The Story Rules Podcast E14: A curiosity masterclass with J Ramanand (Transcript)

J Ramanand
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E14: A curiosity masterclass with J Ramanand (Transcript)

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“I think the message that I wanted to leave people with was “Can you swap anxiety with curiosity?” This is something I’ve been trying to do for myself: when you’re in an anxious situation, can you take a curious approach and say “What is going on? What can I learn from this?”, whether you can postpone the anxiety to when it is more useful to be anxious, is something that I was keen to get out in this piece”

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 J Ramanand, the Co-Founder and Upleveler at Choose to Thinq (that’s Thinq with a q) which enables organisations and individuals become future relevant.

So here’s a confession. I’ve always been in awe of quizzers.

For one, the thrill of quizzing.

So, I’ve participated in just a handful of quizzes throughout my life… and  I still remember the memory of the dopamine hits when I would get an answer right. It must be amazing to get these hits much more often in life!

The second reason relates to the skill of quizzing.

Now, many of you may know this, but for those who don’t – Good quizzes are not reliant on memory. As Ramanand says, they have 50% of the answer hidden in the question itself… and the participant can use the powers of deduction to arrive at the answer.

Now, while the ability to deduce an answer with the given clues is one key quizzing skill, the real skill for me is the craft of creating good quiz questions. And it is this craft which has several parallels with storytelling. Both skills use the power of surprise, familiarity and curiosity to deliver an engaging experience to the audience.

Ramanand is uniquely placed to shed light on these two related skills:

  • He is a die-hard quizzer – incidentally he was the youngest winner at  BBC’s Mastermind India and has appeared as an expert on the show Kaun Banega Crorepati (India’s version of Who wants to be a Millionaire)
  • He’s a sought after quizmaster: for the last couple of decades he’s been setting questions on an average of at least one a day. That’s thousands of questions! 
  • He’s an engaging and thought-provoking writer 
  • He works closely with the leadership at different organisations in helping them navigate the ‘shape-shifting world’ as he calls it and stay future relevant

I had a ton of fun geeking out on quizzing, storytelling techniques and a fabulous, fascinating story about the flute maestro, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Let’s dive in.

Ravi (0:12)
Hi Ramanand, welcome to the Story Rules podcast!

Ramanand (0:15)
Hi, Ravi. Thanks a lot for having me on the show.

Ravi (0:19)
Wonderful. So, Ramanand, I was listening to another interview that you had given; and while on LinkedIn your designation is Co-founder and Upleveler at Choose To Thinq, which is a cool designation; but in the interview, you said something which was so much more evocative: you referred to the famous quote, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” by William Gibson, and then you say that you guys at Choose To Thinq like to distribute the future more evenly. That is so evocative and so beautifully said. When I was trying to see what you do, (I saw that) that is (exactly) what you’re doing! You guys are at the leading edge of what is happening in various worlds from a thought leadership point of view, and then you’re able to package and present that, and apply that to so many different contexts and help people to uplevel themselves, and stay relevant to do that. I really love that way of description; my first question to you on that, is how did you even arrive at that (description)? Was it that when you were just thinking about (your work) you came across that quote, and you connected the two?

Ramanand (1:47)
Thanks, Ravi. I’m actually going to add one more quote, which has become my favourite quote about the future in recent times. The quote says that ‘the future is like a foreign country, and we are all immigrants to that country.’ So, you’re always in this process of making that adjustment; being uncertain is par for the course. And if you combine this with the famous Gibson quote about distribution, I think the way we stumbled upon this was that it emerged. We didn’t really know how to articulate this when we started in 2014. All we knew was that we were seeking an answer to the question of ‘why aren’t more people familiar with many things that we see people ahead of the curve employing?’
For example, you’re a fan of storytelling; you’ve been teaching people how to do storytelling, and storytelling has been a part of human history from as soon as we discovered language, perhaps. But it is still a timeless part of everyone’s future. The one thing you can take for granted in 10 years’ time is that we will still remain storytellers. We will still need someone to teach us new things, because of this notion, being that the future is a foreign country. Therefore, I think that because of just reading, just keeping our eyes and ears open, and talking to a lot of people, we slowly assembled this idea that we were working to help people be future relevant. And I think the good thing now is that – there is a famous story about being a frog in a well with boiling water. We can all feel the temperature go up very quickly now. It wasn’t the case with, perhaps a previous generation, where things were much slower. But now, every year you can feel climate change at a personal level, in a metaphorical level. I think the case for future relevance has become so much stronger. I think it’s emerged in our journey over the last eight years.

Ravi (3:58)
When you guys started off, with Choose To Thinq, how would you describe yourself? I’m sure this is something that is developed over time, but, how did you start off?

Ramanand (4:05)
Right. Someone that works with Choose to Thinq – Sanasi, who you also know – would often call this the Harish – my Co-founder, the “Harish and Ramanand pet project.” That’s essentially what Choose To Thinq was, and what I think she jokingly meant, was that it was really an exploration for all the things we were interested in. But it wasn’t just a passion project. I’m not a big fan of the phrase ‘explore your passion.’

Ravi (4:34)
‘Follow your passion.’

Ramanand (4:35)
‘Follow your passion.’ You know, ‘passion’ originally meant suffering. Jesus Christ, in fact, the period where he is taken to be crucified is (called) the Passion of the Christ. So, ‘passion’ is actually suffering. I do not intend to suffer for a hobby, or whatever. What I think we were doing in the first few years was to say that “yes, we’ve done a few things in our life.” (Such as) our education; I’ve been an applied researcher; Harish was a marketer; we were into things like quizzing; we liked to read a lot of books; the people we hung out with were interesting people. And so, sometimes people would come to us and ask for help with problems. “Can you help us build a culture of innovation?”, “Can you come and help us elicit interesting stories about our last 25 years of being a company?”

Ravi (5:34)
Why would people come to you for doing this?

Ramanand (5:36)
That was a puzzle in itself! This 25 years thing, was actually (asked by) Dr. Anand Deshpande of Persistent Systems – someone I had worked with long back. One day, he called me and said, “Ramanand, we are celebrating 25 years. I’m getting all the alumni of Persistent and current employees. I really want them to talk a little bit about what has happened in the past, but I don’t want to go to them with a mic and say, ‘Tell me about the last 25 years’ or ‘What was it (like) when you joined in 2014?’ I know I will get a lot of very mundane answers, like ‘It was great’; ‘It was terrific!’; ‘I wish Persistent all the best.’” He somehow felt that we could crack that puzzle.

Ravi (6:20)
Do you know why? Sorry, I’m just probing a bit; What was it that you did or said before, that made him think (you were suitable for this job)?

Ramanand (6:26)
Anand had seen us for a couple of decades. He knew me, he knew of my interest in quizzing. Persistent was a big supporter of quizzing in Pune. I think, Anand, and perhaps people like him, just believed that they could let us loose and we would come up with something (useful). It’s not just Anand, a lot of people have done it. When we reflected on that, we realized we had a slightly unique set of interests and skills. This is perhaps what Scott Adams would call a ‘talent stack’. Scott Adams of ‘Dilbert’ fame; in his book, he spoke about assembling multiple different things, which are almost a unique combination. In a place like Pune, someone who was good at quizzing, someone who had worked in software environment somewhere, who could build a rapport with a group of people and get them talking – I think Anand, and people like Anand saw that (in us), and they trusted our ability to get creative. They must have seen little snippets of this over a period of time, (in) the conversations that you do. It’s almost like a living interview that you’re giving every day, you’re always auditioning for a job that you did not know is going to come to you in the future. In some sense, I should turn around and ask you, “Why do you have me on your show?” I’m not a storyteller by profession, or by label, but there is some reason that you called us. It’s a hard-to-articulate combination of things that happened.
I think over time, we got better at understanding (what we did). One (thing) was this future relevance piece. One was that curiosity is something that we made visible, and so people felt a sense of connection to other curious people. It’s like a magnet, we are all attracted to each other’s thoughts and ideas. Somewhere, this putting yourself out there and expressing yourselves through maybe a quiz question – like in my case, or a story somewhere; or just an interesting conversation between two people without asking ‘what is in it for me tomorrow?’, I think, has contributed to that perception.

Ravi (8:43)
Fascinating! For those who are listening, the book that you refer to, by Scott Adams, is ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’, right? That’s where he talks about this talent stack.

Ramanand (8:52)
That is correct. It resonated a lot with me, because I am a classic jack of all trades. I have a master’s degree in one (thing) but, consciously I think I’ve always been a ‘breadth first’ sort of person. So, what Adams talks about – his idea for a ‘talent stack’ really deeply resonated with me.

Ravi (9:16)
What would be the elements of your talent stack?

Ramanand (9:19)
Being able to construct quiz questions is an interesting one to start with, because that’s not what most people would say. And even if you just look at that element, and I’ve been quizzing for 20-25 years – it involves being able to write well, (and) expressing yourself very clearly. I’m talking about my best hits. There are always days where that doesn’t come out of the hand that well. So, one (thing) is being able to write reasonably well, with some clarity and lucidity; to construct logically: that calls for some kind of analytical thinking; to be able to assimilate knowledge from different places, to spot them, to take notes. This itself is like a mini talent stack. You need a mini talent stack to tell good stories, similarly (you need one) to write questions, or to create a puzzle.
So if I expand that: I have a degree in computer science, a field that I really enjoyed studying and learning about. I did applied research and learned to think, both creatively and critically, in a lot of situations, because applied research has a lot in common with the much-feted world of starting up, which is that you take a problem with a blank canvas and you try to identify something you can work on, and you’re very comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing where to go. It’s like a creative process of any kind.
So being able to read very vociferously, very effectively (is another element). Despite being an introverted kind of person, being able to strike up conversations around ideas, and around interest areas. Watching TV became a part of my talent stack. I think we’re all part of that ‘Doordarshan generation’ where one saw a lot of interesting things, a wide variety of things. I like to sit in front of the TV and watch a bunch of things. All of this just keeps, layer by layer, adding to your talent stack. So, a lot of humble bragging there. But if you look back and see, that’s what must have happened.

Ravi (11:39)
It is important, I think, to reflect. It’s self-awareness, I would say, that you have to (have). I’m sure in your stack, there are elements where you know that ‘these are not my strengths’, and that’s also important to know, and that helps you to then say, “Okay, in this job I need these set of talents or skills, and I don’t have them, so let me change or pivot a little bit and figure out where it will work and find the best fit for my talent stack and the world as we speak.”
I’m also a huge fan of that concept. I remember when I read it – and it’s been referred to in many other books – I keep joking about the fact that I’m a CA, because I keep telling people “Any questions you have about the right tax saving instruments, right mutual funds, about the budget provisions, or about cryptocurrency, anything at all – please don’t ask me.” Because I’ve forgotten that a long time ago! But it’s a part of my stack, and I am grateful for it. I’m happy that if somebody comes to me with a slide with a lot of information, data, financial information, I’m comfortable with it. And I’m able to combine that with my love for reading, writing, storytelling, and make it work. So yeah, I think it’s a great concept.
I want to go back to the question that we started with, which is: how do you better describe what you do? If you meet somebody new at a get-together, instead of saying, “Hey, I’m a Co-founder at Choose To Thinq”, if you tell them the William Gibson quote, which is (about how) the future is just (not evenly distributed) and ‘we help to distribute the future more evenly’, that is so much better! I was just wondering whether you have some thoughts on whether everybody can apply this. So, if somebody is an HR Director, or the Finance Manager, or IT Project Manager, how can they apply this thinking, or this principle, to describe what they do better?

Ramanand (13:41)
This is something we struggled with for a long time. One (issue was that) there was a wide variety of things that we were dabbling in, or that we were doing; we were dipping our toes in all sorts of ponds, and oceans, and lakes. In a sense, because we said that we cannot do an elevator pitch in the early days, we said, “let’s walk on the staircase a little bit, we’ll tell you what we’ve been doing.”
We said “Okay, at least for the time being, let’s flip it into a strength. Let’s say that because of this almost inarticulable reason, people want to work with us.” And I think some of the best successes we’ve had with Choose To Thinq, have been people coming to us with a problem and believing we were the only people to solve that problem. They couldn’t think of anyone else. It was usually very amorphous, very ambiguous. And so, we said fine initially, let’s flip it and say that if someone wants to have that conversation, if someone can bear to hear about a little bit of our story, how did we get here? That’s when we did try to emphasize on our personal journeys; how did we get here? What are we doing here? What have we been doing in the last couple of years? If you had the patience and the interest in that story, in that elaboration, then perhaps we were a good mental fit for each other. It became a self-selection criterion. What you’re doing is, you’re saying “how can I send out that beacon so that more people get attracted to the right kind of people?” And in many cases, people for whom this did not strike a chord, how can you let them self-select out very early? This is one thing that we did.
We also tried to have lots of different conversations, at least for Harish, who is the face of conversations externally. We tried to enable as many conversations and as many experiments as possible, so to some people you are telling the story; to some people you are trying material out on them, in terms of like one-line or two-line explanations, to see what resonates. You just go out and try not to do the same thing 100 times. You do 100 things (at) once and you start weeding things out. I think this must have been very difficult for a lot of our associates, our collaborators, “Karte kya hain? Ghar pe kya bolu?” (What do we do? What do I say at home?) because we had a lot of young folks, (who were) just out of college, (who had) never been to a regular company. I’m sure their parents were wondering what is going on. We, in fact, even came up with these (suggestions), “Just tell them this.”; “This is the easiest explanation that will satisfy them.” And in my own case, for example, when I would meet relatives – I would tell them different parts of what I do, depending on what I thought they were interested in. For some people, I would tell them the quizzing part; some people, I would tell them consulting part; some people, I would tell them (about) the work that we did on innovation. It’s like you know you’re an elephant, and you’re surrounded with people with limited visibility. I wouldn’t call them blind, (but) for whatever reason, they are not interested in the entirety of the picture. No one really is. So, can you become smart in understanding what this audience wants, give it to them, and wait for them to see if they want to go further? If they want to, let’s do a deep dive, I’ll take you further – is an approach we took, but I think, finally we’re happy that in the last couple of years, we’ve corralled it into a box, where we can say, “Hi, I’m from Choose To Thinq, and I help organizations, teams, and individuals be continuously relevant for the future. I can talk about culture, and curiosity, and I’ve got a case study. Finally, I think we just make sure you survive long enough to be able to discover your story (that’s been) waiting for you, a decade later.” 

Ravi (17:42)
I love that. I love that all those years of climbing the staircase has now given you access to the elevator pitch. There are so many lovely threads from there that I want to talk about, Ramanand:
One thing you said is, “start with the Why”. Which is to say, tell them why are you doing this and that itself will be attracting the right kind of people (who will say) “Oh, I love that passion!” – sorry, wrong word – “Oh, I love their curiosity and their story!” That was one (point) which I really liked.
The second point which I really liked, was like how a start-up tries to find product-market fit, what Harish and you were trying to do is to find – I don’t know if this is the right word, but, a story-market fit; What story resonates really well with the audience? Let’s keep trying different variants: short, long, detailed, angular, analogy, and then see what works really well. I love that. I think that’s also a great lesson for anybody who’s trying to tell either their own story, or their organization’s story; try different things. You cannot be the best judge, the audience will be the best judge, and what resonates will work.

Ramanand (18:51)
Yeah, I like the idea of a story-market fit. In fact, I would go one step further and also say it’s like a value-market fit, or a value to value fit. The story becomes a vehicle for sharing that piece of value. So, if there is a meeting of minds, there is something that is in common with those two people in that particular context. And I think that story, or the interaction that one has, brings that to life in a way that I can say, “Yeah, you’re my kind of person.”

Ravi (19:24)
I love that! And the other thing that resonates with me when you say that is the whole concept of trust. When Aristotle talks about Ethos, Pathos, Logos. We are persuaded when we trust other people, so values are how we trust other people. And the story is a vehicle that generates that trust on both ends. That’s a great additional point.
The third point, which I liked in your description of how you describe yourself, was keeping the audience in mind. (If) you’re talking to an elderly relative, you don’t have to tell them about William Gibson’s quote; you tailor it for that audience. Accordingly, it’ll be different for a CEO, and so on. That’s the third thing.
The fourth, which you’ve not mentioned, but I saw coming through in your description, is that instead of saying “I am Co-founder, and I am this designation”, which is inward looking, you have reframed it as, “who do I help and how do I help them?” So, “Who do I help? I actually help all leaders”, in your case; How do you help? you help them by being future relevant, by distributing the future more evenly.  And I think that’s a framework that everybody can use. Instead of saying, “I’m an accountant”, “I help save your taxes” is a better reframing of the same thing. So, great insights on how just a simple elevator pitch, a simple self-description can have so many storytelling applications in this sense.
I want to now move to the most fun part of this – which would be the quizzing one. I’ve been in awe of quizzers, Ramanand. I wish I was more of a quizzer, but I have not been one.  I’ve done a little bit of quizzes here and there; I still remember when I was in the 10th or 11th grade – which is quite old! – in a Ganesh Chaturthi celebration in our society in Sion, in Bombay. At that time, I had just moved back into Bombay from Aurangabad, and I was known to be a very quiet, studious kind of guy; “Padhaku(Bookworm/Nerd), as you call it. And here the questions were mostly about Bollywood, about Hindi movies. Unknown to most of the other (people), I was a huge consumer of these movie magazines. My mom used to subscribe to Filmfare, Stardust, and Screen, and I would read them cover to cover! So, I knew a lot of movie gossip, which movies are coming up, who acted in what, and all that. I was nailing a lot of these questions; I would love to see the reactions of (everyone else being like) “You?! This guy is able to answer questions on these random Bollywood things?” That dopamine hit is really, really powerful. So, I want to take you back to when you first felt that hit, and how did you fall in love with quizzing?

Ramanand (22:17)
Unfortunately, I’m one of those born quizzers, so I really don’t know when the quizzing bug bit. It must have bitten long back! No one in my family’s remotely into quizzing. Anyway, quizzers are a small group of people, (a) subculture. I know a lot of people who have developed that interest in quizzing, and that’s through exposure to good quizzes. We should all owe some debt of gratitude to Durga Pujas, Ganesh Chaturthis, and festivals for keeping some amount of local quizzing alive; maybe we’ll dig into that later.
The kinds of quizzes that a lot of people are exposed to in schools, or as you said, you must be in the top three ranks for you to be sent to an inter-school quiz. Just because that’s the default match. Then there’ll be children who are really good at quizzing, (and are) interested, who don’t get to be sent. All these things happen, and they essentially filter you out before you have a chance to experience good quizzing. In my case, like I said, I was a born quizzer; I can clearly remember when I was little, I would look at encyclopaedias, or I would look at books about flags – they fascinated me endlessly, the designs and later, when I discovered the stories behind why different flags have different choices–

Ravi (23:45)
Sorry, can you cycle back (on that?) This is very interesting. How old were you when you were reading about this?

Ramanand (23:51)
I remember being in 1st standard, 6 years old.

Ravi (23:53)

Ramanand (22:55)
I must also thank a lot of my cousins. I come from a big extended family, and I am the second youngest cousin in my family.

Ravi (24:05)
So there are a lot of elder brothers and sisters.

Ramanand (24:08)
That generation, everyone has Enid Blyton’s books being passed on from generations; Agatha Christie’s books, Wodehouse. I can even remember someone offering me a Wodehouse when I was about 10 years old, and me saying, “No, I don’t like this.” I look back and say, “Man, what an idiot!” because they had a superb collection, which they later gave away. I should have just kept it, and I would have enjoyed it now. But I was fortunate that I had access to random books. 

Ravi (24:37)
You were surrounded by books growing up, essentially.

Ramanand (24:40)
People just allowed me access to it through cousins, or they’d just give it to my parents and say, “Give it to him, we are running out of space. We know he will look at it.” It became a one directional flow, internally.
Along the way, I can remember out of date books – encyclopaedias, they would stop in the 70s or 80s, and then you would have countries that no longer existed on the map. I was just browsing through stuff.

Ravi (25:13)
Hang on. You typically start (with) fiction, right? It can get boring to flip through an encyclopaedia. 

Ramanand (25:22)
You know, I think I’m also a born reader. So, I would have read the telephone directory, and I have read the telephone directory and Yellow Pages. In fact, one thing that I used to read very regularly, and I still do, is the ‘change of name’ columns in newspapers, if you remember. You’ve got those people changing their names, (one thing) we will see is what has changed on the surface –sometimes it’s a contraction, sometimes it’s a spelling mistake, sometimes it is clearly numerological, you can (easily) tell. I mean, I figured out much later that it was the case. In one case, I also figured out that one of my relatives had changed their name, and not told anyone else in the family! I was the first to find out, because they had to put it in the (newspaper) because of gazetting rules. I would pretty much read everything cover to cover. And this was normal. I would read fiction, if it was around me; I would read stuff like this, if needed. The flag (thing) is an example (of this): I just had a book around me, or it was an encyclopaedia, (and I read it). The Manorama yearbook, for example – a lot of people know about the Manorama yearbook. It was just this compendium of random things. In the middle there would be these photos and flags. So, I’d just stare at them. In fact, I can also remember things like when the 1990 Football World Cup was there, or the 1987 Cricket World Cup was there, I had copied down the names of players, drawn out their flags. (There is) some weird reason that you do this, you cannot really explain why. I was really setting myself up for a lifetime of quizzing. But the flip side is that, somehow, I found myself in this situation in school where I never really got to quiz. My first interschool quiz was in 9th standard, in Bombay. And I did exactly three quizzes between 9th and 12th. It all really blossomed when I went to College of Engineering, Pune. But I had years of accumulated debt, or anticipation that I think I’m still expending.

Ravi (27:30)
Incredible! Is there any reason why you did not do too much quizzing while in school?

Ramanand (27:36)
There was no reason. I just found myself in a lot of these interestingly small, shady schools, that it’s been my fortune to be in, I would say. I never went to these bigshot schools. They may not have gotten invited by (the other schools); they were not part of the elite circuit. So, we never heard of anything remotely classy in terms of quizzing. But I think there were enough shows on TV that one could to watch, so the quizzing appetite just kept going. I had friends who would like to quiz. In fact, my first ever proper quiz was in the 8th standard, as an internal or intra-school event. I’ve actually written about this elsewhere, it’s a story in itself. I ended up crying in that, because, first of all, they didn’t let you choose your team. They randomized the team, and I went with some random people. I was the only person answering questions in that (team). Then there was one question where the Quizmaster misinterpreted my answer; there were two possible answers, and he went with the one that I didn’t give him. And so, we lost by the smallest margin, and I went home and I cried because, what the hell, right? It was all pent-up emotion. That was my first ever quiz, and it ended in tears. And like I say in that story, since then, I can proudly say that I’ve never cried at a quiz.

