Archives for posts with tag: stories

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.

I have a small problem with the idea of ‘stories’ and data when it comes to data visualisation. To me, a story is a construct – a neat beginning, middle and end that enables us humans to relay information to each other. The power of stories in human communication is extraordinary. They inspire, they motivate, they change lives. But narratives have a flaw. They don’t need to be right. They don’t need to be accurate or true. The only requirement is to be packaged in a way that makes the audience sit up and listen. This is the reason why TED talks have been so successful, yet so criticised. They are brilliant as a means of conveying information to the audience, but in creating the story behind the presentation, so much may be left out. The audience legitimately might ask ‘that seems almost too perfect. What are they not telling us?’.

Such it is with presenting data. Data is messy. It’s often wrong or inaccurate. It may be tied to a particular question, which is different to the question you are trying to ask. It may show answers that are unintuitive and inconvenient. Data is at war with narrative, or more precisely, it doesn’t care about narrative.

So when presenting your data, be sensitive to the clash between the story you would like to show and what the data is saying (or not saying). As a rule, when presenting data honestly, you should start with everything. Give your audience a chance to see the bigger picture in all its glory and chaos before you dive into the detail. Allow them to ask questions, and work at creating a consensus. Where you see something interesting, gain agreement with them that they can see it too. Be alert to questions from them that might lead to new investigations and new interpretations.

Your job as a data presenter is to show signals in noise, not to eliminate the noise completely. By eliminating the inherent messiness of data for the supposed benefit of the audience, you might just insult their intelligence instead. You also step down a path of deception – careful editing of information – so uncomfortable questions need not be asked. 

That’s the problem with stories and data. Balancing the clean and packaged with the messy and inconvenient. To tell data stories properly you should be prepared to take people on a journey whose end is undecided, whose conclusions are tentative at best. Give your audience a chance to find their own meanings and be sensitive for differing interpretations.

Storytelling may be the most important means of verbal communication that we have. Stories were the standard form of imparting knowledge from generation to generation for millennia. To this day, some of the best forms of entertainment: movies, novels, plays; are ones that tell a story. Children learn stories at an early age by their parents. We were born to narrate, and to be narrated to.

via youngdoo (Flickr / CC Licensed)

A key aspect of good stories is their coherence. Everything in the story contributes to the message the author wishes to impart. A case is built up, line upon line, until a solid, inevitable conclusion is reached. The aim of the storyteller is to build up evidence that convinces the reader; there should be no loose ends. Incongruence is disparaged. To tell a good story is to make it flow like water from source to sea. Coherence is the power of good storytelling.

In life, we tell stories all the time. We use the tools of the narrator to make our message heard, to compete for jobs, to seek enrichment. The best storytellers find tales that contribute to their narratives. If there is a jarring note, they try to write it out of the plot. There are many techniques to do this. Our stories create coherence, direction and conviction in a otherwise chaotic world.

Via Local Studies NSW (Flickr, CC Licensed)

Stories package life into digestible bites, but we all know that life is not so simple. Stories, by their very nature, are distortions of reality. They place greater weight on some incidents, facts, people, findings and opinions; while minimising the importance of other aspects of a situation. They gloss over complexities in the interest of maintaining attention. Two people can create totally different stories from exactly the same event. If we want to understand real events, we need to treat individual stories with great caution.

Stories are often central to the world-views of people. At the heart of all great political movements, religions, fads and management theories are narratives – ways of looking at the world that emphasise certain aspects while dismissing contradictory information. The filters are so great that people go to the grave convinced of their certainty, even when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

We should be thankful that we possess narrative thinking, as it is our greatest communication tool. At the same time, we should mindful of its many weaknesses. There are occasions in life where simple narratives are not enough. There are situations where the distortion field erected by narration needs to be pulled down, so that we can understand reality as it is, faults, blemishes and all.


Fortunately, there is a mode of thinking that recognises the failures of the narrative. It accepts challenges head-on. It seeks to understand the biases that plague our patterns of thought. Through testing and experimentation, it matches our premises to reality. This type of thinking does not come naturally to us. We have only engaged with it, seriously and systematically, over the last 400 years. In that time, it has proven itself over and over again; allowing us to see things as they are, rather than how we think they should be. We have a name for this type of thinking.

We call it science.

I must be the slowest person ever to join Toastmasters.

My first meeting was in 1988, when I was a student in University College, Cork. I was terribly shy, somewhat socially inept and going through a very difficult period of adjustment in my life. Why I went along, I am not quite sure. Toastmasters just seemed like something I needed to do.

Having arrived late at Moore’s hotel in the centre of Cork city, I blushed awkwardly while asking the receptionist where the meeting was. I clearly remember her gawking at me and giggling as I self-consciously made my way to the meeting room. The people there were a bit older than me, but from the first day, they made me feel welcome. I joined up soon afterwards and very quickly I set myself the task of presenting an Icebreaker speech – the first speech you will do in a Toastmasters club. It was one of the most unnerving things I have ever done. Talking to the audience was almost like an out-of-body experience. I could not believe that this was my voice and that I was commanding the attention of a roomful of people.

Over the next two years I worked through more speeches, performing different roles in the club. I barely missed one meeting during that time. Toastmasters offered me something that I was not getting from college – a chance to express myself, to follow my own interests and to interact with friendly people from all different ages. It just seemed to suit.

After leaving college, my work found me in Belfast for a few years, then Prague and finally Dublin. Five years had passed since my last Toastmasters meeting, but despite the crazy hours I was doing in work, I had a yearning to go back. I joined the Dublin Toastmasters club in Buswells Hotel and I spent 3 years there, slowly grinding my way through the remaining speeches in the manual. I completed my tenth and final speech just before I relocated back to Cork.

It was now 1997, and marriage, babies, a house and new job opportunities were to take pride of place in my life until 2003, when I joined the local club in Midleton. I’ve been there ever since, and I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it. Despite having served in all sorts of roles in the club and entering every competition that has been going, I’ve taken the advanced manuals at my own slow pace. I’ve yet to get any Advanced Toastmaster qualification. What I have gained, however, are great friends, a good deal of self-confidence and a relative proficiency in public speaking and presentation skills. I’ve gone on to set up a skeptics club in Blackrock Castle Observatory and to dabble in podcasting in my spare time. I am currently president of two clubs: Midleton and the club at my workplace.

Toastmasters for me has been a great experience. No two meetings are ever quite the same. You never know what is going to pop up that might give you a laugh, a jolt, or a pause for thought. The people who attend the meetings, irrespective of their backgrounds, all have fascinating stories to tell. I have learned to underestimate nobody. I have also learned the secret of good presentation skills: practice. The more you present in front of people, the easier it gets and the more polished you become. Toastmasters offers nothing except an opportunity to improve your abilities in a supportive environment. It’s the best way to learn.

I have only the vaguest of ideas where I go from here. I’m hoping to complete my first advanced stage in the next few months and to complete my presidency with two reasonably strong clubs by the end of the year. Beyond that, I don’t know. Maybe a new and scary challenge will present itself. I still have lots to learn and new challenges to take on. Here’s to the next 23 years.

Find a Toastmasters club in your area. World / UK Ireland

The following is a story that I wrote for my club’s Tall Tales Competition.



Bobby went over to the grandfather clock.

He looked up at it. It seemed to climb into the distance. He had many years to go before he would be able to look straight into the strange dial with all its pointers and numbers.


The clock struck five o’clock. He giggled with glee and jumped for joy. He loved this tune, as it reverberated around the house.


No BONG ever came.

He waited.

Just silence.

Everything around him had gone completely, utterly, quiet.

Bobby shuffled into the kitchen. Not a sound. No hum from the fridge. No flies buzzing around the ceiling light. He was about to leave when suddenly he noticed the kitchen sink.

A drop of water had left the tap, but instead of splattering against the sink, there it was, suspended in mid air. A tiny orb, shining in the sunlight. Bobby stood there a while. Fascinated. Taking it in from all angles. Eventually he reached out and allowed it to splash gently against his fingers. A tiny droplet ran from his hand, landing quietly against the bottom of the sink.

He jumped up to look out the kitchen window.

He could see trees outside. They were motionless. Then he saw the bird.

Bobby yelped with glee and rushed outside. There it was, wings outstretched, feet off the ground. It had just taken off. It was absolutely rigid. Levitating, as if by magic, just centimetres above the ground. He gazed into the small bird’s eye. He admired the beautiful feathers – a multicoloured hologram, green, blue, red.

He reached out and touched one tail feather. FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP it suddenly came to life and lifted itself into the sky, shrieking all the while. Bobby never let it out of his sight until it was a small dot against the blue background.

Silence returned. Not a sound, not a movement.


Something else had been looking at the bird. Just a short distance away, Bobby noticed his cat. Its eyes were focused, its back was coiled, its legs were bent. It was about to pounce on a creature that was not there any more. But this cat remained utterly inert. It looked like an animal in that Museum that mum and dad brought him to last year. Very gently he set his hand down on the animals back. MIAAAOOW! The cat took fright and launched itself at the nearest tree – disappearing into the branches.

Bobby was confused and delighted at the same time. He walked out into the front garden.

There he saw a wonderful thing! The sprinkler! Everywhere he looked, thousands of little frozen droplets filled the air. It was a magnificent crystal display. A glittering chandelier. He looked on the scene in awe. As he gazed, his foot stepped on the hosepipe. SSS SSS SSS SSS! He yelped with glee! The sprinkler suddenly burst into life and Bobby was splattered with myriads of tiny balls of moving water.

Running away he glanced over the front gate. On the road there was a car. A car he knew well. He launched himself over the gate and ran towards it. Inside the car was his father. But his father looked different. He had a vacant expression on his face, not the usual big wide smile that greeted him every time they came in contact. And he too was rigid, like a wax dummy. The car was not moving and made no noise.

Bobby tried to get his dad’s attention. He ran to the front of the car, gesticulating and waving.

No response.

Bobby was getting frustrated. Then an idea formed in his mind.

What if he touched the car?

Maybe, then, that would move too.

With one small hand, he reached out to touch the front bumper of the car.


A single sound. From inside the house. Just barely noticeable above the sound of the sprinkler.

The Grandfather Clock.

Bobby looked at his dad. He looked back towards the house.

He made a decision.

He ran back into the house, towards the clock. His dad would have to wait a little bit longer.

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