The truth about true stories

People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

“every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

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