3 Lessons From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One of the most popular “must watch” TED talks that appears on nearly every list out there is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” Combing humor and a fresh cultural perspective that many of us have not had the privilege to hear, she broadens our world in under 20 minutes and delivers a beautiful talk that still motivates viewers today.

There are so many lessons from this TED talk for presenters who aspire to capture some of her magic. We’ve analyzed her talk for some of its strongest aspects, and have compiled the top three features of “The Danger of a Single Story” which make it so memorable.

After you watch the video for yourself, scroll down for a few takeaways that you can apply in your own presentations, or perhaps in your own eventual TED talk.

1. A shared, universal experience

Chimamanda’s purpose is not to scold her audience for a lack of knowledge, but rather to explain that these misunderstandings and limited perspective are universal. By opening with her own admission in the tale about Fide and his family’s poverty, she opens herself to the criticism of this talk. It makes her a more human narrator, and also adds humor to the story in a way that helps the audience feel like she is a close friend, not merely an lecturer.

In your own presentations, show vulnerability. Make yourself relatable to the audience by describing a time when you didn’t have your business plan figured out, or perhaps a time that you’ve struggled with in the past. A human experience is a flawed experience.

2. Storytelling that works to explain storytelling

The purpose of this TED talk is to encourage us to broaden the scope of stories we consume about other people and cultures. But this isn’t a high level talk that spells out why this is important using stats and facts; it speaks to the heart by using storytelling examples.

Listening to the talk, Chimamanda uses around ten different smaller stories to share the core message itself. All of them fit beautifully together, combing her personal experience as a Nigerian in America as well as her Nigerian experience with its own limitations in literature and so on. If you want to make your presentation compelling, use storytelling to show your audience what you mean, don’t just tell them what they should do or know.

3. A broad yet applicable call to action


3 Lessons From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”

The quote above is from the final lines of Chimamanda’s talk. Because it encourages us to seek out alternative stories, it’s a call to action that both beautifully summarizes her message as well as motivates the audience to perhaps read some of the writers she had mentioned like Chinua Achebe or Camara Laye. It’s also open ended enough to be interpreted in different ways; maybe the audience has a book lying around in their bedroom they just haven’t been motivated to read yet. Or maybe the audience could be interested in reading something by the speaker herself.

A call to action like this is not as specifically actionable as “read this one thing,” but it marries perfectly with her message. There isn’t just one right way to become a global reader; the purpose is simply to open yourself up to stories from all places.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” isn’t just a culturally relevant and moving TED talk, it also perfectly illustrates the power of storytelling within a presentation itself. What would her talk have been like without the examples stories pulled from her own life? For speakers who wish to capture this compelling style, personal storytelling must and should come first.

Interested in more resources for storytelling itself? Here are a few blog posts from our archive that can help you craft the perfect story:

3 Storytelling Tips from Acclaimed Writer Burt Helm

The Neuroscience of Storytelling

The Art of Storytelling

Want to work with expert storytellers to help craft your message. We’re here for you!

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