Article: The ethics of storytelling

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The ethics of storytelling

What is the North Star that should guide our being ethical in storytelling?
The ethics of storytelling

Dublin, October 10, 2013. O’Connel Street in downtown Dublin was buzzing with tourists and people leaving work early. Near the post office on this street a young girl stood out in the crowd. She seemed lost, distressed and out of place.

A passerby, concerned about the girl’s welfare, called the police. The police escorted her to the hospital and then started questioning her. There was a problem – she wasn’t speaking.

A few days later, instead of words, she drew pictures. Using stick figure drawings she showed first being flown to Ireland on a plane. And then lying on a bed, surrounded by multiple men. She seemed to be a victim of human trafficking—one of the lucky ones who had somehow managed to escape.

The Irish authorities spent almost a month, over two thousand man hours in every possible line of inquiry. Scanning CCTV footage and missing peoples list. Doing door-to-door queries. Checking hotel and hostel bookings. Visiting airports, seaports, rail stations. But nothing yielded any information. Dubbed Operation Shepherd, the search had already cost them Euro 250,000. The Irish National Police then decided to do something unprecedented, they distributed the girl’s photograph publicly. 

Initially the print in the newspapers and broadcast on television gave no positive result. 

Then they received a call. A man named Joe Brennan who lived in a small town a hundred and seventy kilometers from Dublin identified her as Samantha Azzopardi. Joe was Samantha’s mother’s former boyfriend and Samantha had decided to visit him and flew in from Sydney. She was twenty-five years old.

A call to Interpol revealed that she was well known to them. Operating with more than forty aliases, she had conned authorities in many other countries. She had previously posed as an orphan, as a troubled gymnast from Russia, as a human traffic victim, among others. 

The Irish authorities gave a suspended prison sentence, a stern warning of never returning to Ireland and deported her.

But a year later she appeared in Calgary, Canada. Using the name Aurora Hepburn, age 15. Using the same story of sex trafficking and abuse. This time it costed the authorities USD 150,000.

Finally, in June 2017 the Australian authorities put Samantha, now 28, behind bars after she used the same story of sex trafficking at a Sydney High School posing as 13 year old Harper Hart. This lie had costed New South Wales authorities AUD 155,000.

How did hard-nosed authorities around the world fall for her story hook, line and sinker? 

Because we are all susceptible to manipulation via stories. As authorities heard the story, their brain chemistry actually changed.

Paul Zak is a Neuro-economist, someone who applies neuroscience to understand the decision-making process of consumers. His work shows how stories can change brain chemistry. How emo-tionally charged stories generate chemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, which can lead to unexpected behavior changes, including profound acts of altruism.

In a lab experiment, Paul and his colleagues showed a set of people a very moving film about a father struggling to cope with his son’s impending death due to cancer. A matched set were shown a film about the same father and son enjoying a day at the zoo. Post viewing the video, three things were measured — the participant’s oxytocin levels in the blood, their self-reported empathy and their desire to donate to a related charity. No surprises that the set exposed to the heart rending story were willing to donate significantly more.

The same chemical, Oxytocin, became Samantha Azzopardi’s ally.

Maria Konnikova, author of the book The Confidence Game, says “Stories are so natural that we don’t notice how much they permeate our lives. And stories are usually on our side: they are meant to delight us, not deceive us — an ever-present form of entertainment.”

She continues “That’s precisely why they can be such a powerful tool of deception. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard. We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction. In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.”

While I have often spoken about the power of stories to inspire and influence, there is always the unsaid other side of the coin. The power to manipulate. Philip K. Dick in his book How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later, had put this very succinctly. “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”

We have been part of many games during leadership off-sites when as a group we have seen situational leadership that at times some people take on the role of the leader depending on his areas of expertise. If we reflect back at those times and reflect on what made it evident to the other people in the team that following him was a good idea, we will see it was what he said that persuaded us.

And hence as storytellers we must adhere to Spiderman’s motto — “With great power comes great responsibility.”

But is all manipulation unethical?

When an entrepreneur is pitching to investors he is definitely trying to influence the investor. Is that manipulation? When a salesperson is trying to persuade potential customers to buy his product instead of someone else, is that manipulation?

I think the dictionary definition of manipulation throws some light on this. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘manipulate’ as: to control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously. Dictionary.com defines it as to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner.

The keywords in the above descriptions are unscrupulous and unfair. These are indeed very tough judgments to make as often we tell ourselves stories about why something we have done or are doing is fair. 

So what then is the North Star that should guide our being ethical in storytelling? The same elements that guide each of us to be ethical in everything we do also apply to storytelling — honesty, integrity, fairness, concern for others, respect for others, and accountability. In addition, Shawn Callahan, the author of Putting Stories to Work lays down some very easy to follow guidelines when trying to ensure we don’t land up manipulating. In a blog post, he shares 4 tips to uphold the ethics of storytelling:

  1. Tell stories as you believe they happened.
  2. Tell people when you’ve made up a story.
  3. Don’t tell others’ stories as if they are your own.
  4. Protect confidences.


There are two tips I would like to add — Don’t tell a story that you wouldn’t tell if the characters of the stories were present, and don’t use stories to do anything that you wouldn’t want others to do to you. Having said all this, there are a few lies that I do allow myself. These lies were articulated very well by storytelling coach Matthew Dicks in a podcast.

Lie of omission: When I leave out elements or information that are not central to the story and complicate the storyline especially in very concisely told business stories

Lie of assumption: When I can’t remember or don’t know a detail of a story. Such as what exactly a character in my story said to someone else or how the character exactly felt in a situation. I make reasonable and plausible assumptions.

Lie of compression: When I shift time or change location to achieve brevity and single mindedness in the story I am sharing.

I am aware that you must be thinking of the same thing I am always hyper-aware of — this is a slippery slope. When do these lies move from being acceptable to unacceptable? Here again I think the dictionary comes to my rescue. Dictionary.com defines a lie as: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; something intended to convey a false impression. The filter for me is the intention. But these are indeed fine lines and we must tread very carefully.

Yes, with great power comes great responsibility.

The other responsibility leaders carry is to ensure that we are not telling only one side of the story. As author Chinua Achebe had once said “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  There is a huge danger of a story from a single perspective. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, in her brilliant TED Talks in 2009, tells us about this danger. 

She says “How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes, "That if you want to dispose a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, 'Secondly...' Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, but not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story...."

A single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. It is our responsibility as leaders to seek out the truth and not just see a single perspective. To seek out the fact and not just have an opinion. And as long as we do all the above to the best of our abilities, with honestly, integrity and respect for others, we can continue to harness the power of stories to connect, engage, align and inspire. 

Topics: Strategic HR

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