William Deresiewicz’s essay “Empty Regard” delivers a punch while illustrating that overuse of the term “hero” has drained the word/story of it’s true military meaning and worse, out-right accuses embarrassed team-players of grand standing. Online replies from members of the military tell their personal stories that will silence and liberal or conservative hoping to wag a finger in the air. What happened happened, an important specific symbol was generalized into meaninglessness. [Read more…]
“How true does a story have to be?”
I puff up with pride and can barely muffle my “told you so!” when well told stories take a meaningless object and give it enough meaning to register in dollars and cents! Whoo hooo!! The project raised money for writing programs, until is was shut down. I suspect the project was suspended because technically they were committing fraud. Oops, no harm meant. Adding a sentence: “even if they knew it wasn’t true” can’t fix the fact that eBay tests do not show any substantive disclaimer like, “This story is false.”
My philosophy is being tested here:
“People don’t want your information, they want faith..that you know what you are talking about, that this is a good product, they will be happy they listened to you…”
Faith that you are telling the truth, in other words. I want to focus on this point, not because I’m all uppity about the ethics, but because this is a critical crossroad where your choices make you a good storyteller or a brilliant storyteller.
I deeply believe all stories should be literally true, or transparently metaphorical or fiction – movies, folk tales, etc.
Untrue stories (particularly those that could have happened) are still untrue. Lying to your customers is bad business. And, I use this inflammatory word not to insult anybody, but to grab your attention.
Two reasons I recommend you keep working until you can tell it a true story.
1.If you have to invent a story, you aren’t doing your homework.
Either, you haven’t been talking to your customers, or you haven’t tested your product yourself in real situations…whatever it is. Needing to invent a story – to take that kind of short cut – reveals a much bigger problem in that you don’t know a true story that is worth telling. If the product is actually good, and you know your audience, then why do you need to make something up? I think it is a warning sign.
2. Customers generalize.
If I discover you told me one untruth, I will doubt everything. In today’s market trust is incredibly expensive to create and maintain. The ROI of untrue stories can’t be high enough to compensate for the risk of losing trust. Maybe it is a small risk, but Toyota having a jammed gas-pedal was also a tiny probability.
In the case of the eBay items, the fictional backstory seems harmless enough, unless it encourages anyone to tell untrue stories for any reason other than entertainment.
At least, this has been my personal experience:
One time, in New Orleans I began a keynote at a great hotel by saying, “I love this place, and I am extra happy to be here today.” I followed with a story (big surprise) about how the last time I was in that hotel I was a child, it was Easter and I was with my mother and father who had decided to take a trip to New Orleans. I remembered that trip so vividly because in the lobby downstairs were bunnies!
Bunnies not just for show, but bunnies I could hold and pet. I was in heaven. There was a circle of colored corrugated cardboard and I could reach in and just pick one up. As an adult, I’m sure there was also a hotel staff member who managed that process. But I don’t remember that, I just remember burying my face in the neck of a warm soft bunny.
Later, at the client’s evening event I felt a vise-like grip pinch my elbow, I turned and a woman tugged my arm down so she could reach my ear.
“Was that true?”
“Was what true?”
Whatever it was, her tone indicated she believed it was not true. After asking a few questions I realized she figured the bunny story was adapted to lots of hotels. to unfairly suck the participants into liking me.
I didn’t blame her. I hate it when people make up stories. I feel demeaned and betrayed if I find out I smiled or cried or felt a strong connection – when the story wasn’t even true.
Conversation on Twitter at #TRUorNOT
The first time I used the “bait and switch” method was in my first book, Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work. Without talking too much about that book, I believed some people would buy the book to improve their territorial games so they could crush their “enemy” departments/nemeses like bugs. That was the bait: Here are ten territorial games that keep people from getting “your stuff.”
Bait is never presented as a bad thing. Part of the “bait and switch” story is to validate that sure, it makes a lot of sense to want that “bait,” we are together in wanting something like that, but…the “switch” is we can have something better, or a hard lesson that the “bait” is, has always been an illusion.
Of COURSE you want to protect (validate), that makes sense, but if you protect everything you may pay a price (switch) in lost relationships, pay-back as others protect/hoard information from you, or build unexplained brick walls (since you started it)…then you might be coming out behind in the long run. For instance:
Cavemen protected land, water, and hunting grounds by growling, brandishing weapons, maybe even peeing on the perimeter. Today information, relationships, and authority is the turf to be protected. Same behaviors, updated. Who has not seen some doofus get angry (growl) in a meeting, mention unpleasant consequences (weapon) if “idea A” is adopted, or hoard information (peed on it, now it is mine!)? (after all that validation, my favorite switch)…and who among us has not been that doofus?
Bait and Switch stories tend to be about “THEM” in the beginning and turn into an opportunity for insight about “US.” Speaking from equality makes the medicine go down.
My favorite “Bait and Switch” story is one I use when there are too many egos in a room who refuse to budge.
Larry was a rescued greyhound. He didn’t win too many races. Larry was retired at 18 months. Retired greyhounds make wonderful pets, but there are certain life skills they don’t learn in a kennel. They must learn that nice dogs don’t go on the oriental carpet. The road is not a race track. They have seen a leash but a pleasure walks in the neighborhood are a new concept with plenty of surprises. Larry, for instance, never figured out (and he lived to the ripe old age of twelve) that if he walked on one side of a telephone pole and I walked on the other side that we weren’t going anywhere. As he felt the backward pull of his leash the look on his little dogface questioned my reason for stopping. I pointed at the pole. I demonstrated how to solve the problem, but no matter what he was going to follow my lead. He never backed off until I backed off. I could spend as much time as I wanted trying to teach him “YOU are the dog, you should back off first.” Finally I was the one who learned it doesn’t matter who backs off first, the faster it happens, the faster we can move on.
Every ego in the room thinks someone else should back up first, until the story frames that thought as worthy of the intelligence of a dog.
Basically, the purpose is to allow our listener/readers to see that what they think they want is not really what they want – that being better than, or master of, or the “winner” is not as satisfying, lucrative, or speedy as collaboration. The trick is to hold the mirror discretely so that no one EVER feels the least bit embarrassed or “called out.” That’s our job as a storytellers – to show solidarity with other imperfect human beings. Because…we all get our turn at the mirror.
While I believe Jared Loughner is mentally ill, I also think it is a good time to discuss the power of words.
What (crazy) story prompted Jared Loughner to try to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords? Did he make his story up from scratch? Probably not. The metaphor of war is so deeply embedded in our American culture we should all take a look in the mirror.
We wage war on fat. We tell war stories to the new interns. Budget meetings are battles. We wonder if proving a point is a “hill worth dying for.” We need firepower to gain market share. In 1984, I danced and pumped my fists in the air as Pat Benatar sang “Love is a Battlefield,” because I would rather see myself as a victim instead of a young woman dumped by some guy. War is a fabulous metaphor if you need to disassociate yourself from responsibility. How could I be a victim if I’m the one who chose the guy in the first place?
Not only do we avoid responsibility, the war metaphor gives us permission to change the rules of civility. It legitimizes tactics of war including disinformation, “gun and run,” distraction, and Sun Tzu’s favorite: deception.
These newly legitimized actions gain steam when a story moves from concept to reality. I teach people how to do this. I teach them how to use sensory words to create images, simulate sounds, smells, tastes and physiological feelings to create a virtual reality in a listener’s mind. Imagine your grandmother, surrounded by the smells and intrusive sounds of a hospital. Hold her warm hand in yours and look into her cloudy eyes filled with love, as you hear the doctor behind you say, “You will have to take her home, she is past eighty years old and we don’t keep people alive after eighty.” Or you could read the two thousand plus pages of the healthcare reform bill and figure out for yourself what it means for your grandmother.
Pictures, music, and words have the power to turn a metaphor into a story that feels literally true – a story you can touch and feel – particularly if you are in a group when you hear the story. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same strategy of sensory story/words to incite non-violent action almost fifty years ago when he stirred the imaginations of hundreds to see, hear, touch and feel:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
It is the words and images that make a story feel real, urgent, and demanding action – that have power.
I don’t know what happened with Jared. My heart breaks for everyone suffering from that tragic event. But it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the power of any story told well, to create change and inspire action in the direction you choose. May we all choose well.