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Storytelling for Leaders: Accuracy vs. Embellishment

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

Alright, at this point in the class, someone typically asks the question, “Is it okay to make up a story?” And my perhaps surprising answer is, sure, it’s totally okay to make up a story, under one condition. And that condition is that your audience KNOWS you made it up. Otherwise, you’re just not being honest with people. You’ll eventually get found out, and that’s not going to be good for anyone.

But telling a fictional story or giving a hypothetical example every once in a while is totally appropriate, as long as your audience knows it’s fictional. Personally, I only find myself needing to do that in about 5% of the cases where I need a story. 95% of the time, I’m able to find a true story to illustrate the point I want to make. And I think you owe it to your audience to make a solid effort to find true stories when you need them.

But, there will always be situations where you just don’t have access to the information or the true stories you have access to are too confidential to share. And in those cases, coming up with a plausible, realistic alternative is completely fine, again, as long as your audience knows that’s what they’re getting. And you can signal that very easily and without any awkward apologies by just starting your story by saying, “Okay, let’s suppose…” or “Imagine this…” or you could even blunter and say, “Okay, I’m totally making this up, but go with me on this. I think it’ll help you understand my point.”

All of those let the audience know they’re about to hear a rare, but fictional story.

Okay, here’s a related question: if my story is true, do all the details need to be completely accurate or, sometimes the question is phrased, is it okay to embellish my stories? And if so, how much?

Now, it’d be easy to stand on the moral high ground here and say, “Everything in your stories needs to be 100% true or you’re a liar.” On the other side, a lot of people are quick to fall back on the advice to “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Here’s my conclusion: I think you can err on both sides of the issue—meaning, when it comes to guarding the integrity of the facts in your story, I think you can be both too aggressive and too cautious.

The problem with being too aggressive is obvious. The farther your story strays from what actually happened, the more likely you are to mislead your audience, violate their trust in you, and permanently damage your relationship.

The dangers of being too cautious are not so obvious. So here’s one way that happens. In my experience working with business leaders on their storytelling, I find that they typically underutilize dialogue in their stories. And when I ask them why the main reason they give is that they don’t think they can remember exactly what the person said. And because they’re afraid to misquote someone, they just opt out of using dialogue entirely. And that’s a huge mistake. It’s a missed opportunity to fairly strengthen your stories.

Here’s an example. In Mike Figliuolo’s story about the tank exercise I shared earlier in the course, I said that Mike yelled out, “Driver, turn left!” because that’s what Mike told me he said. But do you think Mike’s absolutely sure he said, “Driver! Turn left?” Maybe he really said, “Private, turn left!” or “Jimmy, take that next left ”Who knows? That was 25 years ago. But what Mike does know for sure is that he said something short, definitive, and exclamatory that basically meant “Turn. Left. Now!” The words “Driver, turn left!” capture all of that truth whether they’re precisely correct or not.

In storytelling, accuracy is important. Precision is not.

If you let the fear of imprecision be a barrier to using dialogue or other specifics in your stories, ultimately all you’d be able to say is, “I woke up, did some stuff, and then came home. The end.”

So, here’s my general rule of thumb: you shouldn’t be any more or less willing to embellish stories than you’re willing to embellish facts. So, facts and stories are both things you tell other people. Just because one of them is “a story” doesn’t mean you have any more or less license to stretch the truth. And most of us are willing to be less than 100% precise with facts, and justifiably so. A 14.7% sales increase gets rounded up to 15% all the time. A 93% increase in satisfaction ratings would be celebrated as “We doubled our ratings!” And nobody would fault us for making those slight adjustments to the facts. They’re literally rounding errors. And rounding numbers off like that gives the listener the level of accuracy they need, without overburdening them with too much detail and precision.

But not many of us would feel the same way if the 14.7% sales increase was touted as 25%. The magnitude of the difference matters. And if you’re willing to make only minor changes to the details of facts, you should be willing to make only minor changes to the details of stories. For example, changing minor details in the context of conflict doesn’t matter much, especially if you’re just trying to simplify the story, or perhaps protect the anonymity of one of the characters. But, changing the resolution of the story or the lesson are much more substantive changes, and you should be less willing to make them.

So, here’s my advice for how to stay honest and accurate with your stories: first, set expectations upfront. Give listeners some indication of how true to the facts they should expect your story to be. If you start off, “I saw something interesting yesterday…,” they’ll expect a near-perfect recitation of the facts. But, if you say, “I have a vague recollection from my childhood…,” or “I guy once told me a story about…” they’ll expect something much less accurate.

Second, don’t change what I call the hard points of a story: that’s the essence of the story—the event that it’s built around, the challenge, the resolution, and the lesson. You can be more flexible with minor details like the exact time or location, the dialog, and people’s names. Sometimes you need to change that stuff anyway to protect people’s privacy.

At the end of the day, here’s my acid test: Imagine you just discovered that someone who listened to a story you told was actually there when the story originally happened. Then ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Would they be offended at how you told the story?
  2. Would you be embarrassed?

If you answer yes to either of those questions, you’ve probably changed too much. If not, you’re fine.

Alright, in the next lesson, we’ll talk about the difference between delivering a story orally versus delivering it in writing.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith