Tell Me A Good One

A group of people I know has an ongoing E-mail version of the quiz game Jeopardy. Each day a new answer is sent out to all the players who then reply with their question.

Columns From: 2/1/1996 Modern Machine Shop, ,

A group of people I know has an ongoing E-mail version of the quiz game Jeopardy. Each day a new answer is sent out to all the players who then reply with their question. An interesting debate occurred the other day when several players found out they had missed a question that they were confident they had gotten right. To the answer: "It was the fabled California castle of publishing titan William Randolf Hearst," these players thought the question was, "What is Xanadu?"

If these players were in fact thinking fable they got it right, because Xanadu was the name given to the estate in the movie Citizen Kane, Orson Welles' fictionalized account of the Hearst legend. What is so interesting about this misconception among these intelligent and generally well informed players is that they once well knew the difference between the fact and the fiction, but in time those distinctions were lost. That the fable came to take precedent, I'll argue, is simply because it was both close to the truth and told in a more compelling way.

The stories that companies tell employees about their business can be similarly powerful in a positive sense, and can also grow inadvertently deceptive over time. To their credit, many companies go to great lengths to explain where the business is headed, to calm worries in ever turbulent competitive climates, to bring a sense of purpose that individuals can apply in their own jobs. And the most skillful storytellers do indeed deliver their audience to a usefully common state of mind.

But storytelling can be dangerous ground. By its very nature, a story is a distortion. Some complexities are always simplified. Some details are amplified, others soft-pedaled, and still others left out altogether--even by the most honest of speakers.

What people remember is more the emotional than the factual content of a good yarn, and that's usually what the storyteller is after anyway. But while the tellers, who also happen to be the company leaders, often quickly shift to tomorrow's spin on events, their affected audience is not so easily moved. The details may fade quickly, but that emotional "truth" can live on for years.

So the moral of this tale is, leaders, be careful of the stories you tell, for they may help today, and they might hinder tomorrow.

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