Ravi (29:08)
Incredible. Did you have a role model, or somebody at home who would encourage you? Or was it all mostly self-driven?

Ramanand (29:15)
I think, a lot of smart people just got out of the way. They just said, “Go ahead.”
I briefly lived in Chennai for five years, where there were a lot of book exhibitions, and we would just go there and pick up some books. Of course, like any good middle-class family, there would be one eye on the budget, for sure. But I was allowed to pick up stuff, try out stuff. There was a lot of eclectic stuff there. Like I said, along with my cousins, who were generous in keeping me well stocked (with books), it just kept coming; that mental model of inversion where you (say) “just avoid these habits”, I think they did that to me, they just got out (of the way).

Ravi (30:03)
Can you tell us some of your most memorable hits when they asked an interesting, or a tough question, and you could (crack it) because of all these built-up years of (learning)? And the interesting this is that – it’s not memory. That’s the point we’re going to talk about in the next few minutes or so. (It’s not memory, instead) it’s working things out. I was reading about the Quartzy example; (also the one with) the young guy with a full head of hair. Maybe you can share something about those, and a few more.

Ramanand (30:34)
Sure, I’ll talk about that. One thing for our listeners is that in some sense, the kind of quizzing that I practice, and a lot of people that I know (practice) – there is like a circuit in India for these kinds of quizzes. The difference is a lot like the difference between the cryptic style of crosswords, and the quick style. Everyone starts with a quick style, where it is (concerned with) what is the definition, what is the meaning of this word? and you put it in. Then you have a cryptic style, where you really have to be initiated into the rules of the whole cryptic crossword scene, which is (knowing) what part is the clue and what part is the dressing around it. How to spot anagrams, how to look out for acronyms, things like that. Similarly, when you start in school, you have these straightforward (questions like) “When did the Partition of Bengal happen?” – again, this was a memorable moment. This was the first time I answered a question. One of the things we were talking about was a talent stack, and I think learnability and taking educated guesses is a talent stack. I can still vividly remember that my partner didn’t know the answer to what was the partition of Bengal, and neither did I.

Ravi (31:47)
“What” as in, which year (did the partition of Bengal take place in)? 

Ramanand (31:48)
Yeah, “what year”. So, you get asked these kinds of questions in school quizzes, or even in history exams. And I said, let’s say something, what’s the problem? So, I said, 1905 for whatever reason, and it was right! Total (guess). You just go for it, (and there’s a) one-in-a-hundred chance of getting it right. But as I got into the College of Engineering, Pune, I met a bunch of people. They were doing this cryptic style, in the sense that there were slightly more verbose questions; there were a lot more clues embedded (in them) and the idea was that you will not get asked questions like “What was the date of (some event)?”, but if you do, there will be a reason for it. Because we believe that we’ve given you a few clues to get there. I must mention my friend Niranjan Pednekar, who kind of pioneered this, and he would always say that a great question is one in which half the answer is hidden somewhere, you just have to spend some time trying to figure it out. I’ll give you the example that we spoke about, the Quartzy example. Niranjan’s quizzes became something that really blew my mind. This was the kind of quizzing that is one step above (the rest), in that, it assimilates information from different sorts of areas, and it’s like a true pitch – you trust that pitch; the “bounce” will be true. You will not get questions like “when did the Partition happen?”, and the other questions you would get would be beautiful, workable sort of questions.
On one occasion, in my second year, I had a good quizzing partner; It was an open quiz, so despite being college students, non-college folks who were older to you would come and participate. I’m paraphrasing Niranjan here, but essentially, he had asked a question about a type of mineral called ‘Quartzy’  – what is special about it? What record does it hold? In quizzes, we have passing. One of the interesting things about stage quizzing, is that someone will try to answer – and these are all stabs in the dark; none of us really knows the answer outright, and that is the fun. So, you’ll take an educated guess, you’ll be wrong. Then the next person will do it, meanwhile, we are also narrowing down our options by listening to what the other people have guessed. So, there is some element of stage craft involved. While that was happening – and this was one of those interesting, serendipitous moments where you’re just open in that moment – I happened to notice one of my fellow quizzers, a senior in college, who was sitting in the first row of that quiz’s audience. The last time I met him, a few days ago, he had been telling me about this literature festival that he attended. And he had taken part in Scrabble, at that point of time. So, the word ‘Scrabble’ popped into my head, and I looked at this and said, “It’s got Q, it’s got Z; we are struggling and don’t know what the answer is.”
Then I told my partner, Sujay, about it, “Doesn’t this look like a Scrabble word?” and by the time it came to us, we said “Let’s just go for this one; let’s simply say it’s one of those words for which you can get the highest scores in scrabble”, we gave it, and it was correct! We couldn’t believe it. There was applause, and it all sparked off because I saw this friend of mine in the audience.

Ravi (35:18)
It’s rare to get that kind of a hit, right? That dopamine hit that you get when you (get an answer right).

Ramanand (35:24)
So the interesting thing – and the reason why I think quizzers are still quizzing – is because you get that very often in these quizzes, if they’re well-constructed. We spoke about audiences earlier; a question like this will flop if your audience does not know what Scrabble is. That’s the true nature of it. I know a lot of people to whom I would not ask this question, because if I tried to do so, it would fall flat. It is like telling a joke – you’re assuming certain things about your audience. It’s like constructing a puzzle at the right level of difficulty. What’s happened now among the quizzing community, is that we know what we can take as foundational blocks of information, and we can build on that.
A few years ago, I was at my in-laws’, and this was the day after Diwali, it was Bhaidooj; I had been corralled into making a quiz, that too in Hindi! I said, “I’ll do it, but I’m not going to host it.” I got my wife to host it. We asked ourselves, “What is it that we can do about this?”
We came up with interesting questions about brothers and sisters, we came up with questions about Indore, which is where this event was happening. And one of the questions that I came up with was about someone who was born to a policeman, became a struggling actor, moved to Bombay to become an actor, so on so forth; his son was born in Indore – who is the son?
Spoiler alert for the answer, because I don’t have my notes right now to construct this well, but the answer is Salman Khan. This was something that I did not know for a long time. He was born in Indore, and I recently also learned that Lata Mangeshkar was also born in Indore. Suddenly, you have an interesting connection between Salman Khan and Lata Mangeshkar. And so, when you have that audience, I know they would like their Bollywood, just like you liked your Bollywood in that Ganesh Chaturthi quiz. But it was a personal connection. If I asked you this, you’d say, “Yeah, fine. Indore. What’s the big deal?”, and that’s why I think you get these dopamine hits a lot more; it’s a little more engineered than we realize.

Ravi (37:31)
Yeah. I think there is the possibility of using some of these techniques to, well not to get this level of hits in the workplace, but to use some of these techniques, at least, to deliver your key findings. You may be presenting a review about what happened in the last 3 months, and there if you have a surprising finding, you can actually use some of these (techniques).
I want to now take a couple of question examples – questions that you have said in your newsletter, Infinite Zounds. Is it now a daily newsletter?

Ramanand (38:05)
Infinite Zounds is something that I did earlier, between 2010-2017, and I’ve resumed it now. It’s a daily affair, and for the last couple of decades I have been setting questions on an average of at least one a day. It might happen in bursts, but you can say it’s something that I do daily.

Ravi (38:28)
Incredible. So, you’ve got this lovely database of questions. Let’s pick up a couple, and we’ll go through the questions and the answers. I wish there was an audience here!

Ramanand (38:38)
Ravi, an audience of one is as good as an audience of many. In fact, it’s more fun. I think quizzers probably realize it and non-quizzers don’t, that you can have a conversation (with one person and that would be sufficient.) Sometimes when I’m introducing a topic at home, or to friends, I say, “Let me ask you this question first”, and they’re used to that. So, I think you’re as good an audience as I could hope for.

Ravi (39:02)
Unfortunately, I know the answers to these two questions!

Ramanand (39:04)
Let’s pretend that you don’t.

Ravi (39:06)
Oh, sure! I must tell you, I applied them on my wife yesterday, and that was great fun! What I want to do, once you have gone through (the questions), is to deconstruct it. What did you start with? What was the fact that you started with, and how did you reconstruct it into this quiz question?
Let’s start with the one that is a surveyor’s chain question. Could you maybe ask that question?

Ramanand (39:33)
Sure. This is one of my favourite questions, which is why I really like asking it to different people. I’m going to read out the question first: A surveyor’s chain, it’s a measuring device. I’ve actually studied civil engineering briefly, in the 12th standard, so I’ve seen a chain like this. It’s a measuring device, and its form will be familiar to students of civil engineering even today, because you use chains like this in the field. It was first used in England, in the late 17th century, primarily to help landowners measure land. So, think about that time. You didn’t have a measuring tape, so they would essentially take a chain of a particular length, and use that to measure land. Now this surveyor’s chain had 100 metal links of equal length, each link being of 7.92 inches. The legacy of this chain, which originated in the 17th century, is still preserved to this date, in a very different field. For those of you who know Ravi well, this is a field of interest of his. If you watch this podcast, or have spent any length of time with him, this is something that you (would know). At this point, the audience goes off and tries to think through what this could be.
I’ll tell you about the first time I asked this question. In fact, this is where my friend, Niranjan, who set the question I spoke about – the Scrabble related question, he was on the other side, and he answered this question. He was last in the order of passing. So, I had people guessing various kinds of things. Some people try to think of it in terms of S.I. Units for something; some people tried to…I can’t remember these interesting wrong guesses that they had, but as it moved past (them) and came to Niranjan, what he did was that he took a different approach. He trusted the pitch. He said, “there must be a bunch of clues, let’s go look for them.”

Ravi (41:42)
I love the analogy.

Ramanand (41:43)
Yeah! He said – I’m thinking about what must have happened in his head, and these things happen really quickly – so he must have said, “7.92 inches, right? It’s not just a trivial detail. Let’s take that, multiply it by 100” which is the number of links in the chain, and you reach 792 inches as a result. What do you do with inches? You try and maybe convert it into feet. Because that’s really the only thing you can do. So, you do that, and you end up with 66 feet and say, “Wow, something is emerging here. Let’s convert that into yards”, and you essentially end up with 22 yards. Everyone who knows anything about 22 yards will spot the connection to cricket. Then you go back to the question and see the little pun about it being a field, and all that. That’s how he (must have figured it out). By the time I got there, he said, “the length of a cricket pitch is what it is.”

Ravi (42:28)
Amazing. I love that! And this was one of those very rare questions, that I could actually work out, similar to what he (Niranjan) did. In fact, when this came up, I was trying to see if 22 appears somewhere in the answer. I did the (multiplication which led me to) 792, which I divided by 12 and it led me to 66, so I was like, “Oh, damn, I wish it was 22 .” And then I realized, “Wait a minute! It is the same.” That was a lot of fun, with 3 feet being 1 yard. Let’s keep this question to the side, and we’ll come back to it.
I want to take one more question, and then try and find the pattern as to how (you go about this process). The statement that you’re starting off with, is ‘a cricket pitch is 22 yards, and it’s measured by a thing called a surveyor’s chain, which has got 100 equal chain (links) of 7.92 inches each,’ Okay, let’s keep that out on another side. Now, the question I’m going to talk about is this one – it’s a recent Infinite Zounds one – about how in Japan they are called tigers, in the UK, Croatia and Canada, they are dragons; in Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Finland, they are lions –by the way, here I’m thinking, “Lions…football? What are we talking about?” – What is the equivalent term used in countries such as the US and India? And you were in a generous mood, I see, because you put, in brackets, “since December 2021 in India”, and I loved that. So, I could work it out, but I don’t think I’d have been able to do it without that clue. Can you talk about this question?

