Everybody knows the story of Aladdin.
Orphaned Arab street urchin finds magic lamp, gets three wishes from powerful genie and (through innate decency and ingenuity) triumphs over evil sorcerer to win heart of princess.
That’s the Disney version, anyway. The original story went a little differently.
In the original version, told to French writer Antoine Gallant in 1710 by a Syrian traveller, Aladdin was not an Arab. He was Chinese.
And he wasn’t an orphan. He was the lazy, self-absorbed son of a merchant, who despaired of his ne’er-do-well offspring and his feckless ways.
There was a genie. In fact, there were two: the genie of the lamp and the genie of the ring – neither of whom put any upper limit on the number of wishes Aladdin could claim.
And he did get the princess. But only because he used the power of the genie to spy on her while bathing, then interrupt her wedding and cast her husband-to-be (by all accounts, a very decent fellow) into a frozen wasteland, while he took the princess for himself.
In other words, not quite the Disney hero – more a rather creepy chancer.
My point is not to highlight the variations in the story. My point is that the variations don’t really matter.
Because the thing that makes the story compelling is the idea of having extraordinary supernatural powers that can make your every wish come true. That’s an idea guaranteed to get people talking (‘Hey – if you had three wishes and you could have whatever you wanted, what would you wish for…?’)
This is why the story of Aladdin has remained so popular with writers, film-makers and pantomime audiences for hundreds of years. And why you find variations of it in so many different cultures around the world.
It’s an example worth remembering next time you’re helping your CEO prepare for his management conference keynote – and he’s still agonising over the wording of the fourth bullet point on slide 27.
You and I both know there is not a chance in hell that anyone in the audience will remember what that fourth bullet point says (and, frankly, very little chance they’ll still be paying attention by slide 27, anyway).
In other words, the detail doesn’t matter.
He’d be better off ditching 26 of those slides and focusing on the one element of his story that is so compelling that it’s guaranteed to get people talking.
Aladdin’s magic lamp. Or John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’. Or Martin Luther King’s dream.
Of course, we also both know that, when you strip away the detail, there’s a good chance the story that’s left will not be very compelling. No magic lamp – just a slightly dull change programme that will mean a lot more work for everyone in the short term.
But just imagine how much more effective that change programme would be if you could persuade the people at the top to step back from the detail and focus on creating a story that would get people talking.
If I could offer you three wishes right now, wouldn’t that be one of them?