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March 2019, Storytelling Workshop in Malaysia

Normally I really love snow! The feeling of cold, snowflakes dancing in the air and the blue sky make me melt inside. On one cold March afternoon, I was fed up with the snow, though. Because of the snowstorm I spent six hours at the airport with the vision of cancelling my storytelling workshop in Kuala Lumpur. After boarding we were told that our delay was getting bigger until the captain said that our flight had to be canceled. All that meant that I was not able to catch my connection flight to Kuala Lumpur. KLM booked me on a flight the next morning, with Singapore Airlines via Munich and Singapore and further to KL. I landed half an hour after the storytelling workshop had started. Thanks to my dear friend, Sylvia based in KL, I made it to the venue at 10:45. 

When I entered the workshop room, thirty-six smiling faces greeted me and my co-facilitator breathed with a relief. I smiled as well as I felt very welcome and my dream of sharing my experiences in various places across the globe came true because of my dear friend who invited me to this beautiful corner of the world. I was told that Chinese learners are used to the “top-down teaching methods” and had many interesting chats with my friend on how to design our learning journey for Malaysian Chinese and Malay. We decided to apply many interactive methods and activities in small groups so that the participants of our program could exchange their experiences, listen to one another’ stories and co-create new stories for purposes of their company. To our surprise, our participants got immediately involved in vivid exchange of stories and truly enjoyed co-creating stories to be presented in the plenary in the afternoon. The stereotype of top-down teaching remained true only in one situation: when we were asked to give examples of stories to be used as a formula. I have heard of storytelling programs when participants were given ready-made stories to learn by heart to tell their customers. Our goal was to empower our participants and build upon their own experiences. 

To avoid this “wish for copying the given pattern” we introduced the ABC of storytelling, I described in the book “Beyond Storytelling”, published 2017: 

“A – stands for AUTHENTICITY and the wish to tune in with your audience. Authenticity in the intercultural context is a balance act between “autopilot behavior” and adaptation to the expectations of the listeners. 

B – stands for BULDING A RELATIONSHIP, as only this way we are able to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. It is of crucial importance to identify the listeners’ emotional needs and meet them with integrity.

C – stands for COURAGE, which lies at the beginning of every powerful story, because while sharing emotions and fears we make ourselves vulnerable.” (Sell, J. (2017). Storytelling for Intercultural Understanding and Intercultural Sensitivity Development in: Chlopczyk, J. (ed.) Beyond Storytelling, Springer Berlin) 

Our participants agreed that creating their own stories gives them a much better feeling then “repeating” “ready-made stories”. One of them wrote in the feedback: “It reminded me of doing the right thing”. 

Facilitating a workshop in a new cultural setting creates plenty of opportunities to try out new teaching and facilitating methods, to create spaces where the participants can learn from one another and to learn from them. My top 5 learning points from this one-day storytelling workshop:

  1. Kita boleh – “yes we can”! The positive attitude is contagious. When I entered the room and got greeted by so many people with bright smiles, I immediately knew it would be a good workshop. 
  2. Learning styles are important; nevertheless, empowering people to share powerful stories has got a much greater impact on the participants than sticking to the “top-down” teaching.
  3. Co-facilitation always is a jam session. No matter how well prepared, improvisation is part of the game.
  4. Participants’ feedback is the biggest treasure that is really tricky to receive from the Chinese. We asked the participants to write the shortest story of the world (just six words) inspired by Ernest Hemingway to sum up what they have learned and what they are taking with them. 
  5. Always be prepared for cultural diversity, as you never know who is in the room. Malaysia is very multicultural and apart from Malay, there are Malaysian Chinese and Tamil in the country. In our case, the Malaysian Chinese were the majority, followed by the Malay. Nevertheless, we were prepared for all groups. 
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