask?

Praveen 18:19

So the reason how I discovered them was also because, okay, there is a little story here. So, the story is that back in 2011, when I was working at Myntra, at that time, remember this, how I said how tech was always covered through these, like the standard template, five paragraphs, this trend was broken, for the first time by a story that came in Forbes, India. And it was a story about Flipkart. and until then,

Ravi (18:44)

Ha Rohin (Dharmakumar) wrote that I think I yeah

Praveen (18:46)

Rohin wrote that story, and that was, I was ya, and I was in Myntra at that time. And Myntra was, of course had a lot of commonalities with Flipkart and I remember people in Myntra dismissing that story and saying, Oh, it’s yellow journalism. And I said, Oh, it’s probably something. But later, I found the story. And I read it. And I was quite amazed. I was like, wow, this is quite nice is the first time I’ve seen someone who’s writing this in a way that I can understand and sort of relate to. And it’s clear that there is a lot of craft and time and effort spent into this. And I remembered the writer and the writer was Rohin Dharmakumar, who obviously, is now the CEO of The Ken. And then of course, he moved on from Forbes and I, and I emailed him or I found him on Twitter, and I said, we should catch up for coffee. And we did catch up for coffee very briefly. We met at a Coffee Day in Sarjapur, back in 2013. And he had just quit and he said, Oh, I’m going to start my own start-up. He started some other start-up back then. And I told him, like all the best, and that’s it. We never spoke after that. We just knew each other on Twitter. And what ended up happening was just before The Ken started, there was another publication that was started just called Factor Daily and I wanted Rohin’s help to connect me to the founder at that time. And he did (help), somehow that never worked out but then Rohin pinged me back and said, “What did you have in mind?” And I said, “Oh, I have this idea of this story that I want to tell and it is a completely visual story I told him it was a blend of XKCD (comic) with narrative telling”. And then he listened to me. And then he said, Okay, do one thing. Could you write it for us? And like, who is us? And I said, Okay, so here’s the deal, we are starting a publication. And it’s going to be subscription based. And I told him, Look, Rohin, I don’t mind writing it for you. But I’m going to make a lot of I just going to be really flippant. And if people are going to pay you for this, then you are going to get beaten up. So please don’t ask me for this. And he said, No, no, don’t worry about it. I said, these are all stick figures. He says, No, no, it’s okay. Send it to me. I said, Fine. So I wrote it up. And it was basically what I call it. I call it The Illustrated History of Food Tech in India. It’s still there on The Ken. It was published The Ken by I think, back in November. And it was just basically a story of why is it so hard to make money in food tech in India, and nobody is really explaining this. Everybody was talking about: people are raising funding, people are laying off, food is coming in 20 minutes. Yes. But why is it so hard to make money in food tech in India, and that nobody was saying that? So I wrote this down with a lot of illustrations. I mean, now I cringe when I read it, but at that time, I thought it was really avant-garde. And I sent it to him, and it actually went very well, people who are subscribers at The Ken really loved it. And so after that, Rohin kept calling me incessantly, okay. And of course, saying that, please, when is when I’m getting the next part, I told him I’d write something on FinTech, I think, which I never did. So and of course, I kept making false promises, and Rohin, of course, kept listening to me. Then after a while, after nearly a year, look, I had actually told myself that if The Ken had its, quote, unquote, act together in one year, and if they stuck by their guns, and they really were doing stuff that I could be proud of, then I would work for them. And I waited for one year, and I said, Okay, it’s ready. So, then I called them I said, Okay, listen, forget the story. How do you how do you like, how do you what do you think if we can work together? And he said, Yeah, sure. Let’s start talking. And we spoke. And the first thing that Rohin told me, which I really liked was he said that the Ken is a product company. And I said, Okay, this is music to my ears. So I said, Let’s keep talking. He said, journalism is a product. And I said, that’s true. Because one of the things that really got me very annoyed about my previous stint in journalism was that, look, the thing in media is that traditionally, there has always been this Chinese wall between the editorial side and the business side, right? And, and I understand why because theoretically, the people who the editors, the people on the editorial side write for, quote, unquote, the readers and the people on the business side, take care of the advertisers, I get that. But I also think that, and I always said this, that there is only one other industry in the world where the people involved in creating the product, actively stay away from and sometimes even look down upon the people involved in the making money part of the product. And the only other industry, apart from journalism is art, where artists hate anything to do with money. And I felt that a lot of journalism was becoming like art. And when this came along, and they said that, look, we believe that this is a product, we believe that we are not going to tell people please pay us because we are independent, and we need your help. And India needs help, we’re not going to do that, I’m going to say that we believe we have a product that is great. And it’s worth paying for. And I said cool. Let’s make this happen. And of course, and I had selfish reasons as well, there was a, I really wanted to do a job where I could spend 80% to 90% of my time doing all the stuff to make it successful from a business standpoint and I had that little 10% where I could like exercise some creativity and write a bit. And The Ken basically gave me that, and it has given me that for the last three years. It has always given me that so yeah, in many ways, I’m quite happy. I think it’s a wonderful outcome. So yeah, so that’s how a product person ended up writing.

Ravi 23:41

Writing, yes. But I want to get to the core of that anger and that desire for (changing business journalism). So, at NIT itself, I guess you were you identified yourself as a writer and professors figured that out? So, was that seed? Where do you think that seed came in? Was it in school? Also, somewhere, I think that’s connected your love for history. So, reading writing at an early age, where do you think that seed came in?

Praveen 24:05

Okay. I’ll tell you the story. It’s a slightly long story, but it’s an entertaining story.

Ravi 24:11

Go for it

Praveen 24:11

Alright, so in order to understand where this came from, it’s important to understand where I come from. So the thing is that I did my entire schooling in the Middle East, in the Gulf. Okay. Now,

Ravi 24:26

Like Sidin interesting,

Praveen 24:27

yes. But unlike everyone else you may have met who have done their schooling in the Middle East, I have one very important difference. And the real important difference is that I went to school in a really, really small town in the Gulf, the place where I went and a place where I live for the first 17 years of my life is this tiny town called Al Ain. And you I am the first and, in all likelihood, the last person you will meet from that place. There is no one else you will meet (from) Al Ain. That is how small places and when people ask me like where Al Ain, I always say that well, okay. It’s basically like if you land in Dubai and you land in Abu Dhabi, and you just look into the desert and drive down four hours, you will reach Al Ain. It is in the middle of the United Arab Emirates bordering Oman. That’s the difference. It’s not on the coast at all, in every city in the Gulf is on the cost (but) not Al Ain, Al Ain is in the middle of the country. It’s the middle of the desert, right? So why was I there? Because my dad used to work in a cement factory.


And then my dad was (there, so) I was there. So now what happened was because it was a really small town, and the story that I always tell about Al Ain is that it’s a fairly modern town, let me not pretend that it was like a rural village … it was extremely modern, beautiful glass buildings and wonderful roads. And in fact, it was called the Garden City, it still is called the garden city of UAE. The thing is about the place, though, is that the story that I always say is that it’s a town that has like 12 KFCs and not a single bookshop. And that’s true. So, there were like a ton of places you could go, you could eat, there was like one mall, which was a nice, fancy mall, wonderful restaurants. But there was not a single bookshop in the town. And someone like me growing up, that presented a problem because I like reading and I had no access to books. So, my access to books came from two places. Only two sources – source one was through my school because my school had a library, but I just I ploughed through the library very early. So that didn’t matter, it was a tiny library. But what would happen is and this is really the only one of the very few things at my school that I give them a lot of credit for, they would every year whenever you would get like the proficiency if you are like the first prize or second prize in academics, they wouldn’t give you this little trophy, they would give you books, they like a couple of books right now, I mean to their unfortunately for them, they didn’t know what books to give whom. So, what would happen is I’m in like third standard, I’m getting the unabridged Rudyard Kipling, which I had no idea what’s about. So I would read it much later, or sometimes I’ll read it very early. But the other thing that I would do is I would come to India once every two years. And then every summer, we would come to Bangalore, and my dad would take me to Higginbothams and he would say you’re allowed to pick 15 books. And I would go and I would scour and pick 15 books. And it is those 15 books that I would read over and over again for the next two years.

Ravi (27:28)

Wow, Oh, that’s interesting over and over is quite interesting, 

Praveen (27:31)

Because there was no other way. Because if I wanted to read, I would pick 15 books in it, most likely, I would have read all 15 books in the first (few weeks), like before I even left India after I finished the books. But for the rest of the two years, I had no option, I would just read books over and over again. That is the first part. So then what ends up happening is when you are forced to read something over and over again, you start to see new things each time. Then you start to I think at some level, even though I could never really put this down, I sort of implicitly start to understand. There are like all of them have some commonalities with respect characters, structure and narrative. And I would also practice because you had the small children’s magazine in the Gulf, which I would write stories for, and they would publish the horrible stories. Very derivative, okay, I used to read some Agatha Christie. So, I would write some derivative murder mystery set in London, which makes no sense. I don’t know why. Okay, but those are the things that I would write and they would publish the very faithfully which was nice to give me a nice kick, (I) felt like I was writing something and getting published. And then when I went to college, what ended up happening was that Trichy had and still does, it has a theatre society called the Thespian Society. 

Ravi 28:38

Why did you not take up journalism or history? or why did you go into engineering?

Praveen 28:43

Because I am a middle-class kid who does what his parents tell him to do. So, I ended up going parents said go to Engineering I said, okay, and they do and because I didn’t know better, they said, do engineering or you will starve. I said, Oh, yeah. Engineering, (I) don’t want to starve! I didn’t know better. So, I went and did engineering, like countless others before me. I mean, I was just fortunate that I was good academically, so it didn’t realise, I was able to be get into like a reasonably good institution. But once what happened when I ended up in Trichy, was that I found out very quickly that engineering is not for me, I’m really bad at these things. And then we had a theatre club and the theatre club, what they would do is they would put up an annual play every year. And the annual play was again, they would put up something sometimes really, really dated Victorian plays sometimes…. Sometimes they put up a play by Noel Coward, and of course, because it’s like almost like in captivity, everybody in the college has no option but to go and watch a production of Noel Coward which again, makes no sense. It’s 19th century Victorian stuff.

Ravi 29:43

There’s no way for you to relate with that story, right?

Praveen 29:46

Absolutely none, absolutely none. And what actually ended up happening was that when I was in my third year, I was not a part of that. I used to do Literary Society. So I was more in the Lit side, the crossword, the Dumb-C, the quizzes, all of those things, but my best friend at that time he is still my best friend today was in the Thespian Society. And one year, he had this great idea that he said that you know what, we can probably adapt something on our own, rather than put up readymade plays like this. And he had this great idea very for here read a Stephen King book. So actually, what happens we got, we watched The Shawshank Redemption, which is by the way, of course, everyone knows is a great movie. And he said, I want to read the original book. And the origin book is actually a book called Different Seasons. So, it’s in four parts. And each, it’s like a novella. So, it’s like four novellas. So, we read that the second novella, is this novella called an Apt Pupil, which also got made into a movie, but not a very popular one. And he read that and he loved it. And it is about this guy who was originally a Nazi, but he’s living in the US in hiding. And this kid finds him out. And what he says is that, oh, he blackmails him and says, “tell me the stories of what used to really happen when you were a Nazi, in general, otherwise, I’ll tell him about you”. So, it was about this person telling these stories. And so, he said, I really think we can adapt this. And he came, he comes to me and says, do you think you can do it? And I said, Sure, let me try it. And of course, I read it. And then I said, “Okay, let me try”. And I did it. And it was a nice kick I really like. And then I did a couple of other plays for them as well. And I wrote an original production, which we went in stages, like a couple of college festivals, which was nice. And I then I was the editor of the college magazine, as well, also really pretentious. But still, I was – the magazine was very pretentious – but I was the editor. And all of these things helped. So then after that, when I ended up working in Chennai, so it was very easy for me to take all of these clippings, all of this stuff, and go and show and say, please

Ravi 31:39

That’s super cool. But most of these books that you pick up at Higginbothams would be primarily fiction, or would you also pickup nonfiction?

Praveen 31:48

I would like to believe most of them were fiction, but quite honestly, Ravi, I mean, the things that I would read were very eclectic, I mean, I have read, I don’t know there’s this book called King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard, which is one of the earliest colonial books about entering Africa. And my God, it’s terribly racist. I mean, of course it’s product of its time but still but I remember reading that when I was in fourth standard or fifth standard, so I would read books at all, sometimes what would happen is I would pick up books, which I think would be good. And then I would read them and say, “Oh, my God, this is a horrible book, why did I even pick this up?”, and I would regret it. For instance, I remember picking up The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, because I remember that it was Booker Prize (winner), ya it’s probably not something that a 14-year-old should read. And I know there are deeper themes in it. But when you’re 14, and you read it, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. Yeah, but I did read it like 20 times, but because I think that’s the source of a lot of the stuff that I did. And somehow, whenever I talk, or even today, when I see things, and I talk in terms of stories, I think a lot of it probably is because it’s just like this muscle memory that has been

Ravi 33:00

That education that you went through that is fascinating. And, you know, for me, the very interesting difference, if I might say with others who read is re-reading because a lot of us do get a thing, “oh I’ve already read it, you know, why should I read it again?” And I remember this, you know, kind of digressing now. Boman Irani (film actor), right? So, he started acting when he was 44. What a guy. And once he got an award at Filmfare or something, and then he was, you know, just narrating the story that when he was young, his mom used to kind of pay him money to watch a movie and you go watch a movie and come back and then she will say, “Achha Did you see it? What did you think about the cinematography?” And he’d say no, I just saw the characters. “Okay, here, take money, go and watch that movie again, this time only see the cinematography”. And then he’ll come back. “So what do you think of the background music?” Um, I don’t think I paid attention, Okay, take this money. Go back. See the movie again, just to hear the background music. Fascinating, right? Because a piece of art is a beauty, ya, thing of beauty is a joy forever, right. So yeah. So that I think, to me is a great insight for everybody. And even now I just re-read Sapiens. And I’m finding so many more connections then when I did the first time. You always say, ‘arre nahi nahi, abhi padh liya, arre woh aur book padhna hai’ you’ve to go and read more stuff. But I think re-reading is a great insight. 

I’m like itching to get to the Nutgraf part. But you know, some of these paths are so interesting so, I’m kind of holding on. You mentioned, you know, eclectic choices, fiction, nonfiction, thespian, where’s media coming into all of this, why is that anger on media? What is the seed of that?

Praveen  34:40

The seed of it comes a little later, because what happens is that I sort of in chronological terms, I moved to Bangalore, and I started working at this tech start-up, this is before my MBA, and one of the things that I did was, I started a theatre company, and I did it on the side, and I did it with, again, the same best friend who hoodwinked me into writing a play earlier. Turns out he was also working in Bangalore. And he said that you think I think we should do this together. And remember, this is like the late 2000s. This is not a time where you just like quit and run a start-up. And we are obviously very conservative kids.

Ravi 35:14

It wasn’t sexy yet then

Praveen 35:16

It wasn’t sexy at all. Okay, so what we did was we said, okay, maybe we can run it on the side and on weekends and all that and we did. We ran this theatre society; we call it merchants of drama. We staged multiple plays in Bangalore.

Ravi 35:30


Praveen 35:31

Yeah, we had to go we had to write, I had to write plays. Some of the plays stuff that had already written which had to readapt we had to go sell tickets, we had to go and stand in places in random places in Bangalore, go to bookshops. beg, borrow, steal, call friends, and insist that they buy tickets, sell tickets. So, two, three things that we had to do… number one was that we made zero money. In fact, the real thing that I did was, I had to also get a bunch of actors. And these are not actors from college. Because in college, you get people and you don’t have to pay for them. Yeah. But when you’re doing it, and as a production company you’ve to get them and you can’t pay for them. And, I don’t know how I did it, but I did this for nearly two years. And I didn’t pay a single person. I think I got everyone in just for the passion of the craft and I told them quote unquote exposure, which I wouldn’t do today. But I was helpless. I had no money. And I lost, I lost some money as well in the entire process. Because we tried to get a little ambitious, it didn’t work out. And I think that is when I went to B school. And I still remember my SOP (Statement of Purpose) at B school was I went in to IIMB, I had my interview there. And I’m sure you know what interviews are like, IIMs. And everybody walks in and says, Oh, I want to be an entrepreneur and I want to be a consultant or to be this thing. And I was the only one who went in and said that. I have come here because I have lost money in media and I want to learn how to make money in media. And of course

Ravi 36:50


Praveen 36:51

Yeah, that was my SOP even I mean, I don’t know. I can’t know if I can find it today. But if you do that is that is still my SOP and that.

Ravi 36:57

Achha theatre, you called theatre as media basically as an overarching thing. Okay?

Praveen 37:03

Absolutely. Because at that time, this was, remember, this was pre-YouTube. This was pre anything else. it didn’t make sense for me to go and start a newspaper or a newsletter or Run a YouTube channel or something. So, for me, this was a form of media. Perhaps I phrased it as a theatre and this thing. I think, yeah, I don’t think I was married to the idea of doing theatre specifically because I knew early on that it would never scale. So I just knew that, look, there is a form of media here. I don’t know how to make money here. I have lost a ton of money. I’m coming to school to learn how to make money. And of course, I was scoffed at by the person who was taking my interview, the professor, he says that you are writing all of this stuff. I know that after you graduate, you’re going to go and become an I-Banker. I said no, why would I do that? I had to write back. Okay. But I did that. And so that is where it sorts of began. But I think also then, when I finished graduating, and I ended and I started working in I used to I used to work at Myntra, which was the for one of the first and earliest eCommerce companies in India at that time, you only had Flipkart. And Myntra was solving a very different problem, because Myntra, at least Flipkart had this understanding that, look, Amazon has done something, they are successful. We know there is a template, we just have to take the template and make it work for India. I’m not saying that it was easy, but I’m saying that they had something to look at. It wasn’t true about mantra, Myntra had no real other thing to look at to say that this is something that we can copy. And there is an established model. Sure, there were pockets, there were things that you heard Oh, in China, that is like a company that does this, Asos in UK that does this. But there was nothing like Myntra anywhere in the world.

Ravi 38:36

They started with fashion.

Praveen 38:38

It started with fashion. And it and it stuck to fashion. That also meant that we had to solve a lot of problems. And we were the first people to solve those problems. For instance, I’ll give a couple of examples one thing that I had to solve that I just joined was this very big problem about discounts and pricing in fashion, which is actually very different from discounts and pricing in any other industry books or electronics or in any other industry. Because what happens in fashion is that fashion is divided into seasons. So you have like spring, summer and you have fall, winter. And you have this end of season sale at the end of the season. And at that point in time because you work with like 200 brands, all of these brands are running the sale at the same time they’re running it if you go to Bangalore, and you go to Indira Nagar and you walked on 100 feet road, the sale that is running on the Levi’s showroom, there should be the same sale that is running on Levi’s on the Myntra website. So, it’s easy if you’re running like 20% off 30% off. But sometimes people get creative and they say “oh, you’re running this promotion that says buy 2, get 10%, buy 4 and get 30% off. Sometimes people say “oh buy 3 and get 2 free, but you if you buy 4, you get a coupon that gives you this”, how do you build a product to solve this problem? How do you ever and there is nowhere to copy it from so we had to solve and build all of these stuff by ourselves. And nobody was talking about this. I’m not saying that it was particularly amazing, but it was new and it was uncharted and I was breaking my head every day.

Ravi 39:59

A great story was happening but was not being written about.

Praveen 40:02

Exactly. And that was part of the anger as well. So, all of these things sort of like came in, and I’m generally an optimistic person, I’m generally a positive person, I think back then I’m a little less now. But back then I genuinely believed in the overarching positive equalizer that technology can do for humanity. I genuinely did. I still do. I think there are more nuances now, because I also see how it can discriminate. But at that time, it was a big positive thing for me. And I was quite upset that nobody was talking about it that way. So, I think part of it came from there as well.

Ravi 40:40

Partly also because Praveen you would be thinking, “Hey, I can do it. If I if I just get the time and the inclination. I can do this, guys. Come on, one of you should do this”.

