Lessons in storytelling from Jung Chang

Jung ChangBestselling international author, Jung Chang, was the closing keynote speaker at a conference I helped to organize in Brussels on 9-10 December 2013.  Entitled “Telling the Story”, the event was a gathering of around 800 European communication professionals.

Jung Chang captivated the audience with her own incredible personal story, from her childhood growing up in Mao’s China to her current life in London as an author whose books have sold millions and have been translated into over 40 languages.  She described how she had first taken the decision to write about her experiences, as well as those of her mother and grandmother, in her book “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China”.  Jung also gave the audience some insights into the lengthy process researching and writing “Mao, the Unknown Story” and her latest book “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China”.

Drawing on her work as an author, Jung Chang provided us with some tips on storytelling that could be applied in other contexts, including communicating about the European Union in a more tangible and accessible way:

  1. Know your material (you have to be in command of all the details of your story in order to be able to tell it clearly and convincingly).
  2. Present your message with subtlety (Jung told us that people should understand the message behind the story, but it should not be too obvious, like “salt in water” or the “flowers in honey”).
  3. Use simple language (“the simpler the better” – this is not easy and requires a lot of hard work).
  4. Be visual (a good story should leave people with a mental image – during her speech, Jung actually showed us a tiny shoe like the ones her grandmother would have worn at a time when binding women’s feet from childhood was a tradition in China).
  5. Be honest (the audience must believe your story; in her case, Jung told us that this honesty has come at a personal cost).
  6. Develop an eye for a good story (Jung’s presentation included some funny anecdotes, including an encounter with former Congolese President Mobutu in a hotel hair salon in Hong Kong!).
  7. Have a sense of humour (including the capacity to laugh at yourself – something we’re not always good at when it comes to institutional communication …).
  8. Treat others’ stories with respect (people will open up and share their stories if they believe that you will be faithful to them and put them to good use).

My colleague, Claudio, managed to catch Jung for a short video message about storytelling before she left.

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