Storytellers use Apophenia

 

Have you ever stared at a piece of wood, a marble slab, or a cloud formation and saw a face? Pareidolia–the ability to see faces in random patterns–is a special case of a larger phenomenon called apophenia, which results from our brains being on a perpetual mission to find patterns in anything. Our brains are programmed to find a reason for everything, whether there is one or not. Consider that the roots of all superstitions, conspiracy theories, and urban legend result from someone attributing meaning to random events.

Apophenia is both blessing and curse for storytellers. It’s a curse when you fail to explain a new concept to someone adequately. Without a clear understanding of your idea, the recipient will likely cram your data into their own meaning model…which more than likely will be erroneous. The curse of apophenia is that we believe what we believe–evidence be damned. The recent outbreak of measles in Washington is a direct result of apophenia, where a significant number of parents decided not to vaccinate their children from a highly contagious disease based on connecting data dots incorrectly.

And yet, apophenia can also be used as a blessing. The ability to create characters that see more meaning than exists frequently leads to a comedy of errors. For example, in The Man Who Knew Too Little, a hapless American thinks he’s participating in an interactive play yet has actually stumbled into a real-life spy thriller. He thinks that he’s playing a fun role while trained killers think he’s the second coming of James Bond. Or the movie, War Games, where a high school hacker breaks into a government computer, only to have his actions interpreted as those supporting a Russian conspiracy to start World War III.  Both storytellers used the phenomenon of apophenia to have the characters misinterpret actions and motivations.

And while apophenia can be used to write a screwball comedy, it can also be used in business storytelling. In your industry, do people see patterns that do not exist? Are these patterns generally accepted as fact? Perhaps you need to point them out? Or, perhaps you can use apophenia to lead an audience to a false conclusion to demonstrate a cautionary tale of how easy it is to be mislead. Either way, apophenia is now a powerful tool in your storytelling toolbox.

 

Photo Credit: This photo comes from Paul B’s Flickr channel who offered is under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

 

 

 

Storytellers use the Three Red Herrings

 

We were taught as children to always tell the truth because truth-telling is good and lying is bad. Then, as we grew up, we learned that this truth thing wasn’t so black and white. Evidently, sometimes deception is not only acceptable, but it’s also appreciated.

For example:

  • When a nurse distracts a child who’s terrified about an impending injection
  • When a comedian sets up a punchline
  • When a magician uses sleight of hand to create an illusion

And so we adapted, telling truths and non-truths, depending upon situations. I’ve learned that the best way to distinguish between the two is to consider the Benefit Rule1 by asking:

Who benefits from the lie, the deceiver or the deceived?

Think about a man who encourages his girlfriend to spend the evening with her friends so that he can cheat on her. Now consider a man orchestrating the same ruse to occupy her time while he prepares a marriage proposal. The same deception scenario produces different ethical results based on the deceiver’s motivations. If the beneficiary of the deception is the deceiver, it’s unethical. If the deceived received the benefits, it’s ethical.

The best storytellers deceive. Without the ability to do so, stories become predictable and boring. And so, storytellers toil to balance both the information and the timing of that information to keep things interesting. George Lucas, for example, did so by hiding the fact that Luke and Leia were siblings and that Darth Vader was their father.

So, how can we become masters at ethical deception? The answer comes from an unexpected place–our judicial system.

Witnesses in an American courtroom take an oath “…to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This seemingly innocuous phrase contains a beautifully complex concept that describes three distinct classes of deception.

“All the lies that have ever been told or ever will be told fall into three categories, or strategies: lies of commission, lies of omission, and lies of influence.” 2

  • A lie of commission is a bald-faced, flat-out untruth
  • A lie of omission is subtler. Rather than telling the whole truth, the deceiver selectively reveals verifiable facts, yet omits the less convenient ones. For example, consider the teenager who broke curfew. When asked, “Where were you?” she answers with a verifiable “I was at the library,” which is true. She just omitted the part about the house party she attended afterwards.
  • A lie of influence (which I prefer to call a lie of conflation) is the most complex of the three. It involves adding extra facts to obfuscate the truth. For example, when asked, “Did you steal the cookie?” the confectionery bandit explains, “You know that I don’t like sweets. Remember that time in the bakery?”

The best storytellers deceive ethically. They use the three red herrings: commission, omission, and conflation to keep an audience on its toes. If done right and the audience benefits from the deception, they’ll thank you for it.

Now it’s your turn. The next time you tell a story, how will you use the three red herrings?

Notes:

  1. Ron Ploof, The Proverb Effect (Aliso Viejo, CA: OC New Media, LLC, 2018) p. 22. 
  2. Susan M. Carnicero and Philip Houston, Spy the Lie: Advanced Information Collection (Columbus, OH: Ohio State Bar Association CLE, 2012), Kindle Location#: 606.

 


Oh, and if you were looking for the answer to the last week’s cliff hanger…I don’t own a patent. 😊

Storytelling Lessons from the Game: Two Truths and a Lie

 

One of my favorite icebreakers is a game called Two Truths and a Lie, where you share three different “facts” about yourself with only two being true. Then you sit back and watch the group try to uncover the lie.

Wanna play? Here are my three:

  1. I have a United States patent
  2. I’ve had a bullet hit inches from my head
  3. I’ve used the Heimlich Maneuver on a choking victim

I love this game is because it’s packed with storytelling nuggets. For example, those trying to uncover my lie will say things like:

  • “Ron’s an electrical engineer, so he could have a patent.”
  • “He lives and works in an affluent part of Southern California, so where would a bullet come from? I don’t think he’s ever been on tour in the military.”
  • “Does Ron look like the type of person who’d take a CPR class?”

Two Truths and a Lie offers wonderful lessons for budding storytellers. The story statements reveal just enough information to make the listeners want to know more. It creates mysteries which require skills in both inductive and deductive reasoning. Two Truths and a Lie works as an icebreaker because it’s built upon many of the story techniques used by the masters.

So, which of my three statements is a lie? Hmm…it’s time to teach you another storytelling technique called the cliffhanger. You’ll just have to wait for my next post.

Sorry. Not sorry.

In the meantime, what are your two truths and a lie?

 

Image Credit: Alophe, Lithographer. Le femme révées Ideal beauties ; Contemplation = contemplation / / compose & lithog. par M. Alophe ; Imp. lith. de Jacomme & Cie. , ca. 1851. Paris ; Berlin ; New York: Publie par Goupil & Cie. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/99471879/.