Years ago, I listened to a great story in a public speaking club I attended. The storyteller, who I will call Steve, was very talented.

The story went like this: He had a best friend Tom; they went way back to when they were school kids. Unfortunately, Tom was dying of cancer. Tom’s great wish was to climb Carrauntoohil: Ireland’s highest mountain. So, they made a plan, and a couple of weeks later, without telling anybody, they both set out on a mountain trek, walking the long road, negotiating the rivers and high rock faces. It wasn’t easy for Tom, but he was determined to see it all the way through. Eventually, they reached the top and they both looked out over Ireland one last time. Tom died three months later, but it was a moment that, literally and metaphorically, marked a high point in Steve’s life.

In the pub that night, Steve made a confession. He had invented the story out of whole cloth. Tom, this best friend from school, never existed. The story was a complete and utter fabrication.

I felt cheated, but Steve’s story taught me something valuable: that storytelling is like a superpower – the superpower of persuasion. But, like any superpower, we can use it for good, or for evil.

The ability to tell good stories is the mark of a great communicator. From our earliest days, we are told to grab the audience, to have a beginning, a middle and an end; to build up the tension and the drama, to conclude with aplomb and to finish the story with no unanswered questions. Our goal is to place our listeners in the palm of our hands, so that not only will they believe what we tell them, they might act on it also.

And therein lies the problem. To persuade, our stories don’t have to be true.

One of the problems is that we can choose our stories to frame things in very self-serving ways. Take smoking for instance. Reams of scientific evidence tell us that smoking is very dangerous to us, and if you were a health professional or literate in statistics you might be shocked by what these studies tell you. But all this evidence has been undermined by simple stories, such as great aunt Mary that lived to 104 on 3 packs a day. Stories like this have persuaded millions of people that cigarettes were not as harmful as doctors made out. And millions of people tragically suffered the consequences.

To tell a good story, you need to edit. You can’t say everything, so you bring it down to a few salient points. But editing, by definition, leaves out lots of stuff, and what gets cut might be really important. If I told you the story of a self-made man who rose to the very top of his profession through grit and hard work, you might be impressed, but if the story omits the fact that he originally came from great wealth and used threats and shady dealing to get to where he was, it changes the narrative quite a bit. What do storytellers cut out in the telling of their tale? That’s always a good question to ask.

And don’t forget the power of exaggeration – the adjectives we use – the choice of words. All these things matter. The evil villain is truly awful and the worthy hero can do no wrong. Really? Would the presumptive villain agree to that portrayal? Maybe not, and maybe they have a perspective that’s worth listening to.

And then, the story might just be a bunch of lies – half-truths and conspiracies designed to appeal to fear or self-interest. You are the good person. All these people around you are criminals who want all your stuff for themselves. Only I can protect you. These are the narratives of fraudsters and cult-leaders, and the problem is, they work. We only have to look around us today to find examples of people persuaded into believing great untruths that could damage their health and destroy their lives.

To persuade, stores don’t have to be true. They just have to be convincing.

So where does that leave us?

As members of an audience, as people receptive a good story, we must be aware of the power and misuses of storytelling. We’ve got to look critically on what we are told. Where is the evidence? What is being left out? Is the narrator using excessively emotive language to manipulate us? When hearing stories that might affect what we are to believe, we can’t be passive – we must engage, we must question.

As story creators, we have an obligation not to deliberately deceive. We might have strong opinions on a subject but we owe it to our audience to ensure we are providing factual information, basing our views on proper evidence, and acting with humility if there are things we don’t know. This is not easy, but it is something that we must do as best we can.

Our goal should be to leave our audience educated, to open their minds and not close them. We should aspire to make them think and ask questions. We should make it our mission to leave our audience smarter and not dumber, because persuasion without support is insulting and potentially deceitful.

Storyteller Steve taught me a valuable lesson those many years ago – that good stories don’t have to be based on truth, and that a clever manipulator will use stories to deceive us and divide us. We don’t need to be like Steve. We can do better. We can still climb our mountains and reach for the lofty heights of great storytelling, but let’s not take shortcuts getting there.