Never let the facts get in the way of a good story – unless cognitive dissonance makes you pretty sure it isn’t true:)

Mark Twain said: “I never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Or at least that’s how the story goes. Evidently, we can’t be 100% sure whether the story is true or not.

Storytelling is now considered to be an essential leadership skill, and for good reason. When we believe something is true or potentially true, that belief impacts our actions in profound and subtle ways. A leader who tells us believable stories exerts immense influence over how we feel and what we do. A good story induces a consistency of action and attitude that can benefit both those who believe the story and those who got them to believe it.

But there is a problem at the foundation of storytelling. How does the story match up with the lived experience of those who are receiving the story. When we hear a story, our minds immediately start evaluating the probability that the story is true. Perhaps we sub-consciously use something like the following two-factor matrix to classify the correspondence between the story and reality:

– Untrue and unbelievable

– Untrue, but believable

– True, but unbelievable

– True and believable

The first and last types of story are fairly easy for us to process. Stories of the first type may entertain or horrify us, but they probably don’t have much power to move us. Stories of the last type can move us, but only because the correspondence between the story and current reality is so close that we don’t need to think very deeply or do much about them.

In both cases, the stakes are low. Neither of these two types of stories demand much of us. At least as long as conditions remain the same, we don’t have to put much effort into deciding what to do based on our belief or disbelief of the story.

The two middle types of stories are where most of the interesting leadership action is because they induce a form of cognitive dissonance, requiring us to take a side. We have to choose (on a conscious or unconscious level) to lean into believing the story despite the fact that it doesn’t correspond with our experience of reality or away from believing it due that lack of correspondence.

As the old saying goes, though, nothing is harder to predict than the future.

In other words, when we say something about the future, we are saying something speculative. In a sense, when we are talking about the future there is no truth yet. Because by definition the future hasn’t happened yet, we have no experience of the truth – only hypotheses (albeit sometimes very strong ones) about possible futures.

Whether we are using stories to lead others or ourselves, leadership stories almost by definition say something about the future. When we tell these stories to ourselves or hear them from our leaders, we immediately begin evaluating them, and the default standard we use is comparison to the story we have created to explain our experiences up to that point because that story is the closest thing we have to reality.

If leadership is about changing people’s attitudes and behavior, then leadership stories must:

– induce cognitive dissonance about the story we have been telling ourselves up to this point, and

– reduce cognitive dissonance in relation to the possibility that the story the leader is telling could become true in the future, even if it is doesn’t feel likely right now.

How do your stories induce and reduce cognitive dissonance in those you hope to lead? How about in yourself?

Do you believe in the future you describe? Why or why not?

What can you do to create stronger alignment between your beliefs about reality and the story of the future you want others to believe?

How deep is your desire to create that alignment?

The answers to these kinds of questions can help you determine if the story you are currently telling is the right one to move yourself and others toward its realization or if it is time to take a step back to refine it or even throw it away and look for a more compelling version of the future that pulls you and those around you toward its realization.

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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