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?


  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.

2018 StoryHow in Review

Our goal is to be your one-stop business storytelling resource and we do so by publishing strategies and tactics that help you become a better storyteller. We fulfilled our promise in 2018 through not only publishing the following 32 articles, but Ron also published a new book called The Proverb Effect: Secrets to create tiny phrases that change the world. We look forward to serving your storytelling needs in 2019.

StoryHow Blog Posts (2018)

1. The Evangeline Connection

Variety helps build storytelling stamina. Sometimes its helpful to reach beyond the business storytelling genre to broaden your skills. In this post, Ron practices what he preaches by telling a historical story with personal significance.

2. The Simple Reason Why Most Companies Tell The Wrong Story

Most companies tell the wrong story because they fail to understand the complicated role that their products and services play within an ecosystem of people with different motivations.

3. Use These Three Simple Words to Bond with Any Audience

Looking for an easy way to bond with an audience? Just preface your message with these three little words.

4. Why Marketers Must Always Consider the “Three Whats”

Marketers who want to incorporate storytelling into their messaging must first employ “the three whats.”

5. Three Steps to Telling a Single-sentence Story

Single-sentence stories use carefully chosen words to present facts that defy listener expectations. In this post, Ron describes one of the most emotionally powerful single-sentence stories he’s ever heard.

6. How to Choose Your Story’s Most Significant Details

Sometimes storytelling lessons come from the most unlikely places. This one comes from mathematics.

7. Assumptions Play Two Vital Roles in Storytelling

We all make assumptions. We can’t help it. Which is why they play such important roles in any story.

8. Simple Storytelling Lesson from a Rolling Stones Song

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards offer great advice for any storyteller…through a pop song.

9. How One Awesome Story Took 42 Years for Me to Tell

Sometimes the best stories take a while to tell. This one took me forty-two years.

10. The Four-letter Word that Drives all Stories

The backbone of any story is a simple four-letter word. And it’s not the one you’re thinking of.

11. It’s Hard to See the Story When You’re in it

It’s hard to see the story when you’re in the middle of it. Before we get too confident in our present-day beliefs, remember that we too are in the middle of our own incomplete stories and the only thing standing between us and their endings is time.

12. The Best Salespeople are Story Researchers

The best sales folks aren’t necessarily great storytellers. But they are great story researchers.

13. Quality is measured by the number of words you strike out NOT bang out

It’s not the amount of words you write. It’s about the amount of words you keep.

14. Thinking Is the Hardest Work

Storytellers need time to think, which doesn’t play well in a business culture that demands communications through bulleted presentation slides.

15. Journalists CAN’T be Storytellers

Journalists are beholden to facts. Storytellers are beholden to their audiences. And never the twain shall meet.

16. When Your Story is Stuck, Try a Test

Ron explains one of the techniques that he uses to get unstuck.

17. Great Questions Lead to Great Stories

Have you ever prefaced an answer with “That’s a great question?” In all likelihood, you were about to answer with a story.

18. Beware the Shaggy Dog Story

Have you ever heard a story that seemed so filled with promise yet it never delivered? If so, you’ve been the victim of a Shaggy Dog story.

19. Clickbait: The Evil Shaggy Dog Story

Ron demonstrates how clickbait headline writers use storytelling techniques against us

20. StoryTip: Characters Fall Into Patterns

People enter new situations with previous experiences. Some of those experiences dictate how we act. Great stories come from mismatches in those actions.

21. Don’t Dumb Down. Build Up

The human brain has a tremendous capacity to understand very complex concepts. You just gotta give it a little head start.

22. Story is the shell…not the nut

Some things in life give their lives for others. Stories are no exception.

23. Storytellers Allow Audiences to Infer

Bad storytellers describe meaning explicitly. Great storytellers allow their audiences to infer it themselves.

24. Wanna be a storyteller? Be careful what you ask for

Storytelling is a superpower. But it also comes with its own Kryptonite.

25. Storytellers Break the Rules

Advertising legend Stan Freberg shows us how the best storytellers break the rules.

26. Introducing The Proverb Effect

Ron introduces The Proverb Effect, the first book to define a repeatable process for conveying deep meaning through self-created proverbs.

