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JULY 19, 2018 //     

When telling stories, one size doesn't fit all

Credit: AmelioBy: Marcel Goldstein


“It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling.” - Khalil Gibran

We all hunger for stories. We relate to them, are moved by them and remember them. We can even argue storytelling is in our DNA, because before the written word emerged, oral storytelling provided the means to share and remember information critical to our survival.

But do we all hunger for the same type of stories? Can the stories you tell about your business work around the world in all countries and with all cultures?

Last week, I led a storytelling workshop in Frankfurt, Germany. And through an engaging, dynamic conversation with a cross-section of thoughtful people from different countries, I learned a lot about both the power and limitations of telling stories globally.

The late great Joseph Campbell, a scholar in comparative mythology and religion, believed there’s only one story in the world: the hero’s journey. Found frequently in books and movies today, this story type begins with the origin or background of the hero, followed by a transformative moment that forces the hero onto a journey to change the world, and finally concludes with the resolution of his or her struggles and a return home.

Business communications often use this framework. In those cases, the hero might be an employee who solved a customer’s problem, or it might be a customer who solved a broader societal problem. The hero can also be a company, as many companies are quick to move directly into a conversation about their solutions. However, this leaves out crucial elements of storytelling, such as the beginning (“once upon a time”) and middle (a problem, challenge or obstacle—i.e., something to overcome).

While this is a common framework, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is ideal. When asked if that type of story would resonate around the world, my Frankfurt discussion group gave a resounding “no.” In many parts of the world, this level of individualism would not be welcomed. In fact, in many countries, only the government can be the hero of any story, I learned. So, while I believe the key elements of storytelling and even the hero’s journey framework can work, the specific application of this story type must be framed within the recipients’ context.

For those businesses hoping to achieve centralized content development efficiencies, this will be a big disappointment. However, to be a truly successful global enterprise, investments in local storytelling are necessary. Cultural references also require more investments in local storytelling. For example, good stories use analogies and metaphors, but those references are rarely shared universally. 

Now, there’s another side to this story. We are more globalized today than at any other time in history. Advances in transportation and communications have made us more aware of other cultures and increased our understanding of them and their references. Hollywood, one of the great storytelling factories in the world, produces movies today that are as popular in China as the United States. The stories of many authors are translated and have found large audiences in foreign countries. As a result of incredible worldwide demand for the tale, French author Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” can be read in any of 253 languages -- more than any other book.

The world is drawing closer fundamentally, but vast differences remain. At a high level, some stories and story types seem to resonate in multiple regions of the world, and cultural references cross boundaries better than in the past due to globalization. Having said that, we are still a world of many different peoples and societies, and one story may not always work universally. Successful business storytellers will invest in localization of stories when necessary and integrate local teams to contribute to their storytelling.

Marcel is an executive vice president in Allison+Partners’ Corporate practice.

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