Ramanand (44:05)
Let’s give out the answer first. If you look at this question first, and see what are the clues in it – I must say one thing, that with something like Infinite Zounds, which goes out to a wide variety of people, I’m swimming a little blind. I would have liked to know what audience it is. I’m guessing that these are people who like a slightly difficult level of quizzing, and there are options in that which I’ve also added, just to make it easier for people who couldn’t get that first level. I think every good quiz setter wants their questions to be answered. It’s not as if we want to do that one-upmanship on people. It’s very easy to get obscure and high levelled on people. So, my ideal answer is one which a few people have tried and failed, and someone else’s got it. And then everyone before that (person) actually looks at it and says, “Yeah, we should have gotten it. The clues were staring us right in the face,” because once you get the answer, you look back and see all roads lead to that thing, but it’s not so in the prospective direction. That is your ideal sort of reaction that you want to elicit. Even if you get it wrong, there is a resonance, that feeling that the gap was not so large that I could not have scaled it.
Coming back to this question. One thing that people who are on the Infinite Zounds list know, is that it’s related to current affairs; something that has been in the zeitgeist in recent times. So, then you look at what animals they are: there’s something that’s common to all of these animals; they’re connected to countries; they are slightly predatory types of animals, if you look at it. I’m hoping people will catch the whiff of all of these, but it is very hard to underline that and say, “Dekho, yeh clue hai.” (Look, this is the clue.) You can’t do that. You have to let people trust their own instinct to get there. Eventually, the India clue, the current affairs (clue) (helps them piece it together). I’ve also said ‘TV’ somewhere as a hashtag. Sometimes, you do put red herrings to try and mislead people as well. That’s the joy of letting them sift out the clue from the not-clue. So, the answer eventually is that in the case of India, and the U.S., these are called sharks. The reference is to the TV show Shark Tank, which has been on the news in India, and they are doing very well. And these are all precursors to the actual different versions of the show in different countries. In Japan, they were called Tigers. They were called Dragons in European countries, some of them called them Lions; in India, it’s called Sharks. And this is a slightly different sort of question. This is more of a question with very open-ended amounts of options. The answer space, if I can call it that, is fairly wide. But I don’t want to narrow it down to just one or two (options) because that’s where it becomes too obvious. The gap has to be like the Goldilocks zone.

Ravi (47:10)
I’d love to know what made you curious about saying, “Okay, we are all aware of Shark Tank,” I did not even know, by the way, that there were these other (names for the show) I thought every country’s program was called “Shark whatever.” We had all known about Shark Tank, U.S., and now we know about Shark Tank, India. Were you aware of some of these? What made you curious to find out whether these (shows) are even there in other countries? What are they called in other countries? How did you even stumble upon this fact?

Ramanand (47:39)
In contrast to the previous question, maybe I’ll talk a little bit about both questions, because I think they took two different routes to come here. In the case of the surveyor’s chain question, I did not go and investigate why 22 yards came about. We take a lot of things for granted in our life, and 22 yards was one of those things. It never struck me that there would be a story behind it. In fact, there’s a nice little story if you have time, which unfortunately, even if the quiz question is a little verbose already, it cannot be made even more verbose. I happened to read this in a random book I picked up from the British library about the history of cricket, and stuff like that. I picked it up and I recorded it for future use, and I put it together in this form.
Whereas, in the case of the Shark Tank question, it was more deliberate. I wanted to ask a question about Shark Tanks, and I didn’t know what question I was going to ask. I just knew that I’m interested in that space, and I knew people will be thinking about it. It’s a legitimate question to ask in the context of current affairs quizzes. And so, I just went and started digging about it. You go and search for it, you look at the Wikipedia page, you just look up these different references. Wikipedia, I think, does mention where Shark Tank started from, but then you don’t trust Wikipedia on the surface, so you go and see if this (information) is really true. I did that little bit of research. It was a very deliberate attempt to ask a question about Shark Tank. But I did not know, by the way, that there were these other variations. Even I thought they were all called sharks everywhere. And so, the process of researching the question brought these facts in front of me. In fact, there’s a lot of other things that people (could ask). For example, you could ask about the past winners of Shark Tank in the USA. One possible question that just occurred to me now, is ‘What are the different products that came out of Shark Tank?’, what products were backed on the finale for each year? That (question) becomes “What is common to all of these in these years?” And if they look like innovative, “Jugaadu” (Built with hustle) kind of products, then someone might be able to make that cognitive leap. In the case of India, right now we have only one data point. So, we’ll have to wait.
This is how I did these two different questions. 

Ravi (50:18)
Fascinating stuff. You know, some of the things that I’m seeing you do, Ramanand, from a storytelling point of view, is that you try and find something unknown about something that we take for granted, and is known. You take either Shark Tank, or you might take Lata Mangeshkar, or Salman Khan, or a Cricket pitch, and we know all of these things. You try and pick out something that is unknown (about these known things). And when you’re stating the question, normally the question would be, 90% of the time, people would have asked, “Do you know where Salman Khan was born?” because that is the unknown part. Everybody knows Salman Khan. The surprising or unknown part is Indore. but that’s not a great way of asking the question. What you do, which is a fascinating part for me, is that you flip it.

Ramanand (51:01)

Ravi (51:02)
You pull the new part, and then you make the known part as the answer. So, when the answer is something that you have known all along, I know Shark Tank, I know Salman Khan, I know cricket pitches, that hit is brilliant.
There’s a nice line that I remember, “An insight sometimes really works, when it is obvious in hindsight.” Like you said, all the clues are pointing to Rome, everything was pointing to that, and I should have gotten it. One element is surprise, which is something new about that certain thing, but it’s something new about something that you know. The storytelling principle that really works here for me, is that all storytelling – lots of products, and everything – in fact, is a balance between novelty and familiarity. You’re trying to use something that is novel, and at the same time you don’t want it to be too novel, you want to have that balance. I think every quiz question does that balance beautifully. If we were to now try and apply this to a business or corporate context, if somebody has something interesting to share, how might he or she used this quiz question setting technique, to make a surprising fact land with more impact?

Ramanand (52:31)
Before that, I want to take your permission to tell you one more story about a favourite way of how I came across a question, and link it to that, because we tried to do this once. The story is about the famous flautist, Hariprasad Chaurasia. It’s one more type of question, and one more starting point for a question which involves surprise, so it ticks all your boxes.
I was a student at IIT Bombay, and SPIC MACAY – which is an organization that promotes awareness of Indian classical art forms in India – had an event where Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia was to perform.  Expecting that there would be a lot of people attending, I showed up about one, one and a half hours in advance. I sat in the first row, I said “Aisa mauka phir kahan milega?” (When will I get another chance like this?)
But as it turned out, not a lot of people showed up. But it was good for me. I was watching him play and perform, and slowly I realized that something was odd in the way he was playing. I had seen snippets of his performances on television, but it had never really struck me before. In fact, I remember posting this on a blog that I used to maintain at that time, saying that I saw this and I wonder if this is normal. I’m still going to hold on to what it is, because I’ve presented it in the form of a question. This stuck with me, and I went back to my desk later that evening, after the show got over. I decided to search for it, I thought this was a common style – not only did it turn out to be unusual, but there was a huge story behind it. Here’s the quick snapshot: Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia comes from a family of wrestlers, and none of them wanted him to become a musician, so there was a lot of opposition in his childhood. But talent is irrepressible, and finds its own way. He went and learned to sing, learned to play the flute; over time he came to Bombay and got into All India Radio, started composing with Shivkumar Sharma for films. They did all of that, but he felt that he wanted to get better – “uplevel”, as we would say in Choose To Thinq terms. He showed up at the doorstep of a very famous Surbahar player, Annapurna Devi, who is considered a legend, but also a recluse; someone who would not entertain everyone. So, he showed up, and she heard him out. She said, “Don’t waste my time, you’ve spent 10-15 years learning music, there’s nothing I can really teach you. Just go away.” He went away, but kept coming back, and then she essentially said that “You are not a novice; I cannot fashion you like wet clay. There’s no point, because your ways are set.”
So he did something – something very dramatic, in my opinion – to convince her to take him on as a student. She saw that and was impressed by the dedication, and took him on as a student. And that is what I noticed in that show.

Ravi (56:09)
I want to guess so badly! He used to play with his right hand, but he was playing with the other hand or something?

Ramanand (56:15)
Bang on! Perfect.

Ravi (56:17)
What?! That’s nuts.

Ramanand (56:18)
This is like telling Virat Kohli that Sachin Tendulkar will take you on as a Chela(student) if you suddenly start batting (with the other hand). So, he did that, and it started with a very small observation: that all of his disciples had the flutes pointing in opposite directions. That was the source of the observation. I thought, “Oh, it’s like guitars.” You have left-handed guitars, which is a different guitar or different piece of equipment, so I was just curious that maybe you have to have a different flute but the same order applies. But when I looked it up, all this came out. For me, it had been an amazing moment of what dedication and unlearning can look like.
Later, we were in a context where we were trying to help employees in a company think about innovation, and doing things very differently, or learning even as an adult. I couldn’t think of a better question than this, and it just so happened that some people there were interested in music.
Then, this was something that caused a resonance. You then use that as a starting point for what you have done, which is similar to this. Have you tried to unlearn something? Often, we try to underestimate our own efforts. Yes, we are not PT. Hariprasad Chaurasia, we are not going to become a maestro twice over, but there is something in our life that we may have taken a different cue on. And that is what we wanted to help these people discover. I think, one is that in corporate situations, there are little stories that are happening every day. Everyone is living a story of their life, and corporate life is a part of that. What we have not taught ourselves to do, is to spot them well. It’s like that 22-yards story, it’s just part of our environment and we never question it. We need a little bit of a reframed and slightly lateral way of looking at things. Someone simply asking “Ravi, why are you called Ravi? What’s the story behind that?” there could have bene some story behind it. Or, “Why do you have a globe behind you?”
When we ask the right question, or give the right starting point, it unlocks conversations in people.

Ravi (58:43)
I love that. This whole ability of a story – and I would call this an analogical story because it’s an analogy for what you can do – to inspire, to convince someone that what we’re trying to do is nothing compared to what this gentleman decided to do; he was at the top of his craft and then decided to completely unlearn it.
Coming back to using the power of questions in corporate situations, to actually even present information – and this was a great way to share a story. There’s one example that I use, let me pose it to you as a question: I was working for this large e-commerce player, and my topic was “What are some good ways to start your pitch or story?” and of course, a lot of people talk about starting with the answer first, and that works, but in some situations, you may want to pique the audience’s interest by asking a question. Let’s say if I’m presenting in such a situation in that e-commerce company, and I’m in charge of a new major change initiative. Maybe we want to change our ERP, or we want to implement a knowledge management system, something. I anticipate a fair amount of resistance to change. How do I start my presentation?
Here is one option: I’m going to read out a quote here, it’s a little long; “A culture like ours can create some problems of its own, too. The main one that comes to mind is the resistance to change. When folks buy into a way of doing things, and really believe it’s the best way, they develop a tendency to think that’s exactly the way things should always be done. I have made it my own personal mission to ensure that constant change is a vital part of X’s culture. I force change, sometimes for the change’s sake itself, at every turn in our company’s development. In fact, I think one of the greatest strengths of X’s ingrained culture is its ability to drop everything and turn on a dime.”
My question is who is this person, and what is ‘X’?

Ramanand (1:01:09)
Okay. You’re quoting someone here?

Ravi (1:01:12)
Yeah, I’m quoting here. It’s a long quote by someone, and I would start my presentation with this and ask (the audience) “Okay, this is the quote,” then I’ll put this quote up, “can you guess who said this?” Who, or what, is ‘X’?

Ramanand (1:01:26)
Since I don’t know this outright, I’m going to think aloud and since we’re doing this in a one-on-one style, I’m going to ask you some clarifying questions.

Ravi (1:01:33)
Go ahead.

Ramanand (1:01:36)
The first thing that came to mind was someone who’s done a pivot, someone who’s changed tact. For some reason, Intel came to mind, but I don’t know why. I don’t think of it as a big pivot. Some more clues (would be useful).

Ravi (1:01:58)
There was one clue which I had given in my client. Just to repeat that: it’s a large e-commerce company.

Ramanand (1:02:02)
An e-commerce company. Sam Walton, or something like that?

Ravi (1:02:07)
Wow, that was incredible! Yeah, that’s the right answer. This is Sam Walton from his book ‘Made in America’. This is Walmart, and the client is of course the Indian client. Imagine using this at the beginning. Of course, you have the fun of the quiz, the thrill and whatever, but it then hits the message home. And (Sam) Walton, the guy who started the company, he’s the one who said this. There’s so much power to taking that fact, the fact that Sam Walton said this, but extracting the known part from that fact which is that Sam Walton said it. I don’t feel people understand and use its power enough. I have some small sessions in my entire module where I talk about how you can ask good questions. Not so much to elicit information but as a quiz, for that surprise effect.

Ramanand (1:03:10)
Just to add to that, a lot of people understand the value of stories when used in the right sense in sessions. The beginning is one example. In the middle, to revive interest by creating something concrete, if you’ve had a lot of abstract stuff thrown at you. If you just think of the question as an incomplete story, something like a jigsaw puzzle, with one or two pieces missing. In some cases, you can just give the story as-is. One great thing about that story is that the listener can just sit back, and let it sink in. And in other cases, if you want to try a more active style, you can get them to say what that missing piece is. If you look at the Walton thing, you’re hoping that I’ve heard of Walton, otherwise it’s going to be anti-climactic. If it’s an e-commerce company, you want to make that assumption, and it’s a fair assumption to make. There are places where this can misfire, and that’s an even lower low than when you started the question. But essentially, you can invite people to turn on an active part of their mind. What they realize is that the answer is not that important in this context – it’s the lesson that you’re trying to take away. That’s also a starting point. You could say, “What did Walton do? What are examples of what they did? What did it mean to really turn on a dime?” and then it comes back as a connection point. Then if you just take this and replace Sam Walton with your local Sam Walton, maybe it’s a shopkeeper who decided to try something different; maybe it’s someone in the company who, under the radar, tried a few experiments. It’s a manager who is usually not faced with certain changes in requirements; They epitomize the same quality. They may not be celebrated or have a book written about them, but their stories are now more powerful because (they can think) “That guy looks like me, he’s not some American who I don’t really understand,” (and they stop thinking along the lines of) “I’ve never been to Walmart, it doesn’t resonate with me.” That resonance is the key thing that a good question or a good story can bring about, and that’s where understanding the audience is so significant. It’s (decisions like) whether to go with Salman Khan, or with Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs will show up in every inspirational story in a company, but that Siddharth Joglekar in your company is what people should try and discover, I think.

Ravi (1:05:55)
That is so powerful. Relatability is a key part of the story. While some stories can be inspiring, you may not relate with that person. Being able to relate is incredible.
We talked about this analogical story of Hariprasad Chaurasia that you use, and I’ve seen that a lot of your writing is very rich in analogies that are quite powerful. I’d love for you to share the one you wrote where you combined 3 stories in one: the invention of radar in World War 1/World War 2; Space; and the Prof who lost his sight, and how you tied it all together to talk about hybrid work. Maybe you can share that and we’ll talk about it.

Ramanand (1:06:42)
Sure. This is in 2020 – we were thinking a little bit about the feeling of remote work that a lot of people were facing. Choose To Thinq didn’t face that (issue) as much because we had been remote only, from day one. We’ve never had an office. For us, it was everyday business. But speaking to a lot of people, we could feel this palpable discomfort. How do you retreat into a room and not meet people, but still get work done? And, this is like the point we’d made earlier in the conversation, that something that you would have heard or read about, is auditioning for its use much later in the future. 3 different things came to my mind while I was thinking about it. This is both the strength and weakness of an analogy – it can be overly stretched and very gimmicky, I may think of it as having a lot of resonance and isomorphism with the situation that I’m trying to look at it. But you might look at it and say “No, that’s not true.” – So, I started with sharing this internally with some of my colleagues. There were 3 different stories. The first one came with the history of the atomic bomb that I am currently reading about. I am interested in the Manhattan project from the 40s, which, again, COVID brought back echoes of it because people were talking about how can a government enable large-scale, global, scientific progress? Because people likened the pandemic to a warlike situation. The Manhattan Project was always something that I’d wanted to get (very deeply into) It had a very fascinating cast of characters and people. In that, I learned that around World War 1, there was a big transition away from things like cavalry, towards mechanized warfare. At that point, air warfare did not exist to the extent that it would define World War 2 in. And, there was a story about how German planes come and bomb a town in England, which leads to the acceleration of radar.

Ravi (1:08:41)
Which is surprising, because civilian towns had never been attacked before.

Ramanand (1:08:45)
In fact, there’s a tragic part to it – the German planes were actually trying to locate some other place, I think it was a site of military or industrial importance, along with being a civilian place. But they missed it, they didn’t know where to go. They had to unload their bombs, so they went to this place. Around that time, the bombing of Guernica had also happened in Spain, I think. (I don’t remember whether it was) before or after. People were now breaking the norm that you couldn’t attack civilian locations. This was never the case with earlier warfare. Like Panipat, you think of Waterloo; they all happened in specified zones with these two armies facing each other. This was like someone just comes into your house. And I’m sure we’re going to face this with things like drones in the future, or it’s already started to happen.
So, suddenly, everything’s changed – that’s the feeling a lot of us got in 2020 as well – and it accelerated radar. For me, the connection point was that it’s all about invisibility or the lack of face-to-face contact. I don’t see you work, so I don’t know what your body language is like. I don’t know if Ravi is having a good day or a bad day; if he’s at work or not; if he’s slacking, or if he’s so engaged in his work that I shouldn’t interrupt him. All these things are possible, you are behind the screen. You are in a Slack channel, somewhere. For me, it was like one sense had given way to another. I can no longer “see the enemy” (so to speak); I have to – like in radar – use audio signals, or radio signals to try and infer (information). As I explored it further, I figured out that people had done all sorts of things. They even employed the blind, who were stationed at particular places to listen to planes coming in, because they had better hearing than others.

Ravi (1:10:38)
That’s fascinating.

Ramanand (1:10:42)
If you see, some managers were better at dealing with COVID, because they had somehow created that 6th sense, if one were to call it. That “Accha(Oh), why is his WhatsApp message like this?” it’s a little terse, or a little over-flattering. Maybe you’ve sensed these kinds of things, and figured it out. It’s a different sense. And I’m sure that, like radar came up, new tools that will start telling us these hidden things that we take for granted (will also come up). So that was connection point number one – that like radar, I’m sure you’re going to need more senses to make sense of this situation. We take radar for granted; planes would not fly and we could not have safe flights without radar. That’s going to happen, so start getting used to that chain. Someone will figure this out, don’t worry. That was point one.

Ravi (1:11:27)
Just to add one more point which I liked, when you said people feel “Arre(Damn), I wish things could go back to in-person”, it’s like saying I wish I could go back to when planes weren’t coming and attacking us. Sorry, boss, the world has changed! Acceptance and not living in denial is a nice point that you had made in this story.

Ramanand (1:!1:50)
Correct. It’s like saying “I wish we fought in cavalry, because I learned how to ride horses, but now you are telling me to sit back and listen to planes.” You can’t do anything about it, it must feel so helpless. But that’s what we have to (go along with.) So that’s the first story.
The second one was that I was thinking, “Who are the people who manage people over long distances?” and the extreme version of that is astronauts. We’ve seen movies like Apollo 13, and those kinds of things where something goes wrong, and you only get to know after a few minutes anyway. You can’t do instant work; it’s another form of helplessness. NASA and people like them have figured out how to make people autonomous. (They teach them) what to do when calamity strikes; how do you have people in confined spaces work together well with each other? How do you work with distributed groups of people? A Russian working alongside an American astronaut, right? These are interesting things for us to learn from. It may not be a one-to-one correspondence, but you can do it.
I stumbled upon some articles by Scott Kelly, the astronaut. He’s written a lot about his journey, how to manage conflicts when teams are far away in space; you watch Inception (he perhaps meant ‘Interstellar’), you watch ‘Gravity’ and you think “Wow, what would I do if I was there?”, and the training that happens to enable them to be strong and have their focus in such situations is something that we can learn. That’s connection point number two, which is how to manage over distances? Learn from people like astronauts.
The third one, was that – we read some book summaries everyday as a group at Choose TO Thinq. One of the things that we had read a while ago, was this very touching book called Touching the Rock. It’s about someone who went blind in his forties, and how does one readjust? In fact, there’s a little quiz question there that we can maybe talk about later, which is about how you have braille for people who are blind, you have scripts that have come up for people who lost their eyesight later in life. However, these scripts are somewhat closer to the shape of the alphabet as they’d already learnt it before going blind. So, the process of unlearning and readjusting to a new world, and here I’m taking (the example) of someone who’s blind, who’s lost a sense, who cannot see – how does he go on the subway? How does he interact with people?
We had already read this; it was just a matter of making that connection. Some interesting things, someone like John Hull, the professor in this case, who went blind – he stared realizing that I shouldn’t expect people to infer what I want. I should just tell them what I want. I should just say, “Can you show me where this is? Just put it next to my hand here.” Be very precise and direct, and I think managers should try and inculcate some of this. In a remote world, all these sub-currents cannot easily be ascertained. Just tell them, “I want this by so-and-so time. I know what you’re working on is important, but just drop that because this is high priority.” Don’t spend a lot of time on these nice to have conversations, just get to it.

Ravi (1:15:25)
Especially because sometimes people may feel “I thought I made it obvious!”, but the other person did not get it and now there is angst on both ends.

Ramanand (1:15:35)
Some kind of context has now been replaced. We’ve moved from one kind of context to another; the social context which was around us is not there anymore. Fine, you have to deal with it. Going back to the ‘don’t expect the world to go back to where it was 2 years ago.’ Find the way forward. These are humans who have figured it out, and I’m sure that we can also learn from them. That was what I was trying to do with these 3 stories together.