27. Why this Storyteller Wrote a Book about Proverbs

Storyteller Ron Ploof wanted to know how proverbs have been used successfully to pass wisdom from one generation to another. Two years of research later and he’s figured out the rules for creating the ultimate long-story short.

28. Less Convincing, More Conveying

Deception experts say that liars convince, while truth-tellers convey. Which of the two terms best describes your marketing materials?

29. Storytellers Avoid Distractions

The worst thing that a storyteller can do is introduce a distraction to the audience.

30. Bookend Your Next Talk with Proverbs

Ron Ploof introduces the StoryHow™ PSP method of structuring your next talk.

31. Creating Proverbs: The Function

Proverb construction is a three step process. This post is about Step 1: determining a function.

32. Proverb Construction Step #2: The Frame

Proverb construction is a three step process. This post is about Step 2: determining a proverb’s frame.

Bookend Your Next Talk with Proverbs


So, you have a big idea, need to share it with an audience, and are looking to structure your talk. How do you choose a beginning, middle, and end? Have you considered using the StoryHow™ PSP method?

In my recent book, The Proverb Effect, I teach how old proverbs have helped teachers teach and students learn for thousands of years. Something in their linguistic structure gives proverbs the unique capability to act as both premise and conclusion. PSP uses this dual capability to open your talk using proverb as a premise, follow it with story-based examples, then wrap it all up by repeating the proverb as a conclusion. PSP helps you open and close strong.

For example, let’s use PSP to structure a talk about the power of persistence.

The method is effective because the human brain is comfortable listening to stories and proverbs are the ultimate long-stories short.

The first example used an old proverb, but perhaps you want to use one of your own. Here’s an example of one of my PSP talks.

Let’s say that I want to share the big idea that people will only join your cause if they can relate personally with it.

Give it a try. Use PSP to structure your next talk using the following steps:

  1. Convert that big idea into a proverb
  2. Open your presentation with it
  3. Offer evidence through stories
  4. Cap off your talk by putting the word remember before your proverb

Give PSP a try and let me know how it worked out.

Storytellers Avoid Distractions


One of my movie-watching pet peeves is non-musician actors playing instruments. My issue usually manifests itself as a mismatch between the video and soundtrack. For example, as a percussionist, I’m highly sensitive to non-musician drummers waving their arms without hitting anything, or even worse, striking cymbals, snare drums or tom-toms out of sync with the soundtrack. And don’t even get me started about non-musician guitar players. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an actor strumming clumsily while sliding his lifeless hand along the guitar’s neck without any attempt at playing a chord. Such distractions negatively impact my willingness to suspend belief.

All storytellers must fix story problems. In the case of the non-musician actor, visual storytellers must find a movie-magic way to cover up the fact that the actor can’t play. One technique is to hide the musician’s hands, either by using an obstructed camera angle (behind the piano), or a tight shot on the hands of a “stunt musician.” Both techniques, however, tend to draw my attention to the problem as I want to see a full-frame shot of the character playing.

I’ve always wondered, why can’t they just teach the actor how to play something—ANYTHING—to augment the various cuts with at least one full-frame shot? Anyone can learn to play a few guitar chords or play a simple drum beat for a few seconds.

Non-musician actors aren’t the only distractions that pull me out of a story. Consider these other distracting storyteller fixes:

1. The antagonist needs a mysterious device that can be used to destroy the world. What’s the easiest way to go? Use a “microchip.”

2. A crime fighter reviews video footage of a getaway car. The storyteller chooses between two uninspired ways to extract information from the video: a) zoom in to read a perfectly clear version of the license plate (which is impossible from a picture-resolution perspective) or b) have the character acknowledge the zooming-in problem, but can “clean it up” through magical image processing software…or a microchip!

3. And my all-time favorite…the cops are stumped for clues, so, they approach some clairvoyant petty thief. “Word on the street,” the informant says, “is that Mr. Big is gonna hit the bank tonight at midnight.” Really? Mr. Big shares such information with the guy selling stolen watches on the corner?

Storytellers have an obligation to hold their readers attention, thus must solve their problems in a believable way. Ask yourself, does my story have too much detail, too few characters, or too many plot twists? Are the solutions to my story problems realistic or do they cause distractions? Tackling these issues now will save much grief in the future.


Photo Credit: Mayer, Frank Blackwell. The Continentals / FBM. , 1875. Photograph.