truth in storytellingNovember is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

And writers everywhere have begun to write their books, and hopefully, are hitting their daily word counts.

Everyone has a story to tell.

Storytelling is Important and Pervasive

Storytelling is part of what binds us to one another.

According to anthropologists, communities with “skilled storytellers” have an evolutionary advantage.

That ability to convey information through a structured narrative has multiple benefits.

It’s easier to understand important points when there’s a structure to follow. And it’s easier for us to remember—particularly if it is a lively and engaging piece.

So it’s no wonder we so often see the word “storytelling” when it comes to our communications efforts.

We see it a lot.

There are blog posts upon blog posts instructing communications pros on how to use storytelling in their work.

You’ll find a multitude of tips for incorporating classic story archetypes into content, entire books about how to use data in storytelling, and long-form pieces about the role and value of storytelling in public relations.

There are even new terms for this style, such as “creative nonfiction,” “narrative nonfiction,” and “literary nonfiction.”

This is because it works.

Comms pros love it. Journalists *really* love it. Storytelling keeps readers engaged.

It works very well, right up to the point when it doesn’t.

Facebook and the Pitfalls of a Runaway Narrative

In late spring, considerable drama was unfolding within Facebook.

More specifically, when major media outlets began reporting the departure of their Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, in March 2018.

By late July, BuzzFeed ran an article on Stamos’s departure, including the entire text of a memo which Stamos had sent internally to Facebook employees.

The memo clarified some of what was being said in the media, disputed other points, and put others into context.

But what really caught everyone’s attention was his paragraphs on the narrative.

He noted—correctly—that many, if not most, media reports cast him in a positive role within the narrative. Portraying him as the “reluctant hero,” leaving Facebook for reasons of principle.

Of course, there are villains, too: Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook writ large, etc.

The point that stood out most was what he said about the way things were being framed:

Most importantly, this narrative absolves us of the hard things we have to do to win back the world’s trust.

He then went on to explain that packaging all of Facebook’s goings-on into a simple narrative of heroes and villains allows the root cause—thousands of small decisions made over a decade—to be ignored.

You cannot fix problems if you ignore the root cause. And you will not see the root cause if the narrative doesn’t include them.

This isn’t a blame game calling out the media, or communications professionals, for knowingly suppressing facts.

It’s a cautionary tale. Something which we all need to be aware of when we write or pitch stories to journalists.

Truth in Storytelling: No One Wants to be Seen as Boring

I cannot think of a single communications professional who wants to write dull copy.

We all want to craft compelling, interesting writing. But we also have an obligation to be truthful. We need truth in storytelling.

If we over-simplify a story to fit it into a narrative arc, are we being truthful?

This gets us into an area where people start to see different shades of gray.

I think it helps to ask a few questions:

  • Am I leaving out key details because including them messes with the narrative flow?
  • Do I skip context because it makes the piece less compelling?
  • Am I framing anything in a way that makes the story look black and white when the reality is far more complex and nuanced?
  • Do I exclude facts and circumstances because they clutter the piece and may bore readers?

Truth in storytelling can be messy, complicated, and require context. Leaving these things out might improve the story—but make it less accurate.

As communications professionals—whichever niche we are in—when writing, we are responsible for more than just telling a good story.

We are conveying information. And if we want to be trusted, we need to be truthful.

Anything that falls short of that is spin. (And spin sucks.)

We Are Lucky

The good news is we’re producing this content at a time during which we aren’t confined to the strict parameters of sentences and paragraphs.

For the most part, we aren’t bound by printed typeface and column inches—writing that goes online can be supplemented.

But, it does mean we need to think hard about what we’re leaving out of a story and why.

And if that information is necessary to be truthful, but is complex or dull, we must find a way to include it without losing readers.

Truth in Storytelling: There Are Options

One way to break down complex information into a more digestible form is by using video.

For those Spin Sucks readers of a certain age, the Schoolhouse Rock videos are perhaps the most classic representation of this.

They’re a solid formula for conveying complex or detailed information in a memorable way. (Sorry for the earworm. They do stick with you.)

Graphs, if they are applicable, are another good way to provide information which is essential but might be dull to read.

Breaking a piece into more digestible parts can work, as can finding logical and applicable allegories that are easier to understand.

Illustrations, flowcharts, and timelines can break up large blocks of text and provide information at a glance.

Sometimes, you might just need to embrace the complicated. Depending on the audience, complex can be okay.

Truth or Truthiness?

The question of what to leave out, what to leave in, and how to frame it comes up frequently.

This can be compounded if multiple people are reviewing and editing, as changes in language or tone to punch up a phrase or highlight a point can, unwittingly, alter meaning beyond that which is factual.

Several well-known books have recently been in the spotlight, with accusations that authors played fast and loose with the truth and embellished too much.

At least one of these scandals might have led to tragic consequences.

Be creative, and use storytelling techniques when appropriate, but keep the core truth intact.

Why? Because trust matters.

Don’t be overly aggressive in the pursuit of a perfect narrative arc.

Leave that to your writing during NaNoWriMo.

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Jennifer Phillips

Jen Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, a freelance writing and PR consultancy.

View all posts by Jennifer Phillips