Some people are born natural storytellers and most of those people have one key thing in common; they embellish stories. How do I know this? My parents are masters of embellishment when it comes to stories. I was lucky to grow up with them, because everyday things like going to the supermarket became exciting when told by my parents. As I grew up I realised that some things weren’t exactly as told, but what I always took away from each story is a message; a lesson I wouldn’t have recognised had the story been ordinary. My dad is an extremely creative storyteller, his stories always promise to inspire, but more often than not hold something extra.
For better or worse I inherited my dad’s traits, but I promise to tell the truth in this post about where to draw the line when it comes to story embellishment.
Why embellishing is essential in storytelling
The dictionary tells us that embellishing stands for “a detail, especially one that is untrue, added to a statement or story to make it more interesting.” Stories are fascinating because they can inspire us, they have the power to shape how we think, feel and act, and let’s face it no ordinary story can do that. Sometimes storytellers add a little bit extra to try and bring the moral of the story to the surface, and make the story more memorable. However, and here is the truth, embellishing only works if your story is authentic and sincere. Making a story up, and adding some flare to the truth are two very different things.
We all mythologize to some degree ourselves and probably embellish. I think some of that is the desire to tell stories. – David Grann, author and journalist
To some embellishing comes natural. When I do it, it’s because I want my audience to understand me, and to relate my story to theirs.
The fine art of embellishment
Two days ago I was invited to give a workshop on content marketing at our Startup Centre, run at the University of Economics in Belgrade. I was joined by my friend, and colleague, who is an exceptional video storyteller, and our aim was to help upcoming companies started by students communicate with their audience more effectively. To do that I needed them to believe in the power of storytelling, and what better way than telling a story myself.
Don’t focus on words focus on the message
My story started off by telling the students how I got involved with storytelling from a young age, where storytelling took me, and why it brought me in front of them on that day. I told the same story when I held my workshop for an all female group aged 25 to 40, and in both cases I wanted them to believe in my story – then in their own ability to tell stories effectively.
Did the same story sound the same both times when I told it? No. Yes events were the same, characters were the same, but the way in which I told the story differed quite significantly. I knew that getting to my audience meant adding some flare in the right moments. I embellished to bring my story closer to my target audience.
Understanding who you are speaking to gives you that creative freedom to play around with your story. Sometimes I forget that storytelling isn’t real life, and my boyfriend catches me out. I know how well he responds to facts and figures, so when I want to persuade him I add a few numbers in the right places. Unfortunately for me, he has caught on.
Nuance and judgement matter
When you embellish you are in the grey area, so the nuance and your judgement matter.
A company is looking to get more newsletter subscribers, and they decide to do a landing page to attract new customers. They already have around 18,000 subscribers, which by itself is a very impressive number. They make the call to round that off at 20,000 to really get people’s attention. That’s a slight exaggeration, but is it hurting anyone? Okay, so they added a few figures, but it won’t negatively affect any party. It can only help brand them as more popular. Companies do that all of the time.
Had the same company added a few figures to some invoices, or proposals that would be perceived very differently. It wouldn’t be so harmless.
Should you embellish stories?
I leave that up to you. I told you I would tell you the truth about where to draw the line, and I hope my examples helped you understand where I find it appropriate to embellish and where not. Some will argue that embellishing is lying, and really you should only stick to the hard facts. Others, will look at embellishing as a way to educate, move, and inspire action. You just have to decide which side your are on.
Literalists will no doubt feel differently, but for me, the litmus test of a good story is the feeling and actions it inspires. – Lisa Earle McLeod
For me stories are effective because they touch both the teller and the listener, and imaginative embellishment brings authenticity, and real emotion to each story I tell.