Storytelling — Truth and Embellishment

When telling a story, is it OK to stretch the truth?  When is it OK to not tell the truth?  In the humor business, the term embellishment is often used to describe the process of dressing up a personal story with little bits of exaggeration and describing things which may not have happened exactly as you say.

Embellishment is a legitimate and widely employed technique used to punch up stories to make them funnier.  It’s actually a subject I haven’t given much thought to until a comment came from a reader last week.  I looked at all the personal stories I tell and can’t find a part in any of the stories where I don’t tell it exactly as it happened.  I’m sure I’ve used embellishment at some point.  I just can’t put my finger on an example of when I’ve used the technique.  Yet, I think it’s perfectly OK to use embellishment and probably should explore the possibilities of using it a bit in my story-telling.  Later in this article, I’ll share a couple of embellishments I’m thinking of adding to my presentation.

When does the not-telling-the-truth cross the line? 

A glaring example would be telling someone else’s story as your own.  This should be an obvious no-no and goes far beyond anything intended as embellishment.  In the speaking business, someone’s story is their property.  Using their story as your own is nothing short of theft and doesn’t even fit in the category of embellishment.  Using their story and giving them credit, while on the surface seems acceptable, is also frowned upon.  Audiences deserve to hear the story from the originator.  It’s not fair to the creator of the story to share his or her story with an audience, and discover that they’ve heard it from another speaker first!  And it rightly brands you as a speaker who isn’t creative enough to come up with your own material.

What about taking a common-domain joke and creating a story around it as though it happened to you.  You aren’t stealing some else’s story.  Again, this technique is really not really embellishment and is not a good idea for two reasons.  First, it’s not creative and the quality of the story and the humor will almost always have less impact than original and compelling true-life stories of your own.  Second, the audience has probably already heard the generic joke and will realize that this “personal story” you are telling is nothing but a common joke that everybody knows.  It destroys your credibility.  Even if the rest of the stories in your speech are original and true, the audience will suspect that you just made them up too.

An embellishment which builds false credentials is something that crosses the line.  Saying you have a PhD when you don’t, just because it makes the story funnier, is not likely a good thing.  To say you’ve met the President when you haven’t most likely crosses the line.  It’s worse than name-dropping.  To say you’ve had cancer when you haven’t may add punch to a cancer story, but crosses the line.  To say you earned a million and then lost it, if it’s not true, crosses the line.  To imply that you were next to the twin towers when they fell, if you were actually ten miles away, crosses the line.  If your embellishment tries to make you a hero, it’s probably not a good thing from an integrity standpoint. 

Comic license is the belief that it’s OK to change, or embellish, some of the small details of a story.  For example, let’s say you slipped on a banana peel and three people actually saw you fall.  The story may actually be funnier to say that 50 or 100 people saw you fall.  Why?  The comedy device at work here is embarrassment and tension.  A larger watching-audience increases that embarrassment and tension.  Therefore the humor is stronger with the embellishment of the size of the audience that witnessed your mishap.

Is it a lie?  Well yes, if you say 100 people saw you fall and it was really only three.  But so what?  If done solely for the sake of the humor, what harm?

Let’s say you walked out of a restroom and had one sheet of toilet paper stuck to the heel of your shoe.  Another embarrassing moment.  Would it be funnier if a ten-foot trail of toilet paper was following you, stuck to your shoe.  Yes!  And again, the principle of comic license comes into play and says that this type of embellishment is a good thing.

The “Not Really” technique.  One of the stories I share from the platform is about a retired Army Colonel who served in WWII.  Think Patton.  As a result of this article, I’m thinking of trying this line.  “Several things about him reminded me of General Patton.  His gruff voice.  His stature.  The green helmet with four stars he was wearing.  OK…so he wasn’t wearing a helmet.  But you get the picture.”  This technique allows you to deviate from the truth, get the laugh, and then admit that you were just kidding.

The convenience factor.  Living in Las Vegas, I often open a talk with a welcome-to-Las-Vegas segment.  I’m preparing to add two photographs to the presentation to show people the barren desert landscape around Las Vegas.  “Here a picture of what Las Vegas looks like without the buildings.  No, wait a minute (switch slide).  THIS is Las Vegas.  (back to first slide)  This is Mars.  (switching back and forth between two slides)  Vegas.  Mars.”  Initially I started searching for Mars Rover photos to use when comparing the Martian landscape to our local desert.  Both have a similar red tint to the soil.  Then I decided that I could just take two different photos from the Las Vegas desert and say one of them was a photo of Mars.  This is acceptable embellishment in my opinion.  There ARE real photos of the Martian landscape and everyone knows that.  It’s believable that a photo which I took COULD be a photo from the Mars Rover.  And it gives me better photos with matching lighting and color balance.  I’m not claiming that I was a research scientist for NASA.  It’s just a quick visual joke with a bit of comic license thrown in.  Using my own photo was convenient.  It made the point.  And it was not a big lie that was designed to manipulate or cheat the audience.

Good embellishment is normally a minor tweak in your story to make something sound funnier, look funnier, make it more memorable.  It’s often related to accenting a punchline or magnifying a humor trigger and not connected to misleading the audience on substantial facts or implying that an experience happened to you, when in fact it never did.

Explore the possibilities of adding a touch of embellishment to your stories to make them more memorable and to take the drama and humor to the next level.

Copyright 2007 by John Kinde