Praveen 40:50

Yes, that’s true. That’s true. I thought that I could do it myself. Unfortunately, I’m terribly indisciplined. And my work was very demanding. So I never got the time to 

Ravi 41:02

No way, right? 

Praveen 41:04

No, no, I started many times, you are there, my, my computer is filled with unstarted, un-middled, unfinished drafts of things that I wanted to write. For some time, it was a book, then after some time, it was an article, then it was something else, and it never really worked out very well for me.

Ravi 41:16

Amazing. I’m going to now get into The Nutgraf. First, you know, I heard about the origin story, but maybe you can recount that. And you can also tell us about the name, it’s a very different name. So how do you do that? 

Praveen 41:33

The origin story is fairly. I would like to say, I don’t know, I think it’s just yeah, there is a lot of serendipity and right place, right time to it, quite honestly, but also a certain amount of culture and how The Ken works. I think both of them had to happen together. I don’t think one would have happened without the other. So for what actually happened was, we had a product back then called The Ken on Weekends. Now remember, The Ken published at that time, one story a day, and that’s, that was a product, we didn’t have anything else, we didn’t have a southeast Asian edition. We didn’t have any newsletters, nothing. And we had one story a day we should publish from Monday to Friday, then we had a product called the Ken on Weekends, that would come out every Saturday. So, the idea was that the Saturday story would be a little more laid back. It would be a little bit like how Mint does a lounge story it would be like sometimes a profile, we had done a profile, we did really unusual stories, we are done a story, which is very unlike The Ken we have done a profile on Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai, for instance, and interview with him. We had done a series on thinking and mental models by a couple of writers. So, we had done like very strange things at that time. I would say mixed. I wouldn’t say that there was a great success, I wouldn’t say it was a horrible failure, I would just say that it just didn’t take off in any particular way. One could also argue that perhaps we didn’t think it through very well. So, we did that as an experiment for a year. And that experiment came to an end around July of 2019, two years back. So, at that time, we came, it came to an end and we said, okay, we can’t do this anymore. Let’s put an end to this. And so, the Saturday slot became free. And one of the things about the Ken is that because you write just one story a day, it’s very demanding. So, you can’t just suddenly say, “Okay, now I’m going to take a core story that I normally published in my first five days of the week. And I’m going to ask a writer to write another story on Saturday”, because that would be too much. Because now you have to hire it takes some time, etc. So, you’re obviously like little constraint on bandwidth. So, the thinking was that, okay, let’s not do anything on Saturday. Let’s just like put five stories on Friday. And we have a recap on Sunday. And that I did not like and I said, No, that’s like a hole in the calendar. And we should not do that. Because the idea of The Ken, it’s a habit, and we should not do that. So I went, I marched up to Seema, the editor of The Ken who’s like, who’s office’s, like, just next door. Next Door as in like, we are all in one house in Indira Nagar. So she was in her office, I just walked in and said, I had prepared this big speech saying that we should do something and we should talk about it, a newsletter or maybe something different, or something that’s not so difficult. And Seema just cut me off within like, some two minutes. What do you want? I said, I think we should do something like this. I’m not I hadn’t fully formed it in my head. But I said something that is a little more topical, because one of the things about the Ken’s story is that by nature of how it is produced and created is that there is a certain lag. So certain events happen, sometimes at the time we get a story, it might be like a week or 10 days, but it will be the definitive story. So we are fine with that. It’s okay. But it also leaves this idea that something has suddenly happened and a lot of people are talking about it. And I know that I have something interesting to say, but I just don’t have a space to say. So Seema was like “Yeah, let’s do it”. But she said that if you want to do it, you do it. Okay, because we don’t have the, I mean we as in the rest of us don’t have bandwidth. Of course, we’ll help you. But you should do it if you want to. And then I think Rohin was walking around getting coffee or something and Rohin comes in. He’s like, “what’s up?” I said, I think we should do something on Saturday, and Rohin, of course, it’s like, yeah, sure, whatever do it, and he walks away. And that is how the Nutgraf was born. And I’m that’s why I say that both of those things are really important. It was the culture of The Ken to basically say that if you’re trying something new as an experiment, sure, let’s try it out. If it fails, it fails. It’s okay. But the decision making is really clear and simple and straightforward. And so, what we did was when we started off, we didn’t have a name for it. We just said that we literally started off the newsletter by saying that this is something we don’t have a name for. We think it’s probably this in terms of we think we want to talk about, like events of the week. And if you look at the first four or five editions of the Nutgraf, it’s vastly different from what it looks like today. Because we had like, sometimes I think they were like multiple experiments I tried. I tried like four or five snippets. And then we put a survey out at the end of like four or five editions or in the first couple of editions, asking subscribers a bunch of questions, and we asked them things like, do you think this is valuable? Do you think you would read this? Here’s what we found out, we found out overwhelmingly, people believed our subscribers believe that this is something that’s really valuable. And we would want to read something like this, if this is what you want to do, we would want to read what you have right now is not that. But if this is what you want to do, we would want to read and we also put a number there and say, on a scale of one to 10, the stuff that we have prepared today that you have read for the last few weeks. How does that score? And I think we came somewhere close like a seven on a 10. 

And many people would be happy with it. I wasn’t I said no, this is not seven it should be (higher) – if your promise is this, then we should get close to a 10. So that’s 2. 

The third question that we are asked was we said that if this was something that was really valuable, assuming we hit 10 on 10? Would you pay for it? And a lot of people said yes, we would. So, we understood two things. So, what do we know, we know that a gap exists, people want something like this. We don’t have that product yet. We are close, but we don’t have it yet. But when we do have it, people will pay for it. And that is where it began. So, the real story of the Nutgraf that I always tell people is that it is about how to (build a Product). And that’s really how it is we I just wrote a newsletter through product principles. And I had a lot of help from people inside the Ken to help me do that. But it was just product-based thinking that said, Okay, here is our hypothesis. This is what we’re going to try. We even asked readers to suggest a name. And they suggested all kinds of names. I mean, it’s not there this thing, this is all kinds of really strange names, The Ken weekly or the Weekend Rap, a very standard name. I wanted to choose a name. That was for two reasons. One, I wanted a name that was very unique in the sense that I didn’t want it to be something where you basically see it and you forget about it after a week, you say, well, there is something that I wanted a word that was that would stay inside your head, it wouldn’t go away and that’s one. And two, I wanted a word that had some kind of connection with the promise that what we wanted to build. And I didn’t know what nut graf, the term was. Even earlier. Even when I used to be a journalist. I didn’t know I only learned about it after I joined The Ken because I wrote something and somebody from the desk team wrote back to me saying that this needs a nut graf. And I was like, What’s a nut graf? And I had to google it and say, Oh, it is this para? Oh, I recognize this. Now I know what this is. This is that paragraph that explains what is the purpose of this? What’s the meaning? What’s the

Ravi 48:20

Actually I hadn’t heard of it? or What does it mean?

Praveen 8:21

Oh, so the nut graf is a journalism term. It’s a term on in journalism that basically says whenever you’re reading an article, this particular it’s a paragraph that’s supposed to come quite early on as early as possible. And the definition of the nut graf is, this is the paragraph that explains to the reader what this story is about that you’re writing about why they should care about it. So whenever you’re reading an article or a story or anything, at one point, you’ll probably see it within like the third or fourth paragraph, there is this paragraph that says that you don’t let’s say, for instance, about the Trump administration and some emails, and you say that this story was as a result of speaking to 10 sources, where we unravelled XYZ. And this basically is an illustration of the overarching powers of the state. And how is interpreting media that is the Nut graf. And the thing is that whenever you write a story at The Ken, the people at the desk or desk editors always keep an eye out to see where the nut graf is. And the rule of thumb is that Nut graf should come within the third or fourth paragraph, because if it doesn’t, the reader does not know what this piece is about, and why they should care. And I really liked that concept. And I said, Okay, if you if I have to write a newsletter, I’m going to basically remind myself every day that this is basically something that just tells you a lot of things that happened in the week, forget about it. Here is the one thing that you should care about. And this is why and the way I described a Nut graf later was it is about connections and consequences, which I really like it is a nice alliterative term to it. And we sort of like figured that out. And I wouldn’t say that it was just me obviously had a lot of people inside the Ken, Rohin especially, someone who I spent a lot of time with, to figure out the voice and the tone and the purpose of this product. I have a team in desk and my desk we’d get into the schedule of the Nutgraf, how it comes about, but the desk team helps a lot. My journalists help a lot. So yeah, I’ve just been very fortunate. But that’s how it came about. The other thing that really happened was, which was very nice was, and I don’t think that I planned this out, but I take credit for it now is that the word Nut graf because it’s so unique. It actually it there is also a Wikipedia entry for it. So, you search for Nutgraf, there’s a Wikipedia, so you search on Google’s Nutgraf for one year and 10 months, the first link when you search for Nut graf is the Wikipedia entry for Nut graf that explains what it is. Just last month, The Ken’s Nutgraf has crossed that, it superseded that. So, I just feel really happy with the fact that we have created like a brand and an identity that is superseded something that has already existed in journalism, which was nice, it was nice like poetic

Ravi 51:02

incredible. What a journey. So let’s get to the Nutgraf. And you know, how do you create it? Let’s start with the choice of topic. And some weeks I’m sure it’s like, you know, it’s obvious that you know, we ought to talk about this. But do you struggle with that?

Praveen 51:18

Oh, many times, several times. But you’re right. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious that we have to talk about something big has happened. We know that there’s no getting around it. The thing that I always tell about newsletters, and there’s something that I tell people inside The Ken as well, is that my opinion is that newsletters need to have 80%, predictability, and 20% complete, unpredictable. And that is what makes a successful newsletter. You cannot change that balance.

Ravi 51:47

So I love this, I heard this, you saying this in another interview. And this is a very old concept in storytelling, which is the balance between familiarity and novelty. And a friend of mine talks about this from a video game. So, he talked to someone who was in video games, and then they said that, you know, in any new video game, you need to have a 33-33-33 mix, which is 33 should be exactly something similar to what was there in a previous video game. 33 little bit similar, a little bit different and 33 completely different. So, which is half and half. Right. And Chris Nolan, in an interview once said that the true art is that the balance of the novel and the familiar. For me, it was always in my mind somewhere, it’s not a 50-50 but close to that. I’m very intrigued when you say 80-20. So yeah, we can talk about that.

Praveen 52:37

Yeah, I say 80-20 simply because it’s, it’s because the thing is that is realistically any content that you create, especially if it is going to be periodic content, like a newsletter or a TV show or something like that, episodic, it’s extremely unlikely that you will have, you may have some chunk of your viewers slash readership who are going to consume everything, like they are addicted to it. So they will read every single thing. And so for them, the 20% matters a lot. The 20% is for that people. And the reason why I say 20% is because in my estimate for something like the Nutgraf, or even the Nutgraf is probably higher than 20. But I would imagine that that 20% is probably the set of people who consume it religiously, addictively and are passionate and super fans about it, probably closer to 20-30%. That’s my guess. So now what happens is the remaining 70% of probably people who I would say sample it is a sample probably one to one in three, sometimes one in five, they see a topic that looks interesting, they’ll probably read it, and that the familiarity is for them. So that is how I came across this in my mind 80-20 in my head.

Ravi 53:44

Fascinating. And so, if they chance upon a random issue of the Nutgraf, it shouldn’t be completely unpredictable. That you know, breaks that assumption.

Praveen 53:54

Exactly. I mean, the other thing is also that if you try something different each time, then what happens is you also lose an anchor. So a lot of readers then start to So two things start to happen. One is you start to lose an anchor of what exactly is this because it looks different each time and each time and some I like, some I don’t like at all. Some is just like gets past me and I don’t understand it at all. That’s one problem. And two is it places an undue pressure on the creator because now you’re forced to try different things for the sake of trying different things and then it’s a lot of showmanship and I have to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t be very comfortable doing. And I don’t know it just doesn’t work for me like you spoke about Chris Nolan. At some level. There is an 80% familiarity with all Chris Nolan films. It’s some time is going to be bent. Some space is going to be bent, some nonlinearity is happening. But yeah, but you’re right there is a 20% that’s unfamiliar. And of course there are things that someone like Nolan does, which was completely left field like for instance, I watched his latest movie Tenet. And I genuinely like generally like Nolan movies. I’m not like a huge superfan, but I like his movies, but Tenet just like went past me. And I’m like, okay, this I’m done, I’m not doing this anymore. And that may happen So that’s why I come to the 80-20.

Ravi 55:07

And so how now that how does that influence the choice of the topic you’re mentioned?

Praveen 55:10

Right, So the choice of the topic also broadly follows that. So, I would like to believe that if you took a poll of readers of the Nutgraf on say, at, say, nine o’clock in the morning on a Saturday and say, what do you think today’s Nutgraf is going to be about? I would like to believe I may be wrong, that maybe 70 to 80% of them would say 80% of the time, they would probably get it right. And say that this time, yeah, it’s probably going to be about vaccines, this thing has happened, or the budget has happened, he’s probably going to write about the budget, or Facebook and Google are doing this nonsense, he’s probably going to write about that I’ve seen is this thing. But yes, but there is a 20% of the time where I just want to do something completely different. So I guess that’s the balance that I try to strike. So how do I select my topic? So operationally, two things happen. Number one is that I’m really fortunate to be a part of a company that is a media company. So that means that we have a very thriving and a very bubbling slack group. And everybody’s like putting stories there and talking about it. And there’s a lot of discussion happening. Sometimes a story comes in a reporter put something and says, Oh, this is really interesting. Because of this, someone says something else. And then usually, then someone comes in and says, “Hey, we should do this in Beyond The First Order”. And so someone else says, “oh, but we don’t have time, we don’t have space”, then I’m like, “aha, this looks like a nice topic. Let’s pick up”, right? So that’s one option. Typically, operationally, what ends up happening is I have some sense, around 60-70% of the time, usually, by Wednesday, or Thursday, I have a word with Rohin, and Rohin is one of the people who I generally talk to and bounce off ideas with simply because he understands connections and consequences really well. He under He is a very, he’s one of those people who consumes and reads a lot and is able to see a lot of connections. So this happened. This is like how NCLT did that in this bankruptcy case. But that’s also like, Reliance, a, you haven’t read that. Let me send you five links. So, he’s that guy. So sometimes I bounce off it. I mean, I bounce off him almost every week, something most of the time, I have some point of view. And I come in and say, Oh, it’s I’m going to write about this. And yeah, that makes sense. But sometimes he gives like a different take and says, Yeah, you could write about that. But you know, here’s this other thing, which is interesting, which you should consider, but he leaves it to me. And he says, Look, it’s up to you, whatever you want to do. Yeah, so sometimes I go with his gut, because sometimes that’s proven right? Sometimes I say, No, I don’t think this is more fun. Let me try this out. And that also has sometimes proven right. So yeah, it has been, it has been like that journey. So there have been times where I have not known what I’m writing about until Thursday night, sometimes even Friday. And that, okay, so this is where the my schedule is really important. Okay, this is where the whole story comes in. So unlike what a lot of people think, writing a Nutgraf is not part of my job description. In fact, it is not something I get paid for. What happens it because it’s one of those things that I do on an extra, quote, unquote, 10%. That’s how it began. This is also why we didn’t charge for it initially, because we always thought we don’t know how long the circus is going to continue. Let’s just go along with it. So, we tried that for a while. So, what I do is that I do everything, what I normally do for the Ken, which is that I am the person who’s responsible for everything on the business side of the Ken, which means that product marketing, engineering, all of that is something that I look at, I have a great team that helps me achieve all of those goals, and to drive growth for The Ken. That’s the primary goal. For me, it is the only goal for me. It’s what I live, breathe and sleep. So that is why I start writing the Nutgraf once all of those responsibilities end. So, I start writing the Nutgraf at around six o’clock, seven o’clock in the evening on a Friday.

Ravi 58:45

Wow. That’s very surprising, I would not have expected that.

Praveen 58:48

Yeah, there is no other way. Honestly, there’s no other way I have, I would like to. So it’s true that in the early months, I used to, I would get really stressed about it. And I would write a little bit on Thursday or on Wednesday, I would start getting really stressed. And my team could see I was getting really stressed. But I think that muscle memory is sort of like kicked in now. Where by now, I can do it on Friday at six o’clock. So and that’s how I do it right. Every Friday at six o’clock, I start six 6-630. By the time I finish, it’s usually the deadline that I always tell desk is 10-1030 on a Friday, so I give it to them at 1030 on a Friday. Now this leads to a few consequences. And I’m really and I’m going to use this opportunity to apologize and have a lot of gratitude for a lot of people I put through first my team at The Ken because they wait for me on a Friday night at 1030 for the draft to come in, and they put their comments and stuff and obviously I rewrite it and make a few changes etc. So, I destroy their Friday evenings. I destroy my wife’s Friday evenings because I cannot when I am writing, writing I’m completely in the zone so I cannot do anything. So from six o’clock onwards, even (if anyone) knocks at my door I just like snarl so it’s really bad. So, I go on until like 1030, I finish and I come out and I’m like done. So, the desk put comments. I typically fall asleep then I wake up early in the morning, I just resolved the comments and then I upload it. And there have been weeks Ravi, where the Nutgraf is getting uploaded at 10 o’clock and I’m getting emails. Hey, where’s the Nutgraf. Okay, so, that is the reason why it comes out at 10 o’clock.

Ravi 1:00:11

My god, my god! I’m so sorry for that request, I’m so sorry. Now that you have told me this, I’m like, please take your time make it 11. It’s okay. No problem,

Praveen 1:00:22

No no. Actually, you shouldn’t apologize because honestly, a lot of this is down to my indiscipline. One of the things I’ve always tried myself is that to say that, no, I’m going to finish it on Thursday, I’m going to commit to doing it on Thursday, I make a lot of promises, I break all of that. So I never get to do a..

Ravi 1:00:36

(With a) full time job it is impossible to balance. But so I mean, this is interesting, because I kind of had this picture of, you know, but yeah, I know, you are doing a Product job, but (I thought that) this is really important, and you know, you must be like taking off the whole Friday for this and all that … but that’s interesting. So let’s say you picked up a topic Do you have – before you even kind of start writing or doing any research to have a point of view or an angle on that topic, or you prefer to go unbiased?

Praveen 1:01:04

Um so it depends. So sometimes there are topics that I already know a lot about. So I’ve been fortunate so that way, for instance, typically, the areas that I’m very comfortable with are anything related to tech, I’m very clear. So if it is, if it is a story on Facebook, if it is something on Google, if it is something like that, I generally know, in this

Ravi 1:01:25

You have clear points of view, a lot of Yeah,

Praveen 1:01:27

Exactly. I have a point of view. Sometimes when I do the research, it’s sort of surprises me as well, but I’m like, “Oh, this is interesting. I didn’t know this at all”. And that obviously changes and adds nuances. But there have been times where I’ve written about things that I knew nothing about. And that is that is always the hardest, because there I’m very, very cautious, because you don’t want to come across because the thing is, that’s the other problem with the newsletter, because especially when I’m like for instance, if you look at topics that I know nothing about. Now, I know a little bit more. But yeah, for instance, if you write say, economy, the first time I wrote about the economy, it was terrifying. I know nothing about the economy, what am I who am I to write about what happened in the budget and of GDP, and this happened in spending I know nothing about it, but I did read a lot. And I was able to just put up a cut across a point of view that says, Look, this is what I know. There are a few nuances here understand these things, etc. I have written about say, the other area that I’m really careful about and I’m really terrified to write about is anything related to law, especially because anything related law is (about) nuances. I can write one statement, and somebody will email me which they have in lawyers, you know, saying, Yes, but you have missed these four things where, where with all this by suo moto this there, this writ petition came here, the Court recognized this, so in this interim case, maybe possibly, so I have like, Okay, this is something that I will be very careful about. So in law, whenever the things involving law, I’m I generally try to put caveats upfront saying that, look, I’m not a lawyer. I’m just telling you what the narrative is. Sometimes I even call lawyers and said, can you just explain this to me? Is this broadly correct? And that has helped? So yeah, so do I have a point of view? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I just go with research takes me and I just get Well, the thing is, the best part is I’m just really good at Google. So I’m just really good at you give me a topic, and you give me a laptop. And you know, 80 chrome tabs, I can just like go one after another after another and then Oh, this Oh, this is in January, okay, this happened? Oh, this link or this happened in September. Oh, interesting. So now this Oh, okay. Got it. So those are the things that I’m very good at. So that’s mostly how it happened.

