Monday, February 26, 2018

Tale for the Telling: The Blind Men and the Elephant

It's the fifth Monday of the month which means I'm posting a story with a few thoughts for telling it. This post is linked to my most recent thinkstory blog post, which looks at the same story for use in organizational settings.

The Blind Men and the Elephant is ancient. A version can be found in Buddhist sacred texts from around the third century BCE, but it undoubtedly existed in the oral tradition long before then.

Let's take a look at the story then consider how you might tell it. This is the story as I often perform it, derived several different traditional variants. You are welcome to use it.

There was once a village with six blind men among its residents. One day some traveling people brought an elephant into the town square. The blind men, having never encountered an elephant, decided they wanted to find out it was like. They were brought to the elephant and each touched it to learn what they could. 
"Hey, the elephant is like a tree trunk," said the first blind man who touched the elephant's leg.
"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.
"No! it is like a snake," said the third who touched the elephant's trunk.
"It is like a big leaf" said the fourth who touched his ear.
"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth who touched the side of the elephant.
"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth who touched his tusk.

Soon they began to argue back and forth; quickly enough their argument fell to blows. "Stop!" cried a woman nearby. "You all are right and you all are wrong. An elephant is all of those things. You each felt only one part of the elephant, so you could not know that it was more than it seemed." The blind men mended their argument and learned a lesson from that day.

So how might you tell this story?
  1. Traditionally
    Find a version of this story that works for you and tell it more-or-less as written. It could be a good starter for a conversation about perspective and sharing information, or as an opening piece for a set of stories about fools!
  2. Participatory
    This could be really fun, as long as your audience is willing to play along. Invite them to experience the elephant as the blind men did. You could even ask them how different parts felt, for instance, "What did the tusk feel like?"
  3. Change the point of view
    What if you told the story from the point of view of the elephant? The travelers? The woman watching?
  4. Change the ending
    What else could they have learned from this experience?
  5. Change the setting
    What if this were a modern story about people looking at an issue? How could you tell this as a story about bias?
    What if it were in another time or place? How, for example, might you tell this about a dragon or a car?
  6. What else? How have you told this story?
    Bring your own perspective to this story about perspective. I'd love to know how you tell it!
(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. For a number of years while I was learning about storytelling, I still had my day job as a computer scientist in an industrial research laboratory. I remember going to an in-house conference about putting preventative maintenance systems into large pieces of equipment, such as locomotives and aircraft engines.

    One talk started out this way:

    “We have many dumb sensors all over our equipment. They sense things like temperature or pressure as specific locations and specific times. From all these measurements, we have to come up with conclusions about the conditions of the various systems within our equipment, so we know what preventative maintenance should be scheduled and how soon.

    This reminds me of a story I heard as a child – The Blind Men and the Elephants.”

    At this point, the voice inside my head was shouting, “My two worlds, geeky technology and storytelling, have just collided!”

    The speaker went on to sketch out the Blind Men story, then went on to describe how all the measurements were used to come up with the needed conclusions. “There are six processing steps. The first goes through the previously collected measurements and tags them as less reliable since they are now older. …”

    At the end, one of the questions was, “What if one of the sensors determines a life-threatening situation?”

    The answer: “Just because one blind man says the elephant died, we don’t start digging a grave.”

    Two months later, I was called in to work on a new project – THIS project. While those six processing steps had been written in a high level computer simulation language, they had to be translated to run in real time on computers onboard the equipment. I was to do that translation. The man who had written the high level computer simulation language program started describing it. I broke in, “I know, there are six processing steps.” “How do you know that?” “I was at that conference where it was described.” “But that was two months ago.” “I know, but I remember it.”

    Now I know that I remembered it so well because the story had captured my imagination and the technical information had clung to the story like post-it notes.


True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails