Should you be honest? Maybe not

In my storytelling workshops there is always a discussion about whether you should be honest and tell personal stories exactly as they happened or you should “improve” them. I say: improve them.

And we all automatically do. We fill in gaps, attach meaning where at the moment there was none, merge different conversations into one, basically paint a brighter picture than there originally was. If we wouldn’t our stories would be boring, and we instinctively know this.

But is this lying?

Hardly. Our memory is a wonderful thing. Every time you recall a memory you change it. What you remember is not the original story but your recollection of a story. So your story will be different from the original, but you don’t realise this. That’s what makes eye witness accounts in court so unreliable.

Changing the story

But as a speaker you go one step further: you wilfully change the story. To make it better. To fit your message. To keep the audience’s attention. And again, most of the times I think this is a good thing. (Law and science might be exceptions)

I think there are two levels of truth: literal truth and intrinsic truth.

Literal truth means that your account is 100% correct. Literal truth is needed in some contexts, even on stage (don’t mess with the annual figures). But most of the time it is not what you or what your audience needs.

Intrinsic truth keeps the meaning and the message of the account intact, while romanticising  the account itself. If you had three conversations with professor X you condense those into one. The fact that there were three conversations is not relevant. Intrinsic truth is reached when you change the facts, but only the unimportant ones. Afterwards, when an audience member comes up to you with more questions, you should be able to say: “this is how it really happened but for the sake of the story, I left this part out, I condensed that part.” And the audience member should agree that that doesn’t really matter.

Doing a Ratner

And then, of course, there is the way in which you are honest. Take a look at this short clip – a fragment of a speech by Gerald Ratner speaking at the Institute of Directors Annual Convention in 1991. In the years prior Ratner had built an empire in cheap jewellery. While the regular jewellers were suffering from the depression his shops did tremendously well by selling jewellery to the general audience at knock-off prices. How was he able to do that? By allowing the quality of his products to be far, far inferior. Which of course, everybody knew. In this fragment of his speech he is extremely candid about it.

[link to Ratner’s video]

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”, I say, “because it’s total crap.”

The result? Ratner group lost £500 million and almost went under. The consequence of Ratner being too honest. And the media picking up this juicy fragment rather than the rest of his speech.

What should Ratner have done? There is no shame acknowledging that his products were of inferior quality than those of the competitors. But it might not have been smart to laugh at the expense of his customers. Instead of “I say, because it’s total crap” Ratner should have chosen for a more boring alternative like “because the quality is not the same as with expensive jewellers.” Same intrinsic truth, but a different way of wording it.

It would cost him his laugh but not his company.


The full Ratner speech is published by the Institute of Directors: [link to full speech]

image by lightstargod @ pixabay

post courtesy of Peter Zinn @ [link to source]