Ravi 1:03:31

But this, especially if you picked up a new topic, and you know, time is a huge constraint. And that is this research can take you down too many rabbit holes, right? How do you, kind of, you know, tell yourself okay, Praveen stop, now I need to, you know, get back on, you know, start writing.

Praveen 1:03:45

So, this is a question that a lot of people ask me, in fact, I have done like sessions inside The Ken, on how to, I mean, not necessarily how to write because they’re all obviously very accomplished. But when we started our other newsletter, I had a few ideas and constructs that I showed them. And my favourite construct, and the answer to this question is about how I think about stories. And I will add, that is how it’s all connected for me. So the way how I think about stories, and this is a combination of my childhood and theatre is I think of stories, and the only way I understand stories is through a three-act structure. There’s nothing else. Okay? And that is a construct that for a lot of people, they probably know, but it’s also a little elusive. So, for me the way to the way how I think about the three-act structure and maybe some of your listeners know this, the three-act structure is the most, it’s probably the most ancient and the most common form of storytelling, which is that any story is broken into three acts, which means that there is a first act which is about a setup, there is a second act, which is about an escalation and there is a third act, which is about a resolution. So that is a there is I the example that I tell everyone is that every story that is successful, is a three-act structure. Even a knock-knock joke is a three-act structure if you read so that the three-act structure is deeply ingrained into every story that we have, of course, people sometimes take that and say, oh, but it’s also like there is this thing called the hero’s journey, which is, yes, there is a hero’s journey that’s also form of the same three act structure.

Ravi 1:05:15

More nuanced form of the same three act structure

Praveen 1:05:17

Sometimes people say, oh, but there is a five-act structure. Yes, the five act structure is a three-act structure. If you take the middle act and break it at the midpoint, then it becomes a four or five act structure. So the way how I see it is I always see it as three act structure, which means that it’s always inherent for me, whenever I start a story, when I’m doing a research, I generally know who the protagonist is, sometimes the protagonist is a company, sometimes the protagonist is a person, sometimes the protagonist is a vaccine, sometimes the protagonist is something it could be anything. The other thing that ends up happening is that once they know what the protagonist is, then all I’m looking for what I’m doing for looking at researchers points where the act changes. And in general, always the place where one act moves to another is the point of change. And that the more dramatic the change there, I know, I have got it. So, if I’m talking about, say, a vaccine or something, and I’m just doing my research in, and I find something that is, oh, this is the point where something big, some big changes happened. I know that that’s it. This is where my first act ends, because I know it is I just know it, I just look at it and know. Okay, so I got it. So, this is the point where the first part of the story goes, and it has to come to me, which means that I need to know now what happens before this. So I just go and figure out what happened

Ravi 1:06:36

While you’re reading. Your brain has like a three-act filter, which is constantly looking for these breaking critical points in the story. 

Praveen 1:06:45

Absolutely. Absolutely. So that’s how I see it. And that is, that is true with anything, right? Because if I’m telling a story, like if you want to give an example. So let’s say for instance, I’m giving telling the story of say, I did an edition, some time back on Reliance Communications, which was a, which is one of the more popular Nutgrafs and one of the things over there was, and I know this that I have some painful memories associated because I bought some shares and Reliance Communication when it came out. Now they’re down to nothing. And I didn’t even sell them. I don’t know why I didn’t sell (them), it should have sold anyway. So luckily, not a lot. It is very little but so I had a lot of painful memories associated with so when I was reading about Reliance Communication, there was this one point, I think I reached when I understood that, oh, something happened with this company. It was basically over here. And they went to NCLT and said, oh, we need … something like that. I don’t remember the exact details. But I’m like, okay, if Reliance Communications is the protagonist, this is the point where the protagonist goes and says, something big has changed in my life. So, I know that this is an important point. Some other point comes across in my research. So now I’ve gotten like a broad framework that says, oh, point 1, point 2, point 3,

Ravi 1:07:51

Do you actually write this down while this is happening somewhere. Or it’s in your head?

Praveen 1:07:55

it’s in my head, because it’s just like, I’m just doing it maniacally. So, I’m just like, going tab after tab after tab of some Yeah, I have a notes thing with me. So sometimes I just like catch something. And I’m like, okay, this is here. Sometimes I do this is here. And sometimes I do this is here. And that’s it. So, then I keep that with me…Then I’m like “Oh, I understand”. So now all I have to do is to figure out, how did it go from point A to point B? What are the events that happened from point A to point B? Because the points of change. don’t change? Right? Yes, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about whether I’m telling it … regardless of the emotion. It’s not about a positivity, negativity doesn’t matter. This is a very fundamental point of change that has happened.

Ravi 1:08:33

 In today’s story of COVAXIN, one point, as I noticed is, when the government gave it approval, even without the phase three trial that I can clearly mark it as a point.

Praveen 1:08:47


Ravi 1:08:47

And the second the point that you start within the story, which is the US company putting out a press release … and these are just saying, you know, they are stakes (not sure) on the ground And the journey between the two fascinating.

Praveen 1:08:59

Yes, so the So today, okay, if you’re talking about today’s Nutgraf, because it’s really fresh in my mind. So, today’s Nutgraf was actually a little more, it’s one level higher. And that is also because sometimes in certain weeks, I’m little aware of what I’m writing out in the beginning of the week. So, today’s nut graph, I knew, in the beginning of the week itself, that I should probably write about COVAXIN, because I’ve not written about COVAXIN at all. And it seems to be getting some importance. And we did a story on this sometime back Seema, and Maithri, my colleagues wrote about this, which I thought was quite fascinating. So I knew that COVAXIN is something that I wanted to write about. So it is always playing in my head. If I’m fortunate on weeks, where I know what the topic is earlier, I then start to get really crazy and creative with structure. So that is when the 20% starts to come into play. So for instance, so today’s thing was, I basically said, Can I do two narratives? And that was the tricky part where you basically say, okay, there is a standard three act structure, which is great, but can I the real tricky part is can I do too narratives that thread the two together and basically say so there are two storylines going at different times. And both of them have a three-act structure. And they are both jumping off each other, the past and the present and you keep jumping. Yeah, exactly. And so then I said, Okay, so what is the two storylines? I said, Okay, there is one entire storyline about COVAXIN. And its entire story of secrecy. That is one three act structure, which is about there is COVAXIN, there is a vaccine that is there. It is being secretive about its efficacy data, for instance, or it’s taking some time to publish the efficacy data, it is basically making promises about how many things it will produce. And it’s not that clear. So, and there is this entire thing where it is working, not just alone, but with government agencies that also are sort of, I don’t use aiding and abetting. But there is some kind of allegedly some kind of favouritism happening over here. You’re approving it even without the phase three trials. So, there is this entire part, which is, quote, unquote, the dark side. But there is also the light side, which is about, COVAXIN how is the protagonist now it’s a great hero, it is a company that is from India, that is manufacturing vaccines for the world. And it is doing it at enormous odds against Chinese companies that are much better funded at greater capacities. And it is trying all of these ways to try to manufacture vaccines because it says Oh our vaccine is inactivated. So it means it can be manufactured only in a certain type of facility. So what do we do? Oh, we are going to tie up with PSUs and make PSUs do it Oh but’s also becoming difficult. So what do we do? Oh, we go abroad, we find other companies that manufacture there, we tie up with them. There is that three-act structure? And then can you tie the two together? Can you like thread the two together and tell a story? It’s difficult. Sometimes I’m happy with the outcome. I have tried it and it has been a mess. Okay. And I have been really angry at myself on Saturdays. But the example when it has completely worked, and it has just worked like magic was the most successful Nutgraf ever written, which was the one that I wrote around a couple of months back. And it was this edition called how India lost the vaccine wars. And that was one of those Nutgrafs that I was like, quite honestly, quite lucky in many ways. One was because I just knew we had to write about it. And I remember on Wednesday, I spoke to Rohin and Rohin was like, you have to write about this. What else can you write about? And I was like, sure, sure I agree with you. The second thing was that I also got the timing really right, because it was a time when a lot of people were like, well, is it happening? Or is it not happening? Will we have vaccines? Will you not have vaccines. And I was very bold. And that’s two. Three, in general, all the stuff that I write about is fairly nuanced. That’s also because I’m an optimistic person, it’s very rare, you will see a Nutgraf where I go and slam something completely and say that this is bogus, or this is bad, or this is terrible. I generally don’t do that. Because I believe that story has nuance. Sometimes people miss the nuance, and they think they accuse me and say that Oh no, you slammed it either. No, it did. It was a very nuanced story. So that was one. But the third thing was also that I think I got really angry emotionally. When I read about this, I did a lot of research. And the more I read, the angrier I got. And then I really found out that oh my God, they hadn’t ordered the vaccines. And then you see, but what is happening in the US and you’re like, Oh, it’s this. And it’s that. And so then I got like, so I was able to put a real stake in the ground and say that the war is lost. And I was the first person to be even one of the first people to able to say that. And that is also two narratives. And that was two narratives, again, of something that was happening in India. And I was just contrasting it with the United States. And that’s it. So it was two storylines, about here’s what the US did at every step of the way. And here’s what India did it every step of the way. And the story jumps between it, and it ends. And that is how it worked. So yeah, sometimes it works. There have been many times where it hasn’t worked, but sometimes it works.

Ravi 1:13:50

So, one, this is fascinating. Praveen one is the finding these clear transition points in the story. And then I love that, again, your intelligent use of chronology it’s not always in chronological order, but in your mind, the chronology is very clear. And I noticed when you were talking about the 80 tabs that you’re constantly looking for the date that this happened in this date. So again, do you write that down anywhere or it’s all in your head?

Praveen 1:14:22

So I do have notes so for instance, if you look at say, today’s edition, I just had like broad (idea) so I read everything so when I don’t, I generally don’t take notes when I’m researching because I’m just like reading reading reading reading I don’t want to like break the flow and once I have read like 60-70 tabs, I know what the story is in my head. So then I understood because I have now finally understood what is going on. Once I’ve understood what is going on then it is just a question of okay now how now I have to like put this in a story style. Then I write notes and then I basically say okay, it starts with this, then it comes here then it comes here then I have to jump to this and jump to this etc. which is also why when I’m writing an Nutgraf sometimes I know at a point in the story, I have read this somewhere …

Ravi 1:15:07

Which tab is it?!

Praveen 1:15:08

So I’m blindly, in complete fear and panic searching for that tab, which is also one of the reasons why nobody can disturb me. Because all of this is happening simultaneously. So, it’s a very intense process. I’m sure it can be more efficient. But yeah, it can be very intense. So that is one way to do it, which is where you basically look at it as two narratives over time that you come together. I’ve tried other experiments. Another thing that I do a lot is, okay, this also comes down to eclectic things. So one of the things is, another reason why a Nutgraf may turn out a certain way is because of a certain media that I may be consuming at that point in time. Around a few years back, I got this huge fascination with history. And it wasn’t even like something that I liked in school or anything. It just like very, I just caught this.

Ravi 1:15:47

Wow. I would have thought you’ve been reading history for a long time.

Praveen 1:15:49

No, no, not at all. It’s a very recent development. And the development happened because I was listening to this podcast by this gentleman named Dan Carlin, who has this podcast called Hardcore History. And for, for your listeners, Hardcore History is a podcast with every episode is like three hours long, four hours long, and it is one person talking. That’s it, there’s nothing else. And it’s all the rules of you know, engagement about everything he reads from historical sources. And he tells the story, he dramatizes it completely. And he’s just talking, talking, talking for three to four hours. And that is just one. And sometimes what happens is he has like in multiple parts, and I was hooked to it, I never thought I’d be hooked to a guy droning on for such a long time. But I loved it. The part that I really loved, for instance, was the one that I really remember and I loved was this one thing that he did on the decline of the Roman Empire. And it was the death of the Roman Republic. And it is the part that comes 150 years before Caesar, and it ends with the death of Caesar. And it is just incredible, and it is in six parts. I think the sixth part is like six hours or something, the whole thing is like 20 hours and the and I still remember the last part where at the end of 20 hours, I’m like listening to the whole thing. And by the end of it, he talks about how, what happens when Caesar dies, and they do his funeral. And at that point in time, how all his generals and soldiers come and throw their clothes, and they throw their ornaments, and they throw things into the fire. And he says, what that day, the day when Caesar was stabbed, and he was killed, is the day that the republic dies. And what emerges after that is a different form of Rome. And it’s a different form of the Empire. And I was just getting goosebumps at that time. Beautiful. And after I read a lot about the Roman Republic, then I went into all other things, Persian Empire, Byzantium, etc. And I got this huge fascination into antiquity battles. I can, if you had a podcast on battles in antiquity, military battles, I could go on for hours. I think battles are so nice, because it’s like, it gives you the conflict, it gives you the drama, it gives you everything else, which is also why I use battles and war analogies a lot when I write a Nutgraf. So sometimes it’s that so I see history. So sometimes I see some story. And I say, this is like that. This is exactly like the time when, in that part, when the Triumvirate of Rome, this person did this, so I’ll set that up. And I’ll explain it. For instance, I did this one part where I wrote about Google. And I remember writing that it’s about Google fighting between the walls. And that is about this really famous battle that Julius Caesar fights where he basically builds like an inner wall and an outer all, to keep two armies out, and he keeps stays in the middle and fights armies on both sides, which is exactly what Google was doing at that point in time. So, I found that analogy very nice (to explain)

Ravi 1:18:46

incredible, So I want to talk a little bit about analogies. And you know, how you kind of bring them because that’s, I think, a critical storytelling skill that that you bring that any good storyteller brings. But before that, you know, the higher order thing that you’re doing is once you have laid down these points of either a single or a dual narrative, then the next step is to actually step back and then take like a you know, some I say bird’s eye view, Yuval Harari calls it the cosmic spy satellite view. I love that term. So you’re basically looking at it from that perspective, and coming up with that, Oh, this is what has happened. And in the vaccine one it is you coming up with that, you know, statement that we lost the war and that it’s a powerful statement to make. In many others. It’s various statements. And there is a next job of saying, Oh, this is like that other incident instance in history or a fable and I just want to come to that a bit later, but arriving at this realization or a higher a higher order one is a critical milestone in the narrative. Do you again have a way to do it? I mean, I now I realize, you know, you’re you’re just basically working six hours on the go, but you take like a break. Do you reflect, does it come out or a while you’re working? It just comes?

Praveen 1:20:03

No, I think while I’m working, it just sort of comes. I’m just like very fortunate that I just have like a bank of things in my head. It was also probably because I was a little fortunate because when I was in college, I was also a lot into quizzing. So, I just know a lot of these random eclectic things here. I’m not very good at it. But I know enough to just connect a few things. And so, and I just I don’t know, I think a lot of this is also about I’m very, I can say that this is like that. And sometimes, for instance, Rohin also is really good at such things. So that he also puts that sometimes my head is like this. This is like this is happening that’s happening. Oh, it’s almost like that over there in that movie that this happens. And I’m like, Ah, okay, interesting. I may not use that exact analogy, but I get the broad, pull and push off it. So fundamentally, it’s a conflict, right? So, any story needs conflict it needs, it’s about a protagonist, it’s about conflict is about you overcome the conflict, or you lose to the conflict? And I just know conflicts in my head. There are all other kinds of things that I do. Sometimes I just, for instance, okay, I’ll give you another example. For instance, the other thing that I did was about another really popular edition of the Nutgraf that I wrote was about Jio. I read a lot about Jio and Reliance, because I think it’s a fascinating company. And also, again, one of those things that people don’t understand very well, they don’t understand what this company is what it’s trying to do very well. So, I wrote this one thing called Jio is in the Endgame, where this was a time last year when Jio platforms was getting a slew of funding. And again, the news media was focused on that. Yeah, media was focused on Oh 10 million or 200 million, oh, this billion, that billion 20 billion. So there was all that that’s all they were talking about.

Ravi 1:21:44

I just remember what I love the visual that you guys made for that, you know, it was so like, Oh, my God, this is so obvious…. why isn’t everybody talking about this? So yeah, can you talk us through about that visual also?

Praveen 1:21:59

Yeah, so the visual. So visual storytelling is something that I wish I could do more of, but simply because of my schedule. It’s just becoming very difficult. But sometimes I know, sometimes, for instance, like the Jio story, I knew I had to, I knew by Wednesday or Thursday, I was going to tell that story. So, it gave me the opportunity. And so, I was I was able to say that it is about the stack, and you’re able to like … how it is. Again, this was about spatial thing, since because I look at a lot of military battles, history, etc, fundamentally understand spatial wars. So I understand that flanking comes from here, this comes from there. So there is I mean, I can go on again, but there is this great battle called the Battle of Cannae. That comes from the Roman Carthaginian war. It’s called the Punic Wars that happened sometime in like, I think, in 150 BC, and this is when Hannibal goes into Rome. And he’s going all across Italy, just scouring the countryside. And at that time, Rome sends an army. It’s the last army that Rome sends, because they’re basically like completely around, and Rome sends the largest army has ever assembled outnumbering Hannibal 2 to 1. And they come and they meet at this really famous battle called the Battle of Cannae. And the Battle of Cannae, is the most studied Battle of antiquity, simply because Hannibal is outnumbered 2 to 1, and his army surrounds and destroys the Roman army. And it is a story of how can you be outnumbered two to one and surround an army. And it’s not just surround an army, what they do is the story goes that after this around the army, they basically moved in hacking from the outside. And they do it an entire day, until they reach the centre. So, they are just nobody left, Rome loses an entire army in a day. And there are stories of how Roman soldiers are trapped in the middle, can’t move can’t do anything. And they put their heads inside the mud in order to suffocate themselves and die, rather than wait for the death to come. And it is the Battle of Cannae is really fascinating. I mean, apart from the other barbarism. It’s really fascinating from a military strategy standpoint. So I really like spatial wars a lot. I’m like, oh, how did the flank come here? How did this come here, etc. So this was that, where I was talking about Jio. And I said, look, this is very clear. It’s a spatial thing. They’re going from here, they’re going up the stack, they’re going, they’re going there. And there’s no way I could write about it. I had to visualize it. And I was really fortunate because I had Anushka, who was who’s still with us, she’s she does the podcast with The Ken. And she also does some design and illustration on the side. And I called her up and I just sketched it out on paper. And I showed it to her and said, Can you like do this in this way, and she was very creative with it. And we did that, it was quite fortunate. So yeah, so that also happens sometimes the visual thing just comes to me. And it just like works, doesn’t always succeed. I did something very recently on I don’t remember do I think it was about WhatsApp moving to the left something like a spatial thing that I did on a 2 by 2 or something that didn’t really that wasn’t particularly popular or some people liked it, but sometimes you get it wrong. It’s okay, it’s fine. Again, like I said, this all falls in the 20% for me,

Ravi 1:24:58

No but so I know this is amazing and so there is of course finding these big patterns. Analogies, of course, could be typically in a lot of cases, it could be the historical. So, they say “history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes”. So, you’re finding those rhyming parts …  I also love the use of fables, right? And there is what is the special affinity that you have for Reliance Jio and Middle Eastern fables? The camel in the tent, The Merchant of Baghdad, the third one, I forget now… Shibboleth. What is happening here?

Praveen 1:25:36

Oh, I don’t know. I think. I think in some way, again, like I said, this is also partly because of the media I consume. The Shibboleth thing probably happened because I’m a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin is one of the best for me, at least the best dramatic writers out there, even though he mostly writes films, but he is fundamentally he writes movies like how I would imagine one should write plays. And because it’s heavy on dialogue, it’s clear 3-act structure. And so those are things that I really like. So I think Shibboleth I saw because there was a The West Wing episode where the word Shibboleth was there and was in the back of my head. And this is interesting, I don’t think it is about the … I think the Middle Eastern thing is mostly a coincidence is probably because they are old stories that are really remember sort of like see the connections, that’s about it. But there are other ways. So for instance, other places where my knowledge has expanded is, also, quite honestly, because of my wife. So, my wife is completely from a different background. So, she’s a political science person who went on did like a deep thing in humanity. She’s a PhD there. She’s written about cities and structures, and she now teaches at a law school. So, she gives me perspective on things that all completely gaps in my knowledge, because if you’re an engineer, an MBA, that’s a part of the entire universe that you know nothing about. And for instance, I wrote once on this thing called panopticon, which is basically about this prison kind of a system where you are basically sitting in the centre and the observation happens on the other side. And I was like, okay, this looks very interesting, because it’s a different kind of surveillance, the surveillance is such that where you’re all on the periphery, and you’re sitting in the centre, and I did that once. I remember a couple of people writing in and asking me, how do you, how do you come across this? I’m like, oh, because my wife had told me about it some time back, and I just remembered it. So those things also help sometimes as well.

Ravi 1:27:30

Interesting. Now coming to the actual writing itself, right. So, do you kind of have like a deadline thing? Okay. By this time, I have to start putting, you know, my hands on the keyboard or…

Praveen 1:27:41

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I know that the time is usually 630-7. I have to start because

Ravi 1:27:47

6-7 is the research (time), right?

Praveen 1:27:49

not really, because what happens is I I do snatches of research a little bit in the day, but I don’t actually it’s very, because my Friday is very hectic. I think my research typically starts at 5:30-6. I’m mostly done with my research by 7-7:30. 


Oh Amazing?

Praveen 1:28:06

yeah. Because I just I’m just blazing through it. I’m just going tab after tab after tab. reading, reading, reading, reading, reading and just got it understood what it is by 7:30-8 and then I have some fable, some stories, something in my head. If there is something visual then perhaps in those 15-20% case it may happen later, but otherwise it doesn’t. By around 7:30-8, I find the image that I need on some the stock image and I sent it to my design team and say, Can you just give me like this thing for that? And they’re like, Okay, I have to start writing by 730-8. I have gone beyond eight a couple of times. And that has been like a stretch. But 730-8 is the that can last I have to start at eight. I started it I get done by 10:30-10:45. And it gets done. I think maybe 5% of the cases that has gone to 11 11:30. But almost never beyond

Ravi 1:28:57

Do you just write in one stretch?

Praveen 1:28:59

Yeah, no, no, no, no, just go straight. I have this timer on my phone. It is this app called Tide, which every 45 mins… The thinking what I usually do is it’s I follow the Pomodoro technique, which is you throw the Pomodoro Technique is essentially you work very intensely for like some 40 minutes, and then you take a five-minute break we’ll get into in 40 minute take a five minute break. Except what happens on Fridays that that five-minute break never happened. So, I’m just like, blasting through and then my alarm rings at 40 minutes ago. Now you can take a five-minute break. No, no, I’m in the middle of this I can’t. So I just like keep blasting through. It’s a just a very high intense experience. There’s nothing like a

Ravi 1:29:34

Deadline really helps.

Praveen 1:29:36


Ravi 1:29:36

Now let’s talk about some of the narrative elements. So one piece that again, it’s a narrative element that I really like, which is you’ve got all the information, you’ve got the chronology in your head, and you’ve got the points of when you’re actually writing. You play around with the chronology you play around with the narrative. So I’ll just take an example from today, right? So so this is I’m just quoting, so you are saying Bharat biotech uses the oldest method known to humans to manufacture COVAXIN. The reason why this is special is because it’s not a common method used today. And then you say, I’ll explain why. But before that, let’s quickly jump into the dark side of the COVAXIN history. So, what you’re doing here is okay, you’ve made me, you know, curious about something. Let’s hold on to your curiosity. Let’s go somewhere else, and I’ll come back to it. And this line that comes to me that resonates with me is again, Chris Nolan, we are quoting him too many times today, where he says that a narrative is nothing but the controlled release of information. Yeah. And so, this again, does it come naturally? Or do you write it out and then go back and you know, change things?

Praveen 1:30:43

No, I almost never go back and change things around. I think, in general, like, for instance, if you take today’s story, I just knew that it was going to be like, two threads. Yeah, it’s two threads intervening with each other. I knew that. So, I knew that it was going to be light, dark, light, dark, light, dark, light, dark, light, dark light. So, I think mentally I know that, that light dark sort of alternates. I mean, I don’t keep it really, like prescriptive. Sometimes, if it’s sort of melds (blends), it melds, it’s okay. But it should have to clear parts. That’s one part of it. The second part of it is, of course, that by the end of it, the drama should escalate on both narratives. That is, that is the key, because otherwise, there’s no point, because then you’re then you made a mistake in the narrative. So, I always have this fascination where when I do two narratives, it’s always this thing where the length you’ll typically see shortens. And because the when  things shorten, for me mentally, it is almost like, if it’s an Aaron Sorkin thing, it’s like the dialogues are getting faster.

Ravi 1:31:44

Chase scene kind of a thing.

Praveen 1:31:45

Exactly. So, by the end it just like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, just landing one after another. So, this way, if you see even in today’s piece, you will see the last two lines of the story. The last two lines are where it had to be the punchiest, where it ends with this one part that says Bharat BioTech has started trials in children. And it is the first company companies do that. And you know that that is where the light culminates, the light side of the story culminates in, Bharat Biotech saying that we are going to do trials, and we’re going to be the first ones to do it. And the dark side culminates with the phase three trials are not done yet. So that is how I think about it broadly.

Ravi 1:32:24

It’s quite magical, because I think, while I think it’s awe inspiring to kind of, you know, see, so I don’t think others can take away that “Oh, now I have a presentation coming tomorrow. I think I just do this”, you know, I don’t think too many people can actually do this. So it is, it is good. Yeah, it’s cool to know that, you know, this possibility. It’s a bit like, you know, seeing Usain Bolt run and then saying, Oh, that’s fast.

Praveen 1:32:50

You’re too kind Ravi, I cannot run at all but no, I would, I think there’s this thing that they teach in B schools called path dependency, which basically says that for a particular company to, in order to do in certain corporate strategy for companies doing X, and then is going to Y a lot of that is happening, because of the journey that the company has taken to get to X. That is why Y becomes a very logical step. So, it does not mean that if you are a company at X, you can do Y as well. So honestly, that’s the only thing it is just that I’m a product of my experiences and the people around me and the talent and the help and assistance that I get. And that is enabled me to do this. But you’re right, that it is not something that’s terribly prescriptive. I have taken sessions inside The Ken, sometimes, where I’ve spoken about the three-act structure and said, Oh, this is how you should think about it. The response has been, let’s say, lukewarm, okay. And it’s not because they don’t understand the three-act structure. It is that because they are storytellers, they’re full-time storytellers, I just do this as a part time thing. So, they understand it in in a way that I cannot understand it. And when I put a framework like this in front of it, they’re like, well, okay, I get it. But I know how to tell stories like, if you look at our reporters, our reporters write great stories. They don’t I don’t think they ever look at the reactions, but they just know that this is how it is. So yeah, some of

Ravi 1:34:10

 I think this has got a lot of (potential)- the three-act structure, the way you look at it, I think, has got a lot of potential for prescriptive potential for people who are, you know, who are not full time storytellers, who are not journalists? … Let me talk about one other great example where you use a different story principle, which is the GPT-3 one. And that’s the one that really caught my eye. Of course, I’d been reading before that, but when did you get the idea to do what you did?

Praveen 1:34:40

GPT-3, I remember was a bit of a fad at that point. In fact, it’s still it is a fad. Actually, you’re sort of GPT after that week, for one week, everybody was obsessed with GPT 3, and then after them suddenly disappeared. So I just felt like oh, we should talk about GPT or write about GPT 3. I don’t remember How the thing happened. But if I it was either one of two things, it was either I think I had a conversation with Rohin. And we sort of like played with the idea that, oh, would it be cool if he just wrote the intro to GPT 3 and gave that as a reveal at the end. And as a big twist? I think it was that or it may have been that I was just reading or watching some murder mystery or something at that point, it was in my head. It’s possible, quite honestly, where I basically, I always wanted to do something like that, where I do like a big twist ending, but it always feels so unearned. And I could never do that with like a regular story. Because honestly, if I’m telling something that happened in the previous week, I cannot talk about a twist ending at the end, because chances are you probably read it and I look like an Idiot. Where I basically say this, and I say, oh, by the way, Jio did this last weekend, that is the twist ending, like Yeah, but I knew that given the newspaper, so I couldn’t do that. So, I think with GPT 3 two things happened. Second thing that happened was, I was very fortunate that I think I put it on Twitter, and I said as anyone because access to GPT was also quite controlled. Yeah, it wasn’t easy. And one of my readers wrote back to me and said that, yeah, I have access. And I said, cool. So, it was also a very fortunate thing where I had a reader, and also the is a testament to the readers and subscribers of a Nutgraf there. They also were like, yeah, sure, I can help you with that. And then I said, Can you do this for me? I’ll give you these keywords and write the intro. And he sent me back.

Ravi 1:36:24

That’s crazy ya, I mean, I mean for you to of course make but for him to go out of his way and do it.

Praveen 1:36:28

Absolutely. I mean, like I’m forever indebted. And my readers are like incredible..And they he wrote back to me. And then I said, okay, I have something. I was still really afraid the day I wrote that because I was afraid that would be a little gimmicky. And I think somebody had tried this where they had put some one of those aggregator websites that put something and said that at the end of it, this whole thing was written by GPT 3, dun,dun,dun, and I was like, oh, God, so I didn’t want to so, I was like oh god, I shouldn’t have been so gimmicky. But I was fortunate I wrote it and is

Ravi 1:36:59

This is very good, very good. It’s the principle that I kind of, you know, used while describing that on LinkedIn was, you know, ‘Show don’t tell’… that you might be telling me that it’s great, but you must show it to me. And that that was a brilliant way to do that.

