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Truth or Consequences

I attended an excellent webinar on corporate storytelling this past week.  It was presented by the good folks at iSpeak…and I’m guessing that a number of readers of this blog would also have been present.  The session contained many valuable tips that will be of great use to presenters.

Two, however, gave me a moment’s pause.  The first was that a story in a presentation should be no longer than 1- to 2-minutes in length.  While this is a practical concern in many instances, please see my earlier posting regarding EPIC STORIES IN PRESENTATIONS for a different perspective.

The second tip I actually found to be disturbing.  The suggestion was that when you are using a made-up story, don’t let your audience know that it is fictional until after you have finished the segment.  The implication was that listeners would become less involved if they knew the circumstances weren’t real.

I don’t disagree that they would be less involved.  However, I do feel that you are opening yourself up to consequences that you may not have intended if you follow this practice.

When a story is particularly good, an audience invests itself emotionally.  They become involved in what is happening, and they put themselves into the framework, almost as if they are a direct participant.  This is why storytelling can be one of the most effective tools a presenter can use.  That emotional involvement engages multiple areas of the brain and aids in retention.

Now, let’s assume that you have been listening to one of my stories and you have been caught up in the narrative.  You are emotionally invested.  (In the example they used, the emotion was outrage.)  If I had a petition ready for you to sign, your name would be the first on the list.

…And then I tell you that it didn’t really happen.


For many of us, this would be similar to Bobby Ewing stepping from the shower in the night time soap opera, DALLAS.  “You mean it was a fake?  I have been following this story all this time, and now you tell me it didn’t really happen!  It was all a dream?!”

When you use a fake story, except one that is so well known that audiences immediately know that you are playing fast and loose with the facts, you risk alienating your audience. They trusted you while you were telling them the story, and you betrayed that trust.

As John Cleese points out in the wonderful THE LIFE OF BRIAN, “Oh!  He’s just making it up as he goes along!”

If the audience is alienated, you risk them turning against you.  You weren’t telling them the truth before.  Why should they believe anything else you say?

I’ll admit that this COULD be an extreme situation, but the stakes are high enough that I wouldn’t risk it.

So, what can you do?  I would suggest using an anecdote instead.  In the webinar example, the story centered around a proposal to abolish using grade cards as a method for measuring and recording student progress.

Instead of creating a story, you could say, “Imagine that you are a concerned parent.  You are attending a meeting of your school board.  Suddenly, you hear the following proposal.

“’Since grading students can be seen as a comment on their self-worth, the board has decided to abolish grade cards as a method of measuring and recording their academic progress.  Instead, parents will be asked to have periodic discussions with their children, and report to the school the proper score they’ve determined through those discussions.  Are there any comments?’”

What you have accomplished is to allow the listeners to explore their opinions…some of which CAN be emotional…and reflect on how they would respond.  However, at no time were they deceived that this was a real situation.  You did not lie to them.

Am I overreacting?  Perhaps.  Still, I would much prefer the Truth to the Consequences.

Thank you for reading.