Ravi (1:15:59)
There was a lot of wisdom in just this fairly compact piece, where you’ve packed in 3 very different stories, from very different fields, all of them making different points, but coming together to give a lot of guidance on how to navigate (all the changes that have come).

Ramanand (1:16:15)
I think the message that I wanted to leave people with was “Can you swap anxiety with curiosity?” This is something I’ve been trying to do for myself: when you’re in an anxious situation, can you take a curious approach and say “What is going on? What can I learn from this?”, whether you can postpone the anxiety to when it is more useful to be anxious, is something that I was keen to get out in this piece.

Ravi (1:16:44)
I love the use of analogies. I want to talk a little more about that. Analogies as a tool, as you mentioned, can be tricky. There’s a nice phrase that a friend of mine, or somebody I know, used: that a bad analogy is like a banana in a sword fight. That itself is a nice, evocative analogy

Ramanand (1:17:04)
That friend is not called Navjot Singh Sidhu, right?

Ravi (1:17:07)
(Laughter erupts) (Hahaha) No, not that I know of. But, do you have any thoughts or guidelines that you use in choosing the right analogy to work in a particular situation?

Ramanand (1:17:20)
I must confess that I am still a bit of a novice when it comes to analogies. In fact, I listened to you speak about analogies, you’ve recommended a few very good books about it; I’m still learning about analogies. What I’ve done, in the meanwhile, is I’ve come to trust the pitch. If an analogy has come to my mind, let me go with it, let me see where it takes me. In some cases, it could be a very farfetched comparison, but if it’s come to your mind, then explore and see what it is that’s brought the connection to your mind. Getting people to hear and respond to it (helps), and if you’re anxious about sharing your analogy, turn it into curiosity and see what do people have to say about it? Does it resonate?
Fortunately, at Choose To Thinq, there are people from different backgrounds. In an internal channel or meeting, I can bounce these things off (my coworkers), and because they have so many different points of view and backgrounds, you will know whether this is an analogy (that works). An analogy sort of generalizes whether it’s a banana in a sword fight; whether I should think of something else. So, I think you have to really go through that process of trying it out on people just to hear it back. When you articulate it and put it out there, it suddenly frees you from the ownership and then you can look at it and see whether it works or not. That has been my approach so far, because the sources of information that I have are not necessarily mainstream. This is both a curse and a blessing. What I mean by that is that what I would read may not be what people in the mainstream (culture) would read, so I would have difficulty getting resonance from a typical audience. I’m not trying to demean anyone here, but I know that I am in certain kinds of ivory towers. So, it’s possible that people like me will get my analogies instantly. It may not translate beyond that. You just try it out on people, see what they make of it, then try and build on it.

Ravi (1:19:33)
I want to get a little tactical, Ramanand, on the fact that you mentioned you were reading in a library and you came across the surveyor’s chain fact; you came across the World War 1 story when you were reading a book on the Manhattan project; in your reading club, you came across the Professor Hull story. When you come across all these new things, these are what we call the #TIL moments. When you come across them, do you have a system? And what is your system – do you note these down someplace? Or is a lot of it memory reliant?

Ramanand (1:20:11)
Earlier, there was no system. Now, there is a semblance of one. The first thing is to capture it and not to let that fleeting moment just go past. You have to really arrest it and put it down somewhere. Earlier, I used to use Evernote as my single source for dumping, but I’ve now broadened a little bit. I used to have Evernote and a notebook. My 22-yard story came from a notebook that I used to take notes in, whereas other things were in Evernote, which I still have. What I’ve done now, is become a little more laissez-faire about it. It’s more important to capture it, it doesn’t matter where I capture it. It’s about trapping the beast and not letting it fly. I have a bunch of places that I store it in. I have that notebook –

Ravi (1:21:04)
A physical notebook?

Ramanand (1:21:05)
Physical notebook, yes. I have a group that I created, earlier it was on WhatsApp, now it’s on Telegram. It’s a one-man group, and I just put notes there. I’ve trusted myself to put a few keywords that I will be able to use to recreate everything else. So “Blind professor”, “Hull”, are good enough to do a private search. Or, with some difficulty, you can retrace your steps. Because there is going to be inertia. Taking a nice, big note is not something that I’m going to do every time. It’s going to happen sometimes. I recognize that now, and I just put down keywords. That is one more source. The other source is, when we read these things, we post takeaways in our internal group. That becomes a source of information.

Ravi (1:21:58)
Is it a Slack group?

Ramanand (1:22:02)
It was on Telegram, now it’s on Slack. So, the message is, same, “agnostic of tool”, I’m really not that anal about where it is, whether it’s tagged well, and so on. I recently started using Readwise, the app, for highlights. If I’m on Kindle, I was highlighting earlier, but now I highlight and it goes into Readwise as well. So, it’s really horses for courses, depending on what environment I am in, I will put them there. I am reasonably sure that I don’t have to be worried about using that. The system of going back to it is a little less structured, but I know that if I’m setting a question, I will look in all these places. It’s not like there’s 10 or 20 different places, it’ll be more like 5 or 6, max. So, I’ll go through my notebook, my Evernote, my Telegram group, my conversations on Slack, and some of it will be memory. If you do enough of it, just pure quantity – that takes care of the quality.

Ravi (1:23:10)
That is interesting. So, what you’re saying is to go for convenience; don’t say, “I have to have the perfect place to note it”, just go for it, and when you’re looking for it (the workload) may increase, “Oh, it’s not in Slack? Okay, let me try Telegram”, you’ll finally get it after looking in 3 or 4 places.

Ramanand (1:23:28)
And a number of times where I’ve lost it in just 15 or 20 minutes. There’ve been numerous such occasions. I’ve said, “Let’s just put it down.” Since the same thing will happen anyway, if I lose it, I lose it; it’s the same as what’s going to happen 15 minutes in the future. We do overestimate our future selves. I do not trust the future Ramanand with any of these things, so I better do it.

Ravi (1:23:52)
The notebook itself – do you have any sections? Or do you just keep noting in it, then how do you go back? That’s tough, right?

Ramanand (1:23:58)
It’s shamefully ordinary. I think the move to digital tools has spoilt me a little bit. When I had a notebook only, that was my primary source along with Evernote. I would say when I read it, (I’d include) the name of the book, and a lot of these things just came from books; I’d write very neatly. A few days ago, I was recollecting, Rob Moody (@Robelinda2 on Twitter) – the guy who posts cricket videos on Twitter, he was talking about the underarm bowling incident that happened between Australia and New Zealand. I had a bunch of different pieces of notes; I read a book called Cricket’s Greatest Controversies, and I was reminded of a bunch of things that day. I looked it up in my notebook, I could go back and see it. I had a physical memory of where it was in the book as well. I think that happens when you spend a lot of time with it – that’s what I’m trusting. I’m trusting that my environment is a part of me, and that memories will come back once the context is retrieved.
Just a slight segue here, there’s a couple of books I’ve been trying to read on how the brain works. There’s a book called Brain Rules, and a couple of other books as well, around memory and information. Another thing – and this is also true of things like hypnosis – when you find yourself in a context, things start coming back to you. A smell from something in your childhood would unlock those memories.
So, when you look at that notebook, you can kind of jump to that section. It’s a favourite book, it’s a favourite notebook. It’s a Telegram group; you have a vague idea of where to narrow down the search. I think that’s what I’m banking on. As of recently, a notebook is an assortment. If I’m setting questions for something lie Infinite Zounds, I don’t have to get it in a particular order. I’m just going to put my hand in the gunny-bag and see what comes out.

Ravi (1:26:13)
Incredible. One challenge that I want to talk about, when we try and use some of these – I call them “Story Engagement Tools”, I need to figure out whether there’s a better way, an analogy, or a personal story, a quiz question, or some other sort of way (to increase engagement). Even in your story, when you talk about adjusting better to remote work, you don’t start by saying there are 3 things you need to do to adjust better to remote work. If you had to boil down your analogy to one line, it would be that ultimately, it’s about being curious, not anxious. But you don’t start with that. You start by saying there’s a British town that’s going to be bombed. That’s how storytellers write: They grab your attention – it’s called the ‘cold open’, and then as it goes on, it unveils. That’s one form, or one way of telling a story, especially in a corporate context. But, most often in a corporate context, it goes the other way. Which is sometimes called the BLUF way – Bottom Line Up Front. Or like the Pyramid Principle, which say to start with the answer first. And so, there are both these approaches; often in corporate environments there’s senior people, time is not there, you would want to typically gravitate towards the BLUF approach. But, in your experience, when do you think we can take the other approach? The scenic route, so to speak. Are there any anecdotes or examples that you can give?

Ramanand (1:27:42))
Yeah. I do feel bad for the overworked executive who can’t listen to a story. I think it would be the highlight of his day if he just did that. It’s very interesting, because there’s this dictum which is “Show, don’t tell,” and a lot of storytelling advice is like that. I went through these motions like anyone else, like anyone who’s probably been taught to write essays in a particular way; I think I did my fair share of tell, and not show, to begin with. Then I learned about “show, don’t tell,” and I did that as well. In one instance, there was a company that we were working with, who had a bunch of these corporate values that they were very proud of, and had spent a lot of time working on them. At every touch point, whether you were someone who was interviewing with them, whether you were an employee, whether you’ve been for 10 years, or even if you’re the Co-founder itself, you’ll constantly hear about these values, they do a great job about it. But it was still in the abstract realm; it was not something that you could touch and feel. More importantly, people were actually behaving in accordance with the values, but those were not getting amplified. So, they recognized that, and said, “Can you help design (these values) and collected some of these stories, and get us started. Help us build that system, and then we will be on our way.” There, I was doing some of the stories; I was leading that effort for Choose To Thinq, and I said, “No, no. We must use ‘show, and not tell’.”
And then, we did a couple of reviews. For instance, in one case, naturally the employees in the office – the blue collared employees, in the pandemic, were very worried about what would happen to them. Everyone retreated into their shell, but these people were office boys; they were people who would move equipment, servers, from one place to another. They were very worried, “what happens to us?” (they would say.)
To their immense credit, the company actually said “Don’t worry, we’ll put you through a re-skilling program,” and they taught them English, some of them learned the basics of system administration, they said, “We will help you find these other roles within the organization.” And they did a 3-month program, with a graduation. One of the most poignant moments was that someone said, “My child actually goes to an English medium school. When I learnt English, I could have a short conversation with him in English.”

Ravi (1:30:04)
That is so sweet!

Ramanand (1:30:03*)
When I first heard this, I was so moved. For an outsider, if this is the impact that your values and the practice of your values has on me, think about what it does for an employee.
So, we wrote up this story and said, “What more do you want? The story speaks for itself.” But, we got feedback from people internally. They said, “Accha hai(It’s okay), but can we put one line at the bottom and explicitly mention some of the values that were there in the story?”
I felt that was spoon-feeding. You don’t have to tell anyone to realize that this is empathetic behaviour; this is fair behaviour; this is respectful behaviour. But they wanted that.
I’ve now modified that statement, and started doing “Show and tell”, as I call it. You start with showing, and people seem to want the moral of the story at the end of it that we initially used to get as children, but we (at some point had) said, “No, I’m not being treated as an adult here,” but it would seem like you want that, to cover all bases.
Going back to your question, I think one thing is that these are all judgment calls. You figure out the audience and say, “This is my preferred approach.” Someone will be a little more flexible about the tell and the show; others will say, “No, I’m a storyteller. We show, we do not moralize.”
I don’t take a stance. This is, finally, something that you’re doing to get a message across to people. If they want to show and tell, we should try it out; we should not say no to it. Maybe, they are also right in their contexts. Sometimes, we have youngsters who need to be told this. There’s the other principle of “Repeat, repeat, repeat,” and not to leave things to chance. I think, whether it is the story and the statement, or the other way round, we should be open to it as storytellers and let the audience guide us.

