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Embellishing The Details

“This reminds me of my expedition into the wilds of Afghanistan.  We lost our corkscrew, and were compelled to live on food and water for several days.”  -- W.C. Fields

I’ve been asked by some of the more scrupulous corporate storytellers when it is all right to embellish a story.  (Actually, the term I hear most often used is “enhance the story.”)

Let’s face it, sometimes “the facts” alone don’t make the best story.  A bit of tweaking here or there can highlight key points, increase suspense, set up a humorous resolution, or move an audience to action.

For the corporate storyteller or presenter, you always have the dual purpose of keeping your audience engaged and enhancing the ability of your listeners to easily recall what has been shared.  Again, people the world over are hardwired to respond to a story well-told.

People have embellished stories for years.  This is part of what makes storytelling so appealing.  The point in doing so isn’t to cheat or deceive.  It is to create a narrative image in the audience that will be carried away and, in the best situations, retold.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier posting that my Dad was a master storyteller.  His ability to embellish is part of the reason why his jokes were so funny, and his stories still play so vividly in my mind many, many years later.

There are two significant reasons to AVOID some embellishments:

The first is when the purpose of the embellishment is almost entirely for self-promotion, especially when it is at the expense of others.  Unless you have a large fan-base, people just aren’t interested in how wonderful you are.  Yes, share your experiences, but you shouldn’t be wearing a cape and latex tights in every adventure.  That’s not storytelling; that’s bragging.  Savvy audiences pick up on the difference immediately and are turned off by it.

Now there is a notable exception, and that is in relating the humorous story in which you are a participant.  Comedians have mined this situation for time immemorial.  The difference is that their centering on self is at its best when it isn’t focused on demeaning the value of others.  The best comedians make themselves the butt of the joke, allowing the audience to laugh with them and at them.  (Bob Hope was amazing in this type of stand-up routine.)

The second reason to avoid embellishment is when you are changing significant facts of a story that are already well-known.  This causes an audience to momentarily detach from your story as they try to reconcile what you’ve said with what they know.

Now, this can work in your favor if your purpose is to create a “What if?” scenario.  Just remember to put in a significant pause to allow your listeners to catch up with you: 

“Slowly, Booth pointed his derringer at the back of the President’s head.  The hammer clacked, but the powder sputtered instead of igniting.  Major Henry Rathbone, hearing the unusual sound, turned as Booth drew his dagger.  Rathbone leapt at the distracted actor, wrestling him to the ground.  The President was saved.”

[Pause…two, three, four.  Continue with a softer, lowered voice.]

“What would the world be like for us today if President Lincoln had not been killed?  What changes would you notice in your daily life?”

This is fair game, and it allows your audience to engage the imagination.  The curiosity factor is in full play.  The story is interesting BECAUSE a commonly known fact is different.

Conversely, if you are speaking in 2012 about it being “a seller’s market in real estate for the past decade,” your audience will realize that you have completely missed or ignored a little item called “The Economic Upheaval” and will count your credibility as zero.

Embellishment is a natural element of storytelling.  When used with proper regard, it is a tremendous ally.

Thanks for reading.