The world is flooded with data. So much data. So many facts.
But people aren’t, by their nature, data-driven. Humans are storytelling animals — and we have been since we began walking the earth. Early humans shared their stories through cave paintings and petroglyphs, communicating everything from local lore and migration routes to community traditions and power struggles.
Humans span continents, populating dense urban centers and rural landscapes. We speak more than 7,000 languages, practice 12 major religions (and hundreds of other spiritualities), and lean into a myriad of economic, political, and educational backgrounds. There are a lot of differences across the human race, and a lot of emphasis is placed on these differences.
Yet, we’re more alike than we might realize or care to admit. There is a heart-centered part of the human condition that transcends all those differences. It is in those shared values, belief systems, and commonalities, where we can uncover opportunities for connection. Storytelling helps us find and foster those shared connections.
Storytelling is a powerful and important cornerstone of the tourism industry. Yet, the tourism industry can — and should — do a better job of using storytelling to connect travelers with the core priorities and belief systems within the industry.
Generally speaking, values within the tourism industry include ideas such as the importance of protecting the environment, supporting local communities, creating awareness of and educating people about socio-cultural and environmental challenges, and being a force for good in a way that creates conditions for a sustainable and even regenerative future for the industry.
Though travelers may be arriving in a destination from all around the world, they hold similar core values with each other and with those in their travel destination. For example, generally speaking, people want to leave the world a better place for their children. They want to live in a safe and clean world. It is not a stretch to align these travelers’ values (“I want to leave the world a better place for my children”) with values aligned with the travel context (“It’s important to prioritize care for the environment.”).
When those working in the tourism industry connect with travelers through storytelling — and, therefore, these shared values — they create the conditions for conversations that actually stick with travelers. These are the conversations people point to as memorable travel moments. But mindful storytelling also has the power to encourage and help people:
- Think critically.
- Grapple with and untangle the complexities that define our differences.
- Question harmful preconceived notions and assumptions they currently hold.
- Initiative behavior change.
- Kick off positive ripple effects long after they’ve returned home that impact people far beyond their vacation destination.
Storytelling comes naturally to people. But to use it effectively in your tourism work, it’s also essential that you use it mindfully and responsibly. Here are a few key things to remember as you venture into more mindful storytelling practices:
The Words, Imagery, and Messaging You Choose Make a Difference
Language matters. It can be empowering, it can be oppressive, and it can be everything in between. As Toni Morrison once said: "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge."
In the travel-related context, the words and messaging you choose and perceive in one way may be perceived a different way by the people who live in a certain destination, travelers, or readers or followers of your marketing and social media. You obviously know of certain terminology or slang that is globally considered offensive, but there are lots of nuanced words and phrases that have colonial roots or can be destructive as well. It’s this terminology that often sneaks into our communication, causing harm, marginalizing people, misrepresenting places, minimizing historical and cultural context, and establishing inappropriate expectations.
It is also important to think critically about the imagery you use — especially when it’s paired with words. Always ask yourself how the two reinforce your messaging together, and what is perceived if only the imagery or text is seen, heard, or read.
Intention Isn’t Enough
Your history shapes you. Everything about where you come from (however you define that), how you identify, and what you hope to achieve in life colors the way you evaluate a situation. The lens you look through is one lens, and it’s a lens that is unique to you.
Responsible and mindful storytelling takes practice, but as you continue to learn about it, it will come more naturally to you. You will begin to identify problematic issues to navigate with care and golden opportunities for engaging with travelers in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Learning is an ongoing process. Take note of past mistakes. Acknowledge harm done and commit to more mindful storytelling going forward. Evaluate opportunities for deeper engagement in the future. Make course corrections as you go along. Put your best intentions into practice each and every day.
Jargon Doesn’t Matter; Impact Does
Your knowledge of environmental issues, a destination’s history, and the nuances of a culture are fantastic, but you need to approach every topic from an accessible entry point. Remember, people are story-driven, so lean into that.
Talking about the climate emergency is a great example of this. The tourism industry needs to do a far better job of integrating conversation about all aspects of the climate emergency, from food waste and water scarcity to limiting carbon emissions. But the words “climate emergency” — or “global warming” or “climate change” — aren’t accessible. What is accessible is what the climate emergency looks like and means in actuality to the traveler.
Travelers can relate to the backyard streams they used to play in drying up. They know there are certain birds and animals no longer appear in their neighborhoods. Can you help them string their parents’ stories with their own stories and the stories they hope their kids will have together? This personalized, long view of history helps illustrate in a very real and accessible way what climate change looks like. Tap that shared human value of a clean and safe world by tying their stories with pro-climate actions and behaviors in the immediate travel context.
You can do this without everything bringing in the words “climate emergency.” Their reality, knowledge, and perspective of the world has nothing to do with the climate emergency and everything to do with the result of the climate emergency. The impact of skillful and mindful storytelling in this way can have a long-lasting, ongoing ripple of influence.
If you haven’t had a chance, tune into the 15-minute conversation I had with Harold Goodwin during London Travel Week on why narrative is an essential part of the travel experience and how the tourism industry can use storytelling in a more mindful and intentional way.