Truth Wrapped in Story: Beware of the Evil Villain
Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every home in the village. Her nakedness frightened people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable took her home, dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again on the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into their homes. They invited her to eat at their tables and warm herself at their fires.
— Jewish Teaching Story derived from The Story Factor, by Annette Simmons, and posted on my website under Storytelling Resources.
While storytelling is a powerful tool for conveying science-based health facts in motivating, memorable, and meaningful ways, there is a dark side to communicating science through stories. Since a story allows listeners/readers to fill in some blanks and slot narrative elements into their own emotional context, by definition story is not a complete rendition of facts. If the essence of the story represents a factual depiction of the science, it’s OK to omit or change extraneous details. For example, protecting privacy by changing a patient’s name and demographic profile can allow you to tell a success story to inspire others who face similar health challenges. In this case, a story that isn’t technically true reveals great truths. However, if facts are misrepresented or omitted for dramatic effect or to portray an inaccurate meaning, a story distorts rather than conveys the complexity of health. For example, Morgan Spurlock’s movie, “Supersize Me,” stretches facts, overly simplifies the complexity of human physiology, and portrays processed food manufacturers as evil villains. While he achieves his goal of creating distrust and public outrage, the scientific basis of his argument is a bit shaky.
Scientist-turned-filmmaker, Randy Olson, asserts that it’s possible do both – tell simple, yet true stories. He cautions that it’s easy to get carried away by the power of story and let the facts slide by the wayside. “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil,” he explains. “Which means that if you want to tell a powerful and compelling story, you need to find a simple villain, then paint a picture of that villain that is as evil, cynical, vile and vicious as possible.” His new book and app provide a formula for putting facts into a story framework, which can enable scientific storytelling. But he also encourages scientists and science communicators to think about intent and outcome in applying his simple storytelling techniques to ensure truthful storytelling in his article, “Beware the Simple Storyteller.” I applaud him for bringing the issues of responsibility and judgment into focus; at the same time he arms people with powerful story making tools.
Bringing the “truth through story” dilemma into practical focus, consider the following guidelines when using story to convey science and facts:
- Avoid extreme villainization – While stories with a simple, evil villain motivate through anger and fear, they are often divisive and victimizing. In real life, truth is not black or white, and most villains have another face.
- Spread stories of hope and trust – They are harder to ignite but have the power to unite people and more positively convey universal truths.
- Avoid data biases – Omitting data for simplification can help people understand and absorb complex concepts. But if omitting key facts changes the meaning, the story will misrepresent the science. At the other extreme, beware that statistics and facts can confuse and obfuscate – don’t bury the truth under piles of data.
- Use linguistic flourishes responsibly – Phrases like “marketing smoke and mirrors” or “corporate operatives” imply evil intent and set up the villain-hero framework that might misrepresent the truth and create confusion.
- Be humble – Don’t assume that you have the absolute truth.
- Be transparent – Acknowledge your own biases so your readers can judge for themselves.
As you search for truth in story, look beyond the facts that sit at face value. Stories of hope and inspiration may not be accurate, but still tell the truth. And beware that villains and fear stories might lead you to the dark side.