Truth, lies, storytelling and business

By Limor Shiponi

I’m quite fed up reading I’m a liar. It’s not that anyone accused me personally but the general word on the market is that storytellers are liars. “Even Mike Daisey…” Mr. Daisey isn’t a storyteller but an actor who made a big mistake. What mistake?

  • If the drama is about something that happened in reality, you can choose to emphasize some facts and mute others but you can’t make new facts up to serve an interest that stands outside of the story.
  • If you make facts up, you’ll need (1) a reasoning which serves the drama from within (2) to eliminate making up stuff which might lead the listener to believe something terrible happened. Something more terrible from reality itself.

Storytellers who need to look their audience in the eye all the time, know very well there is a limit to how far you can “stretch” the facts if you’re telling a story about something that actually happened. If you’re stretching to the negative you most probably have a purpose which isn’t just telling a story.

The unspoken contract

Every Time a storytelling event takes place, the same unspoken contract is signed between teller and audience: we will suspend our disbelief; you will lead us through the story. You will take care of us and bring us to the other side safe and sound – mentally, emotionally, physically; we are placing trust in your hands – thou shall not betray.

We never do. Losing trust might be a terrible punishment for a storyteller. Does that mean I always tell the truth? yes, but not always the facts. Many of the stories I tell are folk tales, legends and fantasy. What do the people saying storytellers are liars have to say about telling those stories? I wonder.

When I tell about something that happened in reality I’m very careful with any addition I make. If I’ll add to the story (aka “scenic opening”) it will be an addition that could most probably take place in reality too. In order to do that I need to know the story’s narrative to such depth that I could as-if be there and see for myself, like in a first-hand experience. Often while telling, children ask me questions that point to the possibility they think I’ve actually been to the story or am there right now. Adults try very hard not to ask such questions overtly but from the questions they ask in private after the telling you learn they feel the same.

I never make up new ‘facts’ – numbers, places, objects, central characters etc. I do emphasize facts or mute others in attempt to make the listener see angles of the events that often slip the eye. It’s similar in a way to data visualization manipulations. The data is there, the manipulator helps you make sense of it from various angles.

One of the stories I tell is a historical drama. All the events I tell about actually happened in reality. The main character used her swords often and she didn’t use them to peel oranges. At that time in history using the sword to settle disputes was common practice. At one point her main enemy slaughtered her eldest son after tying him up in his sleep. He stabbed him 13 times. What you don’t know is that the sword he used was a leaf-blade. It can kill a man with a single penetration into the heart.

The facts about the specific sword are not mentioned in the main text about this character. I had to find them out by myself (which is a story within itself). So today, the story I tell starts like this –

(drawing sound and movement, imaginary sword) “Do you see this sword? it’s called ‘leaf blade’ because the end of the blade is shaped like a leaf. What does it mean? it means that if you stab a person in the heart (stabbing movement with a twist after penetration) after two minutes the earth underneath him is soaked with blood. That’s what it means. But what does it mean if a great hospitable man, after drinking the same wine he served his guests and falling asleep, is tied up by them and stabbed with a leaf-blade 13 times? what does it mean- then?” (imaginary sword back into imaginary scabbard).

How does this change “the truth” and am I lying? in fact, this brings the truth out – the son’s murder was motivated by sheer hatred – stronger than revenge or just killing another soldier from the enemy’s cohort.

Lies, storytelling and business

If you’re looking at storytelling for a business quick fix – you’re looking the wrong way. If someone is telling you it is –

  • Read their resume
  • Check the facts about what they really have in the world
  • Find out if they gained it through storytelling
  • And how long it took them

A couple of weeks ago I heard an interview with a venture capital millioner. At some point the interviewer said, “your success is really amazing – it seems as if you’ve become a millionaire almost overnight!” upon which he replied, “did the person who told you that story also tell you that overnight took 35 years?”

So, how can storytelling REALLY help your business? I’ll be writing about this more pretty soon.

P.S.  As editing, I saw a tweet by @greggvm leading to a study about Facebook timeline and engagement. Guess what? the storytelling story they’ve been spreading doesn’t work. For a storyteller that’s far from being a surprise.

3 thoughts on “Truth, lies, storytelling and business”

  1. Not sure the current problem for me is being branded a “liar.” Over here, the problem is not telling a big enough story about how storytelling is going to fix everything and every problem a business has had. That truth doesn’t fly right now when so many are promising the moon. People I trust say that this, too, shall pass. But, for the moment, the taller the business-success tale, the more it attracts folks and their money. Sad. As far as the Facebook timeline, a picture of one’s story is STILL not storytelling.

    1. Well Sean, the people you trust are most probably right – this too shall pass. If people want to believe fool’s gold yet another time – so be it although I agree – it’s sad. What’s even more sad is that they believe the power of storytelling is leading them to trust that story.

  2. Pingback: Truth, lies, storytelling and business – Limor Shiponi

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