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The dark side of storytelling: con artists, deceit, and representing your brand

As a marketing writer by day and fiction writer by night, it’s safe to say that I am a fan of storytelling. Chief among the reasons I’m drawn to stories is that they offer a way to tell the truth. Not just the literal truth, but also those hard truths in life. It’s through stories that we often explore the sad and terrifying aspects of the human condition that are difficult to make rational sense of. As John Steinbeck aptly put it, “The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness.”

We turn to stories when logic eludes us. Stories tap into our emotions, and as humans we tend to make decisions based on emotion. We experience the power of storytelling when we feel some amount of unease after watching the nightly news, or when an advertisement has elicited some desire—maybe for a specific product, but more likely for the general promise of a better life.

We turn to stories when logic eludes us. Stories tap into our emotions, and as humans we tend to make decisions based on emotion.

Persuasive storytelling is the subject of The Confidence Game by New York Times-bestselling author Maria Konnikova, which explores the ways that stories can be useful, but also misused. The fine line between storytelling for good and evil was also the subject of Konnikova’s controversial session at SXSW. As she unspooled tales of con artists and deceptive storytellers, the room squirmed. Midway through, a number of seats were abandoned.

We want to believe

Humans have relied on stories since the beginning of language, and even before. In fact, Konnikova said, nonverbal cues can be more powerful and as much as 22 percent more predictive than verbal cues. We’re taught, and perhaps even hardwired, to believe stories.

“We tell stories to get people to empathize with us and to trust us,” Konnikova explained. A story that creates empathy and trust is an effective one—but does it also have to be true? This is just what author Blake Morgan examined in her article “The blurry line between fact and fiction.” She concluded that a story’s effectiveness is only undermined when it’s presented as truth, but isn’t. In other words, it’s the storyteller’s job to set the audience’s expectations, and to invite them into the real or fictional world without any trickery.

This is an important distinction because, as humans, we want to believe a good story. “The thing about stories,” Konnikova cautioned, “is that they are almost impossible to question.”

That’s just it. Stories work best when we believe them, and they rely on our trust. In a way, stories become a sort of magic carpet ride—we don’t need to know their mechanical underpinnings or how they work, only where they will take us.

As humans, we want to believe a good story. “The thing about stories,” Maria Konnikova cautioned, “is that they are almost impossible to question.”

Enter the seductive imposter

Stories become dangerous when they’re so good that we trust them without question. The art to persuasive storytelling hinges on confidence and Konnikova has many examples of con artists who were impossible to resist, even when the warning signs were present.

In The New Yorker, she wrote about an Australian woman who assumed new identities and tricked the governments of three different countries into believing she was a victim of tragedy and misfortune. Going back to those non-verbal cues, when the woman was found shivering and mute on a sidewalk in Ireland, she didn’t utter a false word. Instead, she drew pictures that suggested she’d been a victim of sex trafficking.

Or, at SXSW, Konnikova cited the famous Japanese composer, Mamoru Samuragochi, who was made out to be a modern day Beethoven, having lost his hearing by the age of 35. As the story grew around him, media gold, Samuragochi grew in stature to become a national symbol and a role model for artists plagued by devastating physical obstacles. But in truth, a man named Takashi Niigaki had been Samuragochi’s ghost writer over the course of 18 years. And also, Samuragochi wasn’t deaf.

Yet no one questioned him, Konnikova explained, because the story was so compelling. In hindsight, there were signals. He’d jumped once at a doorbell, he’d responded too quickly to an interviewer.

Or there was the Rolling Stone cover story, later retracted, about a rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to be fabricated. The reporter was taken in by her source and trusted “the victim” more than she should have. Journalism, Konnikova cautioned, requires both trust and verification, and today, in a world where “brand journalism” is a thing, companies are on the hook for truth-telling, too.

When Konnikova mentioned The Bible, a book that tells many stories in the form of parables rather than straight philosophical discourse, a few folks in the room had visible, emotional reactions. Her point wasn’t that scripture might be deceptive, but that The Bible is a prime example of how we teach through storytelling. By tapping into emotions, we’re better able to digest heady content and are more willing to believe. But to even call The Bible into question caused a few people to leave the session, which perhaps spoke precisely to Konnikova’s point.

Storytelling for good and evil

Konnikova argues that not all persuasive storytelling is bad—only when it’s used for malevolence. Stories are, for example, the inevitable battleground between an honest and a corrupt politician, duking it out during an election. And in cases where we want the good guy to win, do we care whether his stories are true? Does the end justify the means?

It’s tricky ethical ground. The main distinction, Konnikova has found, is that con artists don’t have the greater good in mind, and they typically tell a sob story—

Take someone like Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University who studies the power of narrative. One of his studies involved showing participants several versions of a film showcasing a father and his child. In one version, "Ben's Story," the child is dying of cancer. In another, the child is a miracle survivor. Zak and his team monitored neural activity and determined the types of stories that caused people to donate the most money to charity. "Ben's Story" generated doubled the donation money than did "Miracle Boy".

Zak is not a con artist by Konnikova’s standards (and she would know), but what he’s accomplished in a lab, many skilled con artists have figured out on their own. The stories that are most persuasive are the ones that have a narrative arc. However short the ad or bit, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. The 2013 Budweiser Super Bowl commercial is a great example of storytelling and branding with a narrative arc—and broad popular appeal.

A perhaps trickier example comes the example of the Somali Imam sex trafficking scandal, in which one women trained young women to claim they’d escaped from sex trafficking in order to collect funds from government agencies and donate it back to anti-sex trafficking organizations. The young women in question were not victims of sex-trafficking. Their greater goal makes it hard to say whether this was a con, a humanitarian effort, or something in the grey space in between.

The key to good storytelling

There’s a great story, but then there’s also the story’s delivery. It has to be convincing. It has to be delivered with confidence. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., for example, was known as “The Great Imposter.” He inhabited many personas during the course of his life, though perhaps none so outrageous as claiming to be a trauma surgeon for the Canadian Navy during the Korean War. Remarkably, and through quick textbook study, he was able to successfully perform many surgeries at sea. Anyone would find it difficult to question a man ready to open a chest with a scalpel, even if his personality might have hinted at psychopathy, narcissism, or Machiavellianism.

If what Konnikova has uncovered reads like a guide to storytelling, applicable to your next company commercial, think again. Instead, it ought to make us think twice when we encounter stories that sound too good or too unbelievable to be true. It should serve to help us question stories that are tragic, and that call upon our goodwill and our pocketbooks. It should also remind us that no one likes to be conned, so when we are telling stories, we have a responsibility to be transparent, to use our real names, to link back to social handles, or to otherwise provide a trail of breadcrumbs that substantiate the story or the reason behind the story.

There’s a great story, but then there’s also the story’s delivery. It has to be convincing. It has to be delivered with confidence.

It’s okay to invent fiction, after all, It tells a story of a Clydesdale and its trainer, reunited. It was the Super Bowl ad that scored the highest on USA Today’s Ad Meter and Hulu’s Ad Zone that year, conceivably for its emotional, narrative arc. But it was also based on truth and, moreover, spoke to Budweiser’s larger commitment to their heritage.

In the end, the power of stories is real—but your success has everything to do with the way you tell them.

Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.