To Tell a Good Story, You Have to Lie

The reason most peoples’ stories are hard to listen to is that they have trouble divorcing themselves from the facts of their everyday lives. They’re slavishly devoted to chronology and detail.

Sometimes, to tell a good story, you have to tell a lie or two. Not big ones. You shouldn’t make up events and characters wholesale. We’ve all known a fabulist or two in our lives — people whose stories are always over the top (“No, literally! A bull got into the china shop!) or tie together just a little too neatly.

Here’s a short story I told a couple of months ago to an audience in Denver:

And here’s where I lied: I told the audience that that picture was taken “10 years ago,” which was “the last time I went skiing” before that weekend.

Actually, that picture was taken 14 years ago. And it was not the last time I went skiing. I went on several ski trips subsequent to that. The last time I went skiing was actually 9 years ago. But I didn’t have a picture from that trip that would match my story.

So it would have been more accurate to say, “That picture was taken 14 years ago, which was one of the last times I went skiing. I also went skiing in 2002 and 2003, but up to this weekend, I hadn’t been skiing in 9 years.”

More accurate, yes. A better told story? No. I would have risked losing the audience in that extra detail, with all those numbers. And the story would have been less clean. It would lose its punch.

Did the little lies matter? I say no. Because the larger truth — the point I was making — was that I hadn’t been skiing in a very long time, which was the critical setup to the subsequent jokes about my difficulties on the slopes that weekend.

So when you’re telling a story, take a step back and look at what really matters: what’s the point you’re trying to make? The larger truth? Devote yourself to that and eliminate the unnecessary details that distract from your point and, if necessary, fudge the nonessential ones that undermine it.

Now, of course, there are lies and there are LIES. Listing a college degree on your resume when you only went for three-and-a-half years? Wrong. Telling someone you’re not married when you’re technically separated? Lie.

I trust the difference is clear. On the small things, the facts, as they say, can definitely be the enemy of a good story.

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