Ravi (1:32:10)
Great point! One thing, at least in these kinds of situations, that I very much agree with you on, is that just stating the moral is really pointless. Every company’s value sounds like everybody else’s, and it doesn’t really help. I remember some research – I must go back and read up about it, this is in Putting Stories to Work by Shawn Callahan – they referred to some research where they did some sort of A/B Testing, where they realized that actually telling the ‘business point’ of the story – another word for moral, here – before, rather than not telling it or saying it after, which was also one of the pieces in the A/B Test, has the best recall, apparently. This surprised me, that’s why I still remember it.

Ramanand (1:33:00)
This is interesting. The book I mentioned a while ago, Brain Rules by John Medina, mentions one rule about how the brain finds things interesting, and how this has helped John Medina – who is also a professor – to structure his slides, and that was in line with what you just said. What he said was that attention spans are typically 10 minutes, and “meaning before detail” is a principle he talks about. What that means, is that you tell your audience what the high-level point is, and then you get the details and the nitty-gritties of it. That’s the order you want, with the high-level chunk. Once they understand that, and what it’s doing in the overall context of the communication, then they’re still with you. Then the sands of the 10-minute hourglass start falling. And on the 9th or 10th minute, you need to get their attention back. That’s where you need a hook. It can be emotional; it could be a story; I will use a question to reignite attention. He said that “I did this, and as a result, was voted as the best Professor of psychology later.” He said that there is something to it, and this has been backed by neuroscience. That really got me intrigued, because in one of the sessions that I had been doing, I would do a quiz question or a story to motivate action, and then get into the point of it. The last time I did this, I just flipped it – I figured that it’s not my style, but I’ll go with what Medina says. I’ll start with the big point, get into a few details, and as the clock runs down, I’ll do a story around it which, if it also has a link to the next point then, great. It forms that chain of events. And someone who had seen both variants (of the session), liked the new one. It could have been because of novelty. Maybe we’ll try this a few times and figure it out. But, just being open to the possibility that maybe this is how people want to hear it, and not imposing your own structure onto it (proved to be useful).

Ravi (1:35:16)
Yeah, this was interesting. To build upon this, if I come to a mundane, boring, a review sort of meeting – well, it doesn’t have to be mundane.

Ramanand (1:35:29)
You can say mundane, it’s okay!

Ravi (1:35:31)
Yeah, a mundane, and regular meeting, or a capex approval one, or maybe a go, no-go one; there, I use the examples of movies. A good movie that’s, suppose, 3 hours long, how does it manage to hold our attention that’s 10 minutes long? It’s not necessarily because you don’t know the ending. In some movies you don’t know it, like in murder mysteries. But for the majority of movies, like in Dangal, you know she’s going to win even if you haven’t seen the movie. Or Baahubali, you know that he’s going to become the king at the end. There’s no suspense, but despite knowing the ending, there is immense curiosity about the how. So there, I know the point I’m making, but how am I going to make that point? What are the details of that point? That curiosity can be used to hold the audience’s attention.

Ramanand (1:36:24)
I remember reading one story, or an episode, of someone trying to do this in business storytelling, with data. Some of the questions I’ve done have been just showing a graph and asking people to interpret and tell me what the graph is. One quiz that I remember was about Indian politics. What I did was, I had a graph of numbers clustered in a particular region. They were typically in the 70s – so this was in the India Gandhi times – and then a little cluster earlier. And, it turned out that these were all dismissals of the State Government.  A lot of them were being dismissed left, right, and centre by different central powers. What I recall from this instance was that this guy just had a graph, he had a point, but all he said was “Here is a graph, and I’m going to ask people to figure out what the graph is, or to predict what happens next.” And that’s where your innate curiosity (is piqued) in trying to figure out what happens. And it becomes a story that the audience helps construct, then they become owners of that whole story. I found that very interesting.

Ravi (1:37:36)
I think, and this might not be true, but Paul Smith – a brilliant storytelling writer and coach, and he was at P&G, and there was a graph in which the sales of diapers in the U.S. were constantly rising, and then the growth stalls and doesn’t rise anymore. He leaves it there, and doesn’t say the answer. He asks them, “What is happening here?”
So, people try guessing, they say “Was it this?”, “No, it could be this.”; “Was it the price reduction?” and so on, end it eventually turned out that the market had basically gotten saturated because everybody had moved from cloth to diapers, and it was now just people changing (whatever brands they used). He had a beautiful insight, and he took the call of not giving it away and instead getting them to work towards it. Which I think is a fun way to present data.
We’ve been having some of these discussions and I feel both approaches work, and it’s up to you to take that call depending upon the audience, context, and your own confidence to carry it, because people are under that pressure, that “Oh my god, I’ve only got 10 minutes,” or 5 minutes.

Ramanand (1:38:35)
It reminded me of something that a former colleague of mine told me, who is now with a big company. There was this weekly status update, and there was one person who started including memes in it. It was sort of a cultural shock for people, to have a meme (in the regular updates), but it worked well. In fact, one of your previous guests – Mahima, she uses memes, as you call out in that episode. It’s not something that comes naturally to a lot of people, but my friend looked at this and thought, “Why haven’t I been doing this? One reason is that I don’t know how to use memes. So, let me go and ask someone for help.”
The culture slowly but sure shifted into that direction of storytelling. What I think they did, was they found a low-cost conflict sort of situation, where they could experiment with it. If someone had put this in a presentation, the backfire effect may have been higher; but it was just an email. No one’s going to scream at you, and then you don’t do it the next week. But suddenly, if you have a low degree of acceptance then you can weasel your way into having memes in your monthly or quarterly review.
Interesting things, or accidents like these do happen. Where someone comes in and questions the status-quo a little. Then suddenly, that’s how the whole thing shifts.

Ravi (1:40:03)
I think that is very cool. Kudos to the seniors who did not frown upon it, and let it work. And, if I were your friend, my response would probably not be “How can I add memes?”, but ‘How can I tell stories my way?” And, it could be adding analogies, or human stories, or cartoons.
The thing that complicates some of this, Ramanand, is bad news. Because often, especially in the corporate sector, when you’re sharing information if things are all going great, that’s good. But when things are not going great, and some of it is because of you not having done things well, that’s when the atmosphere gets vitiated and emotions come into the play. Any quick thoughts on that? About how people can (deal with that kind of situation.)

Ramanand (1:41:00)
Yeah, I think you have to be a little careful with employing these different weapons. There is always a right or wrong place for many of these. What you said about bad news reminded me of the Kurt Vonnegut “two axes” thing. If you’re not emerging back into the realm of good news, then it’s a tragedy. You don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. In fact, there’s this wonderful Rowan Atkinson sketch where he talks about life as a Shakespearean actor, and the bearer of bad news always gets a little dagger in the back.

Ravi (1:41:39)
You shoot the messenger.

Ramanand (1:41:40)
Yeah, you shoot the messenger. So, that happens. There are two things here, one is to start by amassing these different weapons, whether they are analogies, stories, questions; just get these different frameworks, and find these safe, low-cost places where you can stumble and fall.

Ravi (1:42:00)
I love that! Safe, low-cost places.

Ramanand (1:42:03)
Yeah, because I think it is fine to be conservative. A lot of organizations are conservative, and if you’re new and don’t know the lay of the land, unless it’s your personality to come and disrupt things, you don’t want to do that. Someone like Trump can tweet his way in and out of the presidency, and he was that kind of wrecker-in-chief. But (if you were) someone else, if it’s not your style, then don’t do that. Find these little places, it could be your own little team meeting where you encourage storytelling or encourage giving (any kind of news). I mean, it’s okay to have bad news, as long as it’s delivered in a particular way. But I think most people have that innate sense of judgment, about what is appropriate, what is not appropriate? And if it’s bad news, then you think of things like how you can structure an apology, it’s something I know you’ve written about. There’s a great book called Wait, by the way, which also talks about a wonderful framework for apologies. It explores the role of waiting in different situations, from tennis – where you get a little split second of extra time, then in some sports like squash, to apologies. Where the connection to Wait, is that I’m just waiting for that moment to sink in. When I give you an apology, you’re angry, you’re ranting. If I come out, and if I’m too quick with my apology, then you feel it’s insincere. That was the point he was making.
I take it on the chin, I wait, I let that steam blow out. And then, I not only apologize, but also tell you what I’m going to do differently, how I’m going to rectify this, all those kinds of things. But waiting for that moment is very important. So, along with how you deliver the bad news, it is also a question of (timing it).
My colleague, Sirisha, and I were once talking about candour, especially in a virtual environment. And some managers or leads in that conversation had the unfortunate experience of firing people over a Zoom call. Not your CEO style viral video of 500 people being fired in one go, but they are honestly sorry to see someone who they have worked with have to go. But they have to do this. The biggest question was what happens if the other person starts crying on the call? Because you’re not there in person to comfort them. You can’t get them a glass of water; you can’t tell them to get their own glass of water in advance for what is going to be a difficult situation. What do you do?
So, she had very simple advice. She said, “First of all, wait. Give them a moment to recover, then ask if they would like to continue. Say that it is going to be difficult, but you can meet with them tomorrow, and the rest of the conversation can wait until you have gathered your thoughts.”
I think just tuning into that little bit of the human side of oneself, what would you do when giving bad news to someone? It’s something that well know, unless we don’t have the circuits for it. Somehow, it gets lost in a corporate environment. I think sharing these kinds of stories, what happened when I was in a situation like this; if the leader can think about what he does to communicate bad news upwards, or to clients and customers, then the other people watching him will know how to give him bad news in the same manner. This is what I think could help.

Ravi (1:45:35)
Love that. Empathy is a very crucial skill that comes into play.
You alluded to a point earlier, Ramanand, which is about culture and how once you start using memes in meetings, people can start making themselves a part of the culture. You also talked about – of course, you’ve worked a lot in the area of organization and culture, – but you talk about storytelling culture and I love how you framed it as saying how to make an ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ for your organization. That is so lovely because all of us have such evocative and warm memories of that, and you were able to connect that with an organization. How is it that you think an organization can infuse better storytelling into its culture?

Ramanand (1:46:16)
One is the general acceptance of stories in the organization. It’s okay to tell a story and not get dissed for saying it. That, I think, is a little overblown, but that effect does happen from time to time. But just allowing stories to come up and be amplified is one thing that leaders have a big role in.

Ravi (1:46:43)
It has to start at the top.

