The dark side of stories at events

by Adrian Segar

Hans Bleiker tells a story about a group of scientists who spent several years carefully researching how to maintain the health of a deer herd, and determined that some minor changes in state hunting regulations would be very effective. At a public hearing, their entire case was undermined in 15 minutes by the testimony of a guy who loudly protested that his great-grandfather had helped his father shoot his first deer, his father had gone with him to shoot his first deer, and he’d be damned if some bunch of scientists were going to stop him help his son to shoot his first deer.

It’s been hard to miss the deluge of books and articles pointing out (correctly) that presenters who tell relevant, well-told stories have far more impact on listeners than those who recite a litany of facts. It’s not surprising that the most popular and highly paid professional speakers are those with a vivid story to tell — one that often follows some variant of the hero’s journey

Stories have great power to change our minds. They can do wonderful things: challenge our ingrained beliefs, make us aware of injustice, inspire us to be better human beings, and motivate us to act for the greater good.

Unfortunately, such power can also be used for evil. Stories can be used to inflict great damage.

Examples abound. Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” has shaped U.S. welfare policy for 40 years. Chimamanda Adichie tells how childhood reading warps our view of the world. Stories of parents whose children developed the symptoms of autism soon after vaccination have led many people to not vaccinate their children, leading to the resurgence of preventable diseases even though scientific research has shown no connection between vaccination and autism.

Stories are dangerous, because, even with good intentions, stories can be wrong. And, more dangerously, they can be purposefully misleading. A child’s default belief is that stories they hear are true, and we tend to carry that belief into adulthood despite increasing experience that stories can be seriously biased and deceptive. The terrible way in which it has recently become routine for authority figures to publicly lie in order to achieve their own objectives is leading to a world where “alternative facts” are becoming the norm.

As event planners, we are often involved in selecting and supporting presenters who are given a platform to tell their stories to an audience, hopefully for good but possibly for nefarious reasons. While acknowledging the power of stories, let’s not forget that they can evoke dark passions in those who hear them. As people who make events happen, we bear a responsibility to decide whether we want to tacitly support those storytellers among us who use stories for immoral and unethical ends.

Photo attribution: Flickr user campascca

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