Sunday, March 17, 2024

Storytelling still works only if the stories are true


How far should you let a good story go to make a point?

A quote widely attributed to Mark Twain with no evidence that he actually said or wrote it is: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” Perhaps it’s a good thing that this particular gem does not seem to be a piece of wisdom imparted by Twain; it remains questionable if lying for the sake of a good story is a good thing, especially when you are trying to use that story to convince others of something.

Almost 25 years ago, I wrote a column titled, “Storytelling Only Works if Tales Are True,” in which I cited several people on how useful being able to tell a good story was in convincing an audience of whatever it was you wanted to convince them of.

Robert Metcalfe, the retired founder of 3Com Corporation, embraced the use of a good story to make a point in business or life, but he was clear on its limitations. ''By telling a story, I don't mean story as in make things up,'' Metcalfe said ''I have told the story of 3Com a thousand different ways. You make it dramatic. You select facts. You add drama. You wink. You smile. You leave out unimportant things that might weaken your point. It's all part of the gentle process of persuasion.

''But,'' he was quick to add, ''one of my rules is: Never lie.''

Crossing from making a story dramatic to telling an outright lie could have “devastating effects,” I wrote at the time. If colleagues who experienced the same events discovered you were lying about those events, your credibility could be lost. If lies found their way to the wider world, then you risked becoming known as a fabricator who made stuff up.

That was 25 years ago. Does it remain a bad thing to lie to colleagues or the public in a story you’re telling? Are there enough incidents of howlers of lies being told on a stump speech or in a widely disseminated media interview that result in boosting a politician’s popularity to make it time to rethink whether lying really matters?

In the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a newspaper reporter discovers that the legend of a showdown with a local outlaw surrounding an aging and beloved U.S. senator was not factual. The reporter chooses to rip up the notes detailing the facts and utters the now-famous line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s bad journalism, but it does point out how people can become more comfortable with what they believe to be true rather than with the actual truth.

Telling or spreading lies to make people comfortable, however, falls short of striving to live a life of integrity where we embrace the hard truths as well as the comfortable ones. Witnessing that others get ahead or thrive when we believe them to regularly play fast and loose with facts doesn’t justify telling lies to get whatever it is we want.

When telling a story, the right thing remains to make sure it’s true. We owe that much to our audience, but also to ourselves if we want to continue to strive not to become the type of person we swore we never wanted to become.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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