Lies, damned lies, and Serena and Essena

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.35.50 pm

It was a week where Insta-famous teenager Essena revealed the reality behind her oh-so-perfect image: starvation, photo altering, depression, tanties, desperate approval seeking, et al. And Serena Williams proclaimed she was a superhero for hunting down the thief who stole her phone, until CCTV footage revealed that events weren’t as dramatic as she had described.

Lies. Damned lies. All of it.

Or were they?

I had a student who loved calling my course in creative writing, “Learning to tell lies”. He got this from something I taught the class, and that most storytellers will defend to the death: truth is sacrosanct, and facts are dispensable. And it is quite in order to sacrifice facts in order to get at a fundamental, emotional truth.


Yes, yes, absolutely shocking. Until, of course, you fully understand that everything we tell and write is recreated. We can’t transfer experiences straight into people’s brains, so recreation it is, and while we’re recreating, we might as well concentrate on the details that are meaningful.

And people don’t find meaning in facts. They find meaning in truth.

Truth, not fact, is what will make most parents nod in sympathy when you say, “My kids are driving me crazy.”

Lookit: there are no facts in that sentence.

My – Not yours. Human beings haven’t belonged to other human beings since we abolished slavery.

Kids – They are children, not baby goats.

Driving me – How can you be driven? Are you a car? And if you can be, surely you drive yourself?

Crazy – No, you’re not, and even if you were, “crazy” is neither a legal or medical term.

But perhaps “The actions of the children I bore are making me feel as though my sanity is temporarily compromised” doesn’t quite cut it.

Metaphors, similes, hyperbole, idioms, onomatopoeia, exaggeration, omission, generalisation are tools of fiction that help us get to the core of truth of the factual thing that happened.

And the results are glorious.

“I was eleven months pregnant.” – Erma Bombeck

“The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.” – Maya Angelou

“When I go to the swimming pool, I take my glasses off, and I can’t even see where the WATER is. One time I almost killed myself in an unfortunate little incident involving a glorious swan-dive and a blue picnic blanket.” – Danny Katz

These are fictional sentences in non-fiction pieces. But if you’ve ever been heavily pregnant, or aware of witnessing an important event, or if you’re near-sighted, those sentences will make the bell of truth ring deep inside you.

Business storytelling these days is, well, big business. Many – me included – teach workshops and write blogs on how to do it, but really, it always comes down to this one thing: presenting your audience with truth.

Which is why the people looking at the CCTV footage of Serena Williams and going, “But it didn’t happen the way she said!” are missing the point, or at least suffering a chronic lack of imagination. Guys, guys, guys – she’s not a journalist reporting on the scene. She merely told a story, with an embedded metaphor, to reveal a truth: that we must all get in touch with the superhero inside. Stories aren’t for information – we read them and listen to them partly to learn something about the storyteller, but mostly to learn something about ourselves. Which is why, as I put on my Wonder Woman tights of steel, I don’t care to nitpick over whether Serena ran after the thief or walked.

What drives the truth home isn’t just the story, however: it’s being willing to stand or live by those truths.

And this is where Essena failed.

Unlike Serena’s story, Essena’s six years on Instagram weren’t an exercise in getting at an emotional truth for others’ benefit. They were an exercise in narcissism and self-aggrandisement. Very sad, particularly given that she started seeking our approval when she was only 12 years old, but narcissism and self-aggrandisement nonetheless. More importantly, however – because there certainly are, and have been, many narcissists whose stories we treasure – she did not live the truth of the story she told. Her message on Instagram was, “Love your body, treat your body with respect” while hating her own body, and mistreating it. There was no story there. Just lies. (That said, there’s been emotional truth aplenty since Essena has started to redress this imbalance.)

When you tell your stories, focus on the emotional truth. And make sure you and your business stand or live by those truths. Because Serena Williams may only be a metaphorical superhero, but we all know that she sure as hell could have pummelled that guy into the ground.