Founder of 20 Questions to the World, Cyril Bruyelle shares his choice to go out in the world and discover what unites us as humans, rather than what divides us. His conclusion? “We are much more similar than we think.”
How can we understand the world objectively?
This is the question that prompted me to launch 20 Questions to the World in 2016. I was somewhat lost in the media chaos, back in the days when Donald Trump was not yet president and Covid only existed in science fiction movies.
Believe me, I have since stopped trying to answer this question, but an exploration is never without its discoveries.
If you could pick something to be taught in every school in the world, what would it be?
If you had to describe our planet to aliens, what would you say?
What are you afraid of?
My idea was simple: go and ask the same 20 open questions about education, the future, religion, fears, needs, etc. to people from very different social backgrounds, all over the world. Trump supporters, workers, peasants, politicians, etc.
I was tired of hearing about these people only in the media, with these labels that are supposed to determine everything they are. So I travelled for a full year in 2017 and conducted 500 filmed interviews, from a Mongolian nomad to Éric Dupond-Moretti. Today, we have exceeded 1,500 interviews.
It is the nature of long journeys to bring back something other than what you went there to get.Nicolas Bouvier
20 Questions to the World was never a gap year or a world tour. I created it from the start as an entrepreneurial adventure, and like any adventure, I didn’t know exactly where it would lead.
I financed the first year by inviting brands (Nestlé Waters, Birchbox, Pandacraft) to add questions to my questionnaire on their favourite themes – water and plastic for Nestlé Waters, beauty for Birchbox, and childhood for Pandacraft.
I would then produce dedicated content with answers to their questions, for external communication purposes. The sincerity and originality of the approach seems to have won them over. And the continuation of the partnership with Nestlé Waters – 3 years, including the creation of a dedicated digital media – allowed me to continue the activity when I returned to France at the end of 2017.
The organisation is now structured around two entities: an association and a company. The association’s mission is to bring people together, with the conviction that we are much more similar than we think, and the company works with organisations (L’Oréal, Engie, Philip Morris, ESCP, etc.) on external or internal communication issues, with the same objective.
We are much more similar than we think.
This is the obvious conclusion that came to us after a few hundred interviews. I say “we” because since the beginning of 2018, about fifteen teams of travellers – gap year students, young professionals, families and more – have gone around the world to continue asking our questions, and others are on their way as you read these words.
Beyond cultures, ideologies and countries, the human being has a universal definition that is proudly expressed in the 30,000 responses we have collected – and analysed – around the world. So many times we have heard the same lines about fears, dreams, needs, the future or education. Aren’t these the essentials? We spend our time hearing what makes us different – it’s significantly more marketable – but not much about what unites us. Yet there is a solid foundation of humanity that binds us all together, and that is just waiting to be stimulated.
This is the message we wish to convey, in the belief that a little more human empathy will help solve our major global challenges, be they economic, ecological or social.
(This is idealism for now.) We are sharing this message through various channels: videos, interactive works for the public space, and even a book.
Our belief is also expressed in our collaborations with companies, especially in internal communication projects involving interviews with employees. Whether it be on topics of change, societal issues or, more simply, in a desire to create a link, we encourage people to speak freely, with simple and open questions, seeking authenticity and spontaneity above all.
The questions bring out the “human” side, and then we can create engagement. As an example, here is a video made for ENGIE at the beginning of the Covid pandemic to show the commitment of their employees during this highly unusual period, and which was finally introduced by Jean-Pierre Clamadieu at the annual general meeting of the group’s 170,000 employees.
I am often asked which answers have made a particular impression on me.
First of all, there are interviews that stand out, especially when we meet an ‘atypical’ profile, for example in the house of a former Bolivian president, or with a cocaine dealer in the favelas of Rio, or in the office of Jacques Attali. But one of my favourite answers comes from a Burmese university professor.
I strongly suspect that he does this to his students at the beginning of each school year. In any case, it sums up our state of mind perfectly: succeeding in taking a step back from what we observe, and especially asking ourselves how others observe it.
This is a real process of opening up and often leads to common ground, whether in a professional or personal environment. Pierre Claverie, former bishop of Oman, said in a similar vein: “True dialogue only exists if I first admit that the other person may hold a truth that escapes me.” What is your perspective?
Finally, we worked recently with ESCP on a subject that was close to our hearts: being a student during the COVID pandemic. Let’s face it, no one would have liked to be in their shoes, and it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re feeling, i.e. to see it from their perspective.
“I really felt like I was missing something“, one of them said. And beyond the frustration, what impact did this period have on their personal and professional ambitions? The easiest way was to ask them.