January, 2016

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The danger of a single story and what to do about it

A novelist who found her authentic voice
Last week, an American trainer friend of mine forwarded to me a TED Talk video link, which was filmed in 2009. The theme of the talk was “The danger of a single story ”. In this Global TED Talk, novelist Chimamanda Adichie shares how she discovered her authentic voice. The main thesis of her talk was that individually and collectively, we have multiple stories and thus we shouldn’t be ensnared by a single story. Her message warns us not to buy into just one story about a person, culture, or country, which in turn leads to misunderstanding and stereotyping. The talk was very powerful. Over 9 million people have watched it. She has a point; a single story has danger.

Nigeria’s single story created by the media- Corruption
Chimamanda is from Nigeria. I have had some Nigerian friends over the years who shared with me great stories of their country. Unfortunately, for their dismay, the media uses one story about their country, corruption. It’s true corruption is high in Nigeria but it’s unfair to pick this one aspect of Nigeria and stereotype all Nigerians as corrupt. Since I heard multiple stories of Nigeria, thanks to my friends, I’m ‘safe’ from a single distorted story of Nigeria. Nonetheless, many people may not have the chance I have had to hear more success stories of Nigerians. And therefore, they fall for that single bad story created by the media. Unfortunate!

Ethiopians are also victims of a single story
As an Ethiopian, I’ve my own frustrations in this regard. The media uses one story about our country. It paints her with a single tragic story of famine regardless of multiple other awesome stories. Yes, as I write this article, millions of Ethiopians are starving, thanks to the maladministration and faulty policies of TPLF. But, is that the only story we have? No.

There are multitudes of remarkable stories out there that should have also gained the attention of the media. Regrettably, the mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about our patriotism. Our forefather defeated the fascist Mussolini. Ethiopia is one of the two African countries that weren’t colonized. What is more? The media isn’t enthusiastic to share the world about our great coffee, which is one of the signature coffee brands of Starbucks. They may create some sound bites for a brief moment about our long distance runners who hold multiple world records. Sadly, this is not the success story they repetitively broadcast to the world.

This is our responsibility to brand our businesses and ourselves appropriately
However, in this commentary, my goal is not to complain about the media bias that harms our image at the world stage. Partly, this is our own fault. We have to take responsibility. Nigerians, Ethiopians, and other countries, which think that the single story used by the media leads to stereotyping, should work on their brands. They don’t have control over which single story the media picks every time but they have control over doing something to counter act and offer the world with their other noteworthy stories.

The world is neutral, at least for me. These countries and cultures should reach out to people in other countries and cultures. They should brand themselves with great stories that the world hasn’t been able to hear from the media. This way, they could paint a favorable picture of their countries and cultures in the minds of people from other cultures. By doing so, they could be able to ‘save’ the latter from the stereotyping that may come from single stories they don’t want the world to remember and know them by.

Organizations and individuals should do something about it
The results of the media’s stereotyping using single stories create division, resentments, and even hate among people. Let me just give you one example. Think about the effect of this at organizational level. The workplace now is diverse. These negative single stories may affect relationships among co-workers, to say the least. Some employees who don’t have exposure to multiple stories about a given culture may develop biases toward their co-workers from other cultures based on negative single stories of their colleagues’ cultures. This may deny the team unity of purpose, synergy, and focus. It may even lead to conflicts. These things create dysfunctional teams, and cost organizations a lot at many levels. And therefore, organizations with diverse employees should do something about it.

You too should do something about it wherever you find yourself and/or your organization’s image is tarnished by unfavorable single story. Chimamanda used her pen, and speaking ability to tackle the danger of a single story. In her writing and speeches, she makes sure the world knows the other side of Nigeria, its culture and people. What can you do to help amend yours and/or your business’s image?

As a leadership facilitator, I provide workshops on themes such as diversity and inclusion, and conflict resolution to some government agencies and technology companies. These workshops are aimed at empowering leaders from diverse cultures so that they may create some room and learn various great stories of team members from other cultures. The ‘multiple’ stories, frameworks, and tools we share in these workshops enabled leaders improve their cultural intelligence, and become architect conflict resolvers.

Using a single story isn’t always a bad thing
In this blog, I would also like to draw your attention toward the importance of telling a single story to brand yourself and your organization. Telling single story is not always a bad thing. We all have manifold great stories. Regardless of our multitudes of stories, nonetheless, some of us keep telling people the story or stories that we consider favorable to us. It is called branding. There is nothing wrong in doing so. The truth of the matter is that some of us succeeded while some of us haven’t yet in branding our organizations and ourselves. The former persuaded others to buy into their single beautiful story.

Michael Jackson branded himself as King of Pop, regardless of the existence of some other unfavorable stories of his shortcomings. He was skillful in branding himself, and thus, the world embraced King of Pop gladly. Apple and its founder Steve Jobs have many stories. Some of the stories are not so pretty. Yet, the company keeps telling us a favorable story that represents Apple- Think Different. Using every available resource they got, they have been creating powerful ads to reinforce this story of the company, a company that thinks different than its PC maker competitors.

What to do about it?
Here are some suggestions to overcome, or at least mitigate, the damages of a single unfavorable story of you and/or your business:

  1. Seek feedback. First thing first. If you aren’t aware of the existence of hostile stories about yourself and/or your business, there is nothing you can do about it. You’re blindsided. That is why you should invest your precious time to seek feedback. If the great one asked his students “who do people say I’m?” why not us?
  2. Decide your brand. If you haven’t discovered your brand yet, this article should motivate you to consider having one. Your brand should be based on your core values. You don’t need to duplicate anyone’s brand. Be yourself and help the world recognize you with your distinctive attributes. You’re unique. No one in this planet has your fingerprint, retina scan, DNA, etc. No one should also have your unique brand…
  3. Identify your true stories that could bolster your brand. People easily catch pictures. As the saying goes, “A picture worths a thousand words”. Stories are powerful to create pictures. Nonetheless, make sure these stories are authentic and align with who you truly are and what you stand for. Let me clarify one common misunderstanding. Many people think that their beautify logos could do the trick. Your logo is just one element of your brand. Stories have fundamental place to create and promote your brand.
  4. Promote your brand. Use all available platforms; of course, the ones that you are comfortable with and can afford. The good news is that, these days, you have a decent chance to create and distribute your multiple true stories around the world, thanks to the Internet. Unless you are lucky and no one has ever heard stories about you, especially the negative ones, people heard or read other stories about you and your business. You need to promote your brand consciously, intentionally, and proactively in order people to know your true beauty. Let people also see the other side of you. This requires being vulnerable, and bold enough to share some of your stories from which you learned from your mistakes. Remember this. Sometimes, people resonate and connect with your stumbling, setbacks, and disappointments. What matters are not whether you failed, made mistakes, or stumbled. What people care about is whether you have learned some lessons through the process; most importantly, who you have become and whether you have used the experience to become better and to do good.
  5. Be the Ambassador of your brand. Yes, large companies use superstars, celebrities, and ad agencies to promote their brands. These messengers act as ambassadors and tell these companies’ stories on their behalf. For your own personal and small business, you cannot afford to hire others do ‘the dirty work’. You are the ambassador of your brand. Learn how to tell stories, brand yourself, your website, social media, and so on. It may take time. But, at the end of the day, you are the one responsible. Go out to the world in person, and in the cyberspace to promote your brand.
  6. Seek feedback again. Don’t assume that people capture your brand from your ads, press releases, and promotional materials alone. You need to seek feedback again and again. Ask people informally, using surveys, and any other method that may enable you to solicit feedback. Use these feedbacks to improve your brand, to make it clearer.