Does a story have to be factual?
What is your knee-jerk reaction to this question?
The first time I heard this question, my emotional response was – absolutely! Anything else would be a lie.
I had plenty of ‘proof’ to back this feeling: sales people who omit information that could impact my buying decision, politicians who twist facts that could impact my vote, and scientists who hold back data that could impact my belief about an important topic.
The sad fact is, many people have played ‘fast-and-loose’ with facts to persuade others to their way of thinking.
That’s why I had a strong initial reaction to the question “Does a story have to be factual?”
Upon further exploration, though, I learned that, if properly employed, not being factual can be a benefit to both the speaker and the audience.
How can this be?
Because of the nature of people’s attention spans and interest level. If you want to leave a lasting impact on others, it’s important to get to the point in your stories.
Keeping a story moving forward is an art. It’s what the best movie directors do to keep you watching. To paraphrase speaker Patricia Fripp, “Movies are real life, with the boring parts taken out.”
And that’s your task as a storyteller…share ideas that don’t bore the audience.
The best example I’ve heard is from one of my mentors, Craig Valentine. In the following story, he describes his decision to leave an existing job to pursue a long-time dream…….
I used to work for an Internet company but I wanted to go full-time into professional speaking because that was my dream.
I went to the Vice-President of the company and said, “John, I’m going to be leaving the company because it’s always been my dream to be a full-time professional speaker.”
He said, “I’m glad that you have a dream Craig but you can’t leave.”
Startled, I said, “What do you mean, I’ can’t leave’?”
And that’s when he started raising my salary to new heights. The more he raised it the more I kept telling him, “This is not a financial decision. It’s about my dream. This is a dream decision.”
Finally he said, “Okay Craig, how about if we raise your salary to well above $100,000.” Immediately I looked at him and said, “Dreams are overrated!”
Later that day I went home to my wife Kacy and said, “Honey, I really don’t know what to do about this.”
That’s when Kacy said the words that changed my life for good, and can change yours to great. She said, “Craig, this is all you’ve ever wanted. Ever since we met this is all you’ve talked about becoming. I don’t care how much they try to compensate you, because your dream is not for sale.”
This story has impacted people all over the world. People continually contact Craig to thank him for this inspirational story.
But is that exactly how it happened?
Since the topic of movies has already been brought up, let’s borrow a term from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ – it’s time to ‘peak behind the curtain’ of Craig’s story to see what really happened:
As Craig relates in his public speaking and storytelling workshops, these parts of his story are 100% true.
- Craig wanted to pursue his dream of being a professional speaker
- His boss, John, didn’t want him to leave
- John offered multiple raises to entice Craig to stay
- Craig was torn about what to do
- Craig’s wife reminded that no price was big enough to set his dream aside
Craig also tells us that there are some facts that aren’t true about this story:
- The conversation with John didn’t take place in one day
- He and Kacy didn’t talk later that day and resolve Craig’s dilemma
What is the truth about these two parts of the story?
- The conversations with John occurred over a 5-day period.
- Each time John offered a bigger raise, Craig became more conflicted, and talked, not just with Kacy, but also with friends and family
- Craig’s decision became more difficult with each bigger offer
- After each counter-offer, Craig spoke with several people
- All of the advice that Craig received would have taken several minutes to share with an audience
Why did Craig change these facts?
Because the audience doesn’t want to hear the details about five days of conversations between many people. Telling the audience that Craig spoke with John, was then presented a counter-offer, then went to others for advice, then back to John, who presented yet another counter-offer, then Craig went back to those same people for more advice – over and over and over. It’s like watching a tennis ball hit back and forth – which is bad for your neck, and not very exciting. You don’t really want to hear all that detail, do you?
What Craig has masterfully done in his story is capture the essence in order to convey his take-away message. He quickly builds the tension between John and him, which holds your interest. Most importantly, he combines all of the wisdom he receives from those closest to him, and sums it up in one phrase – “Your Dream is Not For Sale.” Those are the details that Craig wants you remember.
Did Craig lie in his condensed version? Absolutely not. What he did was use one conversation with John to represent the key idea of his dilemma. Nothing was made up, simply compacted to keep your interest. The conversation with Kacy served the same purpose – one conversation represented all of the advice Craig received. Again, nothing made up. Many conversations compacted into one.
In closing, how do you now fell about this question: “Does a story have to be factual?”
Hopefully, you’ll see the factual aspect in a new light. Use this idea to tighten your stories to the essential elements that maintain the truth, while keeping the attention and interest of your listener.
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