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"You Are A Winner!"...& Other Lies

In the past week, I have won two contests and placed in a third.  The “wins” were for a $500 Target gift card and a $500 Best Buy gift card.  The “place” was as a finalist in a drawing for a $25,000 Ford (I forget the model).

Of course, I haven’t spent my windfalls just yet.  You see, the notice of my $500 Target gift card win came on my mobile phone.  After filling in my address…making numerous mistakes along the way because my fingers just weren’t made for typing extensive information on mobile phones, I pushed the SEND button and happily awaited my confirmation.

What I received were seemingly unending pages of “special offers.”  After “No, thanks”-ing my way through 11 of them, I was notified in no uncertain terms that I would have to accept at least 3 offers before I could receive my gift card.

Now, I must assume that all of this was outlined in the small print for the offer.  However, having difficulty reading “normal” print on my smartphone at the best of times, I was unable to read the details.  I exited without my winnings.

Three days later, a similar offer appeared for Best Buy.  I deleted it without opening it.  The new car offer arrived by phone call.  I would advance through the “finals” if I just answered a brief survey about my buying habits.  I declined.

Why am I telling you this in a blog dedicated to Storytelling and its impact on memory retention?  Because I believe it effectively illustrates the danger of deceiving your audience with a story.

A case in point. 

I have absolutely no idea whether either Target or Best Buy were associated with the gift card promotion.  After all, VISA gift cards are awarded as prizes and VISA has nothing else to do with the contest.  Still, it will be a little while before I shop at either establishment again because I was…well…ticked off by being made to feel foolish.

To bring this into the realm of storytelling, I once sat in on a presentation in which we were told of a “true life” event.  The details were intriguing and highly controversial.  We were invited to present our solutions.  The ensuing discussion was very animated and would have gone on for quite some time if the presenter didn’t tell us that we needed to move on.  Several folks in my group suggested that we might meet for lunch to carry on the discussion.

And then the presenter made the most amazing admission.  “Thank you for your participation.  I may have exaggerated the truth a bit when I said that this was based on a true life event.  Actually, I made it up to illustrate a point.  However, I’m sure that you took away the appropriate lesson.”

There was stunned silence in the room…and not just because the presentation had continued.  The silence remained through the rest of the day.  Further “discussion groups” were met with disinterest.  We had been lied to, and we wanted nothing more to do with the presenter.

At this point, I imagine that some readers are taking issue with being unable to exaggerate the truth in storytelling.  After all, MOST stories stray from the straight and narrow path of total honesty.

And I agree.  There is nothing wrong with that just as long as your listeners have not been led to believe that you are presenting unvarnished facts.  If they feel deceived, their trust in what you have to say is lost and your message is diminished…if not marked “undeliverable” altogether.

This is especially important if you, as storyteller, are the central figure in the story.  In an earlier posting, I had warned about the dangers of using yourself as a “hero.”  When not presented correctly, it emerges as bragging.  Worse, if you attribute feats to yourself that are beyond belief, you are perceived as a deceiver.

If you are the hero of your story (in any way but the comical or naïve sense), be sure that there is an “authority” available who will confirm your veracity.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger does not have to produce his heroic credentials.  The press has done that for him.

The art of telling stories has a built-in ethical imperative.  Because you are engaging the emotions of your listeners, they have a right to expect a certain level of transparency from you.  Give them that, and you will have provided a wonderful “gift card” that they will continue to use.

Thank you for reading.