True or False? When telling a good story, does it matter?


True or False? When telling a good story, does it matter?

True or False? When telling a good story, does it matter?

There is a debate among some in the NLP/hypnosis community concerning the question of veracity in your story telling. Some people feel that the only thing that matters is effectively getting the message across to the listener, so the storyteller may play fast and loose with the facts, even taking credit for other people’s actions. I know Frank Farrelly and Dave Dobson both complained about a certain NLP person who claimed to have done what they, in fact, had done. So Frank and Dave might side with opposite viewpoint, those people who think that if you aren’t telling the truth about what really happened or who the people were who were involved, then you’re just lying.

Let me give you an example of a memorable and motivating story I heard a few years ago that was told as being factually true…

The President of Harvard made a mistake by prejudging people and it cost him dearly.

A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston, and walked timidly without an appointment into the president’s outer office.

The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard and probably didn’t even deserve to be in Cambridge. She frowned. “We want to see the president,” the man said softly. “He’ll be busy all day,” the secretary snapped. “We’ll wait,” the lady replied.

For hours, the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. They didn’t. And the secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted to do. “Maybe if they just see you for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she told him. And he sighed in exasperation and nodded.

Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have the time to spend with them, but he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office. The president, stern-faced with dignity, strutted toward the couple.

The lady told him, “We had a son that attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. And my husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.” The president wasn’t touched; he was shocked.

“Madam,” he said gruffly, “We can’t put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery.”

“Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly, “We don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.”

The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, then exclaimed, “A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical plant at Harvard.” For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. He could get rid of them now.

And the lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Why don’t we just start our own?” Her husband nodded.

The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment.

And Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California, where they established Stanford University as a monument to their son.

Great story, right? Only problem is, it never happened.

There are elements of the story that are factual. It is true that Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford established Stanford University in honor of their only son who died tragically, but he didn’t die “accidently after attending a year of Harvard,” he died of typhoid in Italy before his 16th birthday. He never went to Harvard or any other college.

His parents weren’t “hicks who wore home-spun clothing.” Mr. Leland Stanford made his fortune in the railroads. He was a leader of the Republican Party, governor of California and later a U.S. senator. There is no way a man such as he would be kept waiting, unrecognized, in the Harvard President’s office.

It is true that he met with the Harvard President. But Mr. and Mrs. Stanford had decided prior to the trip east to build a university and met with the presidents of Harvard, Cornell, MIT, and Johns Hopkins to consult with them about how best to go about it.

But, as Mark Twain once said, why let facts get in the way of a good story?          

The reason we, as Ericksonian Hypnotherapists and NLP practitioners, (and other people too), tell stories is to impart a positive message or therapeutic suggestion. Our outcome is not the same as a historian or a news reporter, who’s outcome ought to be to get the facts right. And yet, wouldn’t it be just as easy to tell a therapeutic story in a way that does get the facts right or else is clearly a fairy tale?

As an example, a person telling the above story could do a little preamble like, “I want to tell you a story that I just love, although I’m not certain it is 100% factual – in fact I’m not sure it’s even 50% factual – but I do know that, even if it is entirely made up, it has a very real lesson for us to learn.”

About Doug O'Brien

Doug O’Brien is a Master Practitioner and Trainer of NLP, and a Certified Hypnotherapist. In 1988, while assisting at NLP and NAC training seminars with Anthony Robbins, Doug achieved the designation of Master Trainer. He now conducts numerous seminars of his own around the globe (specializing in the “Sleight of Mouth” patterns of Robert Dilts, NLP Certification Courses, and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy) and helped found Columbia-Presbyterian’s Department of Complementary Medicine with Dr. Mehmet Oz.

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