The Intimacy Threshold: storytelling differences across cultures

I’m doing something a little different this week. Usually the stories in this podcast teach a specific leadership lesson. But this week, the lesson addressed in the story is about storytelling itself as a leadership tool. And it’ll be especially important if you work with people from many different countries and cultures, in particular, between the United States and European Countries. My guest will identify a difference in what he calls the “intimacy threshold” across different countries, and how you need to adjust your communication (and your storytelling in particular) for these different audiences. And he gives some very actionable tips for how to do it.

David Hutchens2Meet David Hutchens. He’s an author, speaker, trainer, and storyteller. And he’s spent the last decade helping leaders use storytelling as a path to influence. He has a new book out, called Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers.

In David’s many seminars, he often shows a video produced by a major airline designed to motivate and inspire it’s employees. It includes short vignettes of passengers telling a story about a recent flight with that airline and how the company went above and beyond their expectations to help them send off a loved one, welcome a returning one, or just be able to afford to come home and surprise a loving Mom for Christmas. It’s a very touching and moving video that’s hard to watch without tearing up a bit.

Circle of the 9 MusesBut at the end of one particular showing of this video in Paris, David’s audience sat unmoved, with arms folded, scowling at him. They said things like,

Why did you manipulate us. . . that was too fake. . . to sappy . . . too much music” and perhaps most telling of all, “too American.”

David’s conclusion is that all effective storytelling needs an emotional component. But how much and how delivered can vary by culture. He outlines some good ideas to strike the right balance for your audience, including the difference in displaying emotion personally in your delivery, versus dispassionately describing emotional events that will evoke an emotional response in your audience. Click the play button above and listen.

You can learn more about David at

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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