Ramanand (1:46:45)
Yes. Because, whether you like it or not, people are sharing stories in peer situations. That is happening all the time. What is your famous water-cooler thing that everyone likes to harp about? It’s gossiping. Let’s say what it is – It’s generally gossip, and it has endured for as long as humanity has endured. The campfire has been replaced by a water-cooler, now it is a private conversation between two groups of people. That’s something we should, first of all, acknowledge.
The second is the skill of storytelling. Learning how to structure a story, how to overcome the limitations people sometimes have around writing. They’re not very confident in themselves, so just getting over that limitation (should be learnt). Oftentimes we see, on social media, the writing isn’t great but the thought or idea is so powerful that it transcends that (lack of skill)
Allowing for that, people are just waiting for permission to start telling their stories. Once they are equipped with the skills to do it – that’s when someone like you goes and helps people.
I think the third thing is the storytelling radar. Just looking around and spotting stories, almost like what we were saying. What if you have to put up a quiz question every day? You have to tweet every day; you have to finish a column in time every day. What do you do? You put yourself in a corner, and then your radar comes into the picture. You say, “Accha,(Okay) this is what happened yesterday; this was a little conversation that I Was a part of. Is there a kernel of a story here?”
So that radar is always active. Then you can do the rest of the things, you can capture it, you can ask help from a storyteller in your organization. I think these three things, which is the environment must be good for storytelling, the skills can be acquired in a very deliberate format, and the third is that once you have all this, the dance floor is there and you know how to dance, make sure you spot the opportunity to go and dance whenever you can.

Ravi (1:49:00)
Some organizations actually have a more formal position of the Chief Storyteller, or some such role. Do you feel that that is useful?

Ramanand (1:49:08)
I think, to bootstrap, it would be a great way of doing this. In fact, the way I look at it is – okay, now we’re veering into a little bit of the propaganda that governments do, like whenever there is a war. In the last 20, 30 years, you know what has happened. Journalists are embedded in the action, because these guys are not fighting, so they can observe, they can watch. They can also spin the story the way you want it to be spun. Leaving that part aside, I think we need these embedded storytellers, whether it is your employees or whether you have specialists coming and doing it. I think you need both, because not everyone’s talent stack includes storytelling and writing. It’s going to take time for that to happen. Some form of embedding is necessary.
On that point, I was recently reading about longevity in organizations. There was a nice podcast by the Long Now Foundation, when they were studying organizations in Japan, which have been around for say 100, 200, in some cases 500, or 1000 years. I’m not so sure about 1000, but yeah, 500 years, maybe.
One thing they noticed was there was always someone, and in some places in some European situations, these were called ‘keeper of the keys.’ They were formally, or informally, entrusted with nurturing, capturing, amplifying, and telling stories across generations. In some cases, it could be a janitor, who knows the inside world. (He says things like) “I’ve seen this guy come. I’ve seen that guy go;” It could be a peon in a Sarkari(Government) establishment, who’s been there for 25 years who could be doing that; It could be someone else who’s just more formally appointed, who maybe works with archives. When something happens, he’ll capture it.
I think there is a big place for something like that. And it’s a role that will pay it’s worth in gold, over a period of time. In some cases, you’re just enabling people to say – suppose, I just point a mic at you, and have a short 5 or 10-minute conversation. I tell you, “Don’t worry, I will go and write it out for you. It’ll come out under your name. You’ll get the benefits of visibility, the organization spreads this culture, and my work is done.”

Ravi (1:51:10)
There’s so much potential for great work to actually be shared and inspire others.

Ramanand (1:51:22)
Like in the example of the re-skilling thing I talked about: you’re not conjuring this up. It is actually happening; you’re already living your values. All you’re doing is just putting up a spotlight and a mic, and amplifying it. Old timers need to feel reassured that this is happening, that “my company hasn’t lost its way”, or “I’m part of that story”.
Newcomers need to feel that alignment in that first week, in that first day; before the subcultures, cliques, and cabals get to you first. It’s a war of influence, I think.

Ravi (1:51:58)
A war of narratives.

Ramanand (1:51:59)
Yeah! And I think we should recognize it, just like social media has done this for the external world. Within organizations, there is now social media. There are distributor channels, like Slack, or even WhatsApp is part of that. You either join it, or you let it run wild. I think organizations need to do it.

Ravi (1:52:18)
I think you need to at least have a seat at the table. If you don’t even have that, then (you’ll lost out on the narratives being told.)
This has been so fascinating, Ramanand. I’d love to continue talking for hours, but I’d like to bring this to a close now, with what keeps you curious? You talk about curiosity and systematic curiosity, so I’d love to know about your systematic sources of consumption. And it’s difficult to ask you for book recommendations, because I think the list will be endless. But maybe you can talk about three or five books that have been really inspiring for you, in the area of storytelling.

Ramanand (1:52:52)
Sure. I’ll start with the latter part first, the books. We’ve talked about Made to Stick privately before; Made to Stick has always been our number one recommendation, not just for storytelling, but I think for communication in general, and also for human connection. If you look at those six SUCCESs principles, and have as many of them as possible in your communication as a checklist, you will go far and wide. So that was the first one. I think other books by the Heath brothers just relive that Made to Stick (concept) all over again.
A slightly more key dive into storytelling and communication, is a book called Impossible To Ignore, by Carmen Simon. It’s a book which talks a little bit about what is happening in our minds; What are the nuts and bolts of why one presents content in a particular way. A quick example of this would be the need for repetition. Why is it that you need to repeat? You need to repeat because our memories and brains are not really built for storing information. In fact, we are built for forgetting things that are not important to us. Most of the things that I am trying to tell you, or an employee, or a leader, it’s not threatening enough, it’s not sexy enough, it is not fascinating enough for them to remember for life. You’ve got to repeat it, and she will tell you why. So, Impossible To Ignore is my second recommendation.
My third recommendation is – I will just say to take any (book by) these people who write fiction that has sold very well. I’ll take a favourite example of mine – which I now realize has had an influence on me – Agatha Christie’s books. A lot of the things we spoke about, we spoke about that data example, with people trying to figure out what happened, why the share price or the product sales go down? It’s like a murder mystery around diapers in some sense, right? There could be so many different explanations as to why. If you read an Agatha Christie novel, the balance of writing, the sprinkling of clues, and the construction, the storytelling is wonderful. I feel that so many other people should just listen to. One should do that x-ray (scan), I think, if you go from being a recipient of storytelling to actually practicing it, then go back to all these people and leave aside your emotions about what they do. Look at their craft and try to do an x-ray scan of it, because they are not telling you how they came up with it. Pick up any of these books, and you will be able to figure out (a lot of things about storytelling.)
I can’t help but slip in a TV recommendation, it’s a British detective series called Jonathan Creek, which is about a magician designer – a person who designs magic tricks, who solves locked room mysteries. There is magic, mystery, and also humour. The writer of that series is a person called David Renwick; I think if you just take one person and follow their work, you’ll see a lot of interesting things that come out of it. So those are my three or four recommendations
And I think the systematic curiosity part, is just that curiosity is sometimes seen as a very sub-optimal, loose, ambiguous and hard-to-define sort of activity. Some people are born curious, and there is also this meme that as children, we are very curious, but as adults, we lose that (curiosity) and the education system has beaten it out of us. I disagree. I think that what happens is, we find specific things to be curious about and we filter a lot of other things out. Some people are good at dipping into different pools, I might consider myself as one of those people. While some people just pick two or three things to be very deeply curious about. So, you do a little bit of both.
The systematic curiosity bit is like – to take our final analogy for the episode – it is a little bit like a diet. Earlier as a child, you would eat pretty much anything, and it wouldn’t harm you. As you grow, you start becoming a little more aware (about what you eat), and there are certain food groups that are prescribed for you to take up. Similarly, if there are certain things that you should read more about, whether it is listening, or talking, or reading different books, you look at it as a Thali (A wholesome Indian meal with several items on one plate), and you say “I need a little bit of fun, relaxation, mindless consumption.”, or “I need a little bit of seriousness; what’s going on in the world of business? Of politics?” “I need a little bit of randomness.” You could just borrow a book from someone and try it out. Just buy something off Kindle at a low price, try it out. Taste it a little bit, see if you like that taste – you’ll suddenly start developing a taste. By ‘systematic curiosity’, I really mean assembling that diet, with a little more thought and deliberation, and keep trying different things and keep building on what you’re deeply curious about. I think this combination of breadth and depth is what I tried to practice, but the mechanisms are endless. In my day-to-day life, I look at Blinkist, I look at Readwise for capturing and sharing. I have colleagues who will share information with me. We live in a golden age of information and learning, and we should make the most of it.

Ravi (1:59:03)
I love that. I think the point you made, that if you’re an ‘autodidact’ – which I had to look up, I realized it’s somebody who organizes their own learning, or decides what they want to learn on their own – it’s a great age to be in.  Alright so Ramanand, where is it that people can get to know more about you, or about CTQ? We can also talk about the reading compound.

Ramanand (1:59:27)
Sure. You can find us at, and we’ve spelt ‘thinq’ with a ‘Q’, so the last letter is not ‘K’, it’s ‘Q’. CTQ Compounds is something that we started a few years ago, this was for individuals, since people kept asking us, “Great, you work with companies to help them uplevel, but there’s nothing that I can do because you’re not working with my company. Is there something for me?”
So, we started just taking some of our internal experiments, like how do you read once a day for 15 minutes, and then brought that to a wider audience. The most popular of our compounds is called The Daily Reader. People get a curated feed of one article every day, and you spend those 15 minutes (reading it.)
The idea of compounding is something that we’re trying to hint at; if you do a little bit every day, it’s like a systematic plan around learning, and you get better. These are two good places to get to know my team.

Ravi (2:00:21)
And what about yourself? Where can you be found? Your social media.

Ramanand (2:00:24)
LinkedIn and Twitter are good places. I have my quizzing newsletter called Infinite Zounds that you can check out. The website is due for an overhaul, so do not go there! Go there in about two months’ time.

Ravi (2:00:43)
Last question, which is not really a quiz question but a curiosity question – What is the story behind your Twitter handle?

Ramanand (2:00:50)
It’s called ‘quatrainman.’ It’s a little bit of a dumb story, but this involves a certain Member of Parliament right now, who is a well-known Quizmaster. Not a well-known quizzer, but Quizmaster. I’m sure people will figure out who that is.
In college, my partner and I went to Bombay to attend a quiz. It had been raining in Pune, but by the time we got to Bombay, it wasn’t raining. And it was such a short affair that we went on stage wearing our raincoats. And so, this gentleman dubbed us ‘Rain Man’, for whatever reason. We did well in the quiz, we said we’d hang on to that raincoat. In fact, as a superstition, I used to wear my jacket onstage for quizzes where we wouldn’t be doing very well, and then we often did well. There it is.
So, the time came to choose a handle. I just thought that I needed a word with ‘Q’ in it. I added quatrain, you know quatrain – poems in lines of 4. I put quatrain and Rain Man together.

Ravi (2:02:08)
Why ‘Q’?

Ramanand (2:02:10)
‘Q’ for quizzing! That’s why, if you look at Choose To Thinq, it has a little bit of that as well.

Ravi (2:02:15)
That is the ‘Q’! Of course.

Ramanand (2:02:16)
We try to insert a ‘Q’ in everything.

Ravi (2:02:20)
There’s some hidden clues all over!
This has been so fascinating, Ramanand. I loved geeking out about quizzing, and questions, and storytelling, and analogies. This has been really good, so thank you so much for coming to this podcast.

Ramanand (2:02:34)
Not at all. Thanks so much for your question!

And that was Ramanand J, one of the most thoughtful and knowledgable folks you can hope to have a conversation with.

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation

  • How the holding back of the known and the highlighting of the unknown can make for a surprising story moment
  • When you are feeling worries, the importance of leaning on curiosity, not anxiety
  • The need for companies to shape their own narratives and not letting it be driven by others

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 Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

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

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