Praveen 1:37:10

Yeah, I think for the GPT 3, last point on this is that I think the thing that I felt that the only way I could tell that story was I had to do this thing in the intro. And then I have to give this big payoff in the middle, which was very valuable. So, and which is where I went into the entire history of artificial intelligence, and about what that means and how I spoke about the Go. And I spoke about AlphaGo. And I spoke about chess, etc. And I hope that even at the end of it, if you felt that at the end, the ending was gimmicky. At least you could walk away with the stuff that I said in the middle, and probably not be really angry where you would say that, well, this was gimmicky. He shouldn’t have done that. But okay, at least I walked away with this thing in the middle, which was valuable. So that was my thinking at that point. I’m really scared of gimmicky stuff. Although I probably do a lot of it. 

Ravi 1:37:54

You should, you should (do gimmicky stuff. I also love the way you use this, we talked about release of information and the use of mystery, right, which is you were writing about how Jio is struggling to meet on a lot of its projections. And then you drop this little one line bombshell that you know, it’s all because of a piece which just costs $1, right? And I’m sure that that must have been a very cool moment in the research when you kind of came across that must have been like a bulb and maybe a whole stadium of lights going on. But then the use of that I think was very cool.

Praveen 1:38:30

Yeah, that that happens. Sometimes it doesn’t happen always. But sometimes it happens where you just go down, go down, go down, go down. And finally you hit something and you’re like, Okay, I’ve got my ending. That is when you know, that is when you know, the research is over, it’s over. So that happens, the only thing that one should be careful about and I was a little careful about even the Jio piece was that one shouldn’t make it- because from a narrative standpoint, it’s very easy to say all of this is because of that. It is so facile to bring it there. But actually, there are multiple nuances there. So, I try to say that that look. Yeah, it’s this $1 piece is obviously a big part of it. And I’m going to say it but there are like other aspects as well. So I genuinely struggle with this where my biggest nightmare is always that I write something and someone who’s an expert in the field, because that’s what happens with readers, The Ken sometimes are experts in their field, and they write back and say “What nonsense is this? There are like some 20 nuances here that you missed, just because you want to tell a great story”. Those things sometimes bother me, so I try to play down as much as possible.

Ravi 1:39:30

It’s a good tussle I think because what the challenge is, those experts are unable to tell that story. And then so you don’t want a situation where they’re just writing in scientific papers and you know, and then there is the mainstream media which is you know, not doing any depth. So, I think these efforts are important and yeah, here and there a little bit of, (it’s okay) if the story, the story stretches a bit. How do you manage this you had mentioned this I think in another interview that just a lot of these products, a lot of these things is, of course one about the skill and the talent that you bring in and you know, the ability to make connections and you know, consequences. But just the sheer, sometimes boring, difficult part of showing up every week, week on week. How do you deal with that?

Praveen 1:40:25

Oh, it’s not easy at all. I mean, look, I think some things I’ve been fortunate one thing, some things I’ve been fortunate is that I genuinely like what I do. And I think that helps a lot. 90 to 95% of my days are good days, there may be difficult days in the sense that it’s very challenging. I there are like numbers that are not working. There are experiments that are failing, there are growth strategies that you try it, it’s not happening, people quit, you’re doing hiring calls, some of this is like really painful stuff as well. But I genuinely enjoy it. And I’m here because I choose to be here. So that helps a lot. I suspect that if I was working in a more traditional corporate job, and I was doing this every weekend, I would probably find it much more difficult. So that helps. The first part helps, which is that you’re at a job that you really love doing surrounded by people who you love working with. I think that part helps first. Second, despite that, sometimes things get there they are, there are bad weeks, there are weeks where things go wrong, there are weeks where we are having a lot of arguments, we are having fights, things are not working, there are conflict just like any other job. So, all of those things happen. Sometimes what happens is the intensity of my work just increases. And hopefully readers can’t tell but that those are the weeks the weakest Nutgrafs come out in those weeks. Sometimes people can tell. So, for instance, if you go back and see the trend of signups of the Nutgrafs. Over the last year I showed this at one of the all hands (gathering) very recently, at The Ken, if you go back and looked at you see that there are huge surges in like, last year on July, August, etc. This is and I know why that happened. Because that was when we made that Nutgraf into a paid product. And that was a terrifying time for me. Because until last year, in June, July, it was a free product. So, the pressure was not there for me. So, all I had to do was just write whatever I felt like if you didn’t like it, it’s fine. And it’s okay, big deal. Because in my mind, the value of a subscription that person was getting was not from me, it was coming from all the amazing stories that the Ken was doing. So, for me, it was just like, Yeah, I was just having a little bit of fun, because I try to be very serious and professional, any little bit of fun. But the minute it became paid, then it became It was really pressurizing for me. So, if you see I spent a lot of time last year around June, July, August. At that time, I was really into it, every episode, every addition had to be really good, which is when the GPT-3 thing happened, which is when I wrote a lot of Reliance stories, I did an entire illustrated thing on the Independence Day when I wrote 73 charts, I put charts on India’s history and all that those things and but if you go back and see the thing that I did in say, October,(it was) not received so well, the graph didn’t move by much. And there’s a good reason why because October was our anniversary. And I was completely swamped with the anniversary. And I think I was just probably not having enough mind space for this. And then of course, later, it picks up again. So yes, sometimes it happens. Hopefully readers can’t tell (when the quality drops), I try to ensure that (it doesn’t drop). I also know mentally, there is a ticking clock in my head where I know, last Nutgraf was not good. I mean, I know it because I just -not good in the sense. I may have found it satisfying, but I look at the numbers and say, not enough, not enough, not enough. And I build it in my head. And I also week after week I put pressure on myself and say no, this one has to be good has to be good has to be luckily some release happens. Something just clicks and I just realized oh, got it so when something good happens. I’m like okay, great. So now for the next few weeks, I can take it easy. But yeah, but sometimes what happens is …it’s also addictive, right Ravi, because sometimes you do something that’s really good and well received, you want the next one to be as good. So you push yourself even harder. So those things happen as well.

Ravi 1:44:11

Who are some of the guys you really look up to in Storytelling?

Praveen 1:44:18

Um, I mean, I just love Aaron Sorkin for clarity and structure. I mean, just like he also plays a lot with non-linearity. I mean, it’s like stories that you think can be told in a very standard way and he looks at it and then you say, Oh, my God, I mean, how can anyone say it like this? And I love his thing for dialogue. It probably comes with my affinity to theatre, so I didn’t talk about drama. I love drama. I just love his drama, though. He also does a lot of these things where a lot of his episodes for instance, in the West Wing is about something happens in you don’t know what exactly has happened, and only by the end suddenly the whole Penny drops in it and oh my god, so

Ravi 1:44:58

How do you find The Newsroom?

Praveen 1:45:00

The Newsroom was okay. I mean, it’s very polarizing. Some people really like it. Some people really don’t get, I would just say it’s okay there are parts that have flashes of it. But clearly, it’s not his best work. I don’t think he would say it is best, one of his best works, which I don’t think people really appreciate is (the Steve Jobs movie). I love the Steve Jobs movie. If anyone wants to understand the three-act structure, just watch The Steve Jobs, it is literally a movie three acts. That’s all it is. Right. And it’s in each act in a different setting in a different timeline, where the action is rising, rising, rising, and conflict is rising, rising. Anyway, so Aaron Sorkin, of course, is one of the reasons why I do what I do. And one of the earliest reasons why I do what I do is because of I really like Douglas Adams.  I love people who have a lot of people love Douglas Adams because of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is a great piece of work. But the thing that I love Douglas Adams, one thing that I think he’s not so well known for us, he wrote this book called Last Chance to See, which is a book that not many people have read. And it is Douglas Adams writing about animals and nature. And it is what he does is he goes to like five or six different countries and regions. And he says, I’m going to write a story about some animal that is endangered over here. And he writes a story just like how Douglas Adams does. He goes to Madagascar and writes about this one animal that he goes to New Zealand and Australia and writes about this bird called the Kakapo and it is phenomenal stuff. It is so beautiful. And one of the things that he did was, he was able to tell stories about these species in ways that generated a lot of interest. And many of them are not endangered anymore partly because of the work that he did. So that is what his stories do. And I think the thing that really resonated for me was after he passed away, he passed away quite young and quite early. Neil Gaiman, another writer, I really love, gave a eulogy or wrote a eulogy. And one of the things that he wrote about Douglas Adams is that he says that we may never have a word to describe what Douglas Adams does. Like, you can’t say he’s a writer, because writing is something that he just stumbled on to do. He’s like, he’s probably an explainer, or something. But he says that his greatest legacy is going to be that Douglas Adams told stories about the world to the world, in ways that the world would never forget. I’ve never seen a better description. That’s such a nice description of you know, what it means. So yeah, these are all some influences, broadly speaking.

Ravi 1:47:44

Fascinating stuff. Thank you so much Praveen, this has been so mind opening for me. And I’ve like at some level, I used to get that feeling of “And now I think I’ve heard and seen everything, you know, how people do how what happens, but hearing your (process for writing the Nutgraf), okay, I don’t think that’s (right), I don’t think you’re allowed to do that. I think that’s not physically possible. No, you should not be doing that. I think they should put a warning sign here that you know, please don’t try this stunt at home. You’re doing some of those things and you know, pulling them off week after week. So keep doing that and keep entertaining us and educating us. I think it’s fascinating. You’re explaining the world really well to us every Saturday. But look forward to more of that.

Praveen 1:48:24

Thank you so much Ravi. This has been really fun. It’s not always that you get a chance to talk about the craft. And it’s not always that you get someone who can indulge me in talking about the craft. So, I really, really love this. Thank you so much.

Ravi 1:48:38

Thank you so much Praveen 

And that was Praveen Gopal Krishnan – COO at the Ken and a brilliantly engaging writer with a lucid, original voice.

A few things which stayed with me:

  1. Novelty can be over-rated in reading. Try to re-read the good stuff you already have. You’ll come across insights that most others would miss
  2. Look for the key transition points in your story using the three-act structure
  3. Use chronology (duh!) to reconstruct the sequence of events
  4. Deadlines can be stressful, challenging and irritating – but they work!

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Sanket Aalegaonkar and Prahlad Viswanathan.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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