How to detect lies with a storytelling technique

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 8, 2015
Filed in Communication

The idea that you can tell if someone is lying by analysing certain physical cues has been prominent ever since the 1920s, when the polygraph first made an appearance. Psychologists such as the influential Paul Ekman swear by the technique, and they have the backing of popular culture in the form of TV shows like Lie to Me, which featured the allegedly unfoolable Dr Cal Lightman.


But the notion has its detractors too. They include Andy Morgan, a forensic psychologist at Yale University who specialises in human memory and deception, and who has worked with various US law-enforcement agencies in the context of questioning suspects. He believes that the ‘physical cues’ method has negligible validity and that there’s a much more effective way to detect a liar, one that involves storytelling.

How to detect lies using stories instead of physical cues

In a fascinating episode of the Criminal podcast, titled Pants on Fire, Morgan says that his research has found that there’s little scientific evidence to support the idea that physical signals, including facial expressions and other forms of non-verbal communication, can give away a liar. The polygraph, for example, which measures physiological changes such as blood pressure, respiration and skin conductivity, only achieves an accuracy level of around 50% – pretty much the same as flipping a coin. Instead, Morgan recommends a technique he pioneered called cognitive interviewing.

The premise of cognitive interviewing is that there are sights, sounds, smells and other sensations recorded deep in the brain that can be accessed if you push the interviewee hard enough. Morgan describes how he and his colleagues developed the method after interviewing 1200 people, some of whom were asked to lie and some of whom were asked to tell the truth. The subjects would first be instructed to tell a story about something they’d experienced, such as a rock concert. When they’d finished, the interviewer would ask the subject to describe the experience purely in terms of specific senses: sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch. Finally, the interviewer would get the subject to take them through the experience backwards. Using the rock concert example, the interviewee would talk about how they’d walked to their car from the stadium, then how they’d exited the stadium, then how the lights had gone up after the encore, and so on.

The difference between truth and lies

Morgan found that the use of these mnemonic props – open-ended questions about various sensations and sequences of events – dramatically increased memory recall about what had happened. The subject’s stories consequently became more and more complex, and richer in detail. Or at least, they did when people were telling the truth. When it came to the lies, even well-rehearsed ones, the subjects tended to falter and were unable to complete the interview. According to Morgan, this was because when they were prompted to dredge up deeper memories, the liars had nothing to draw on. Instead, they merely repeated what they’d already said, or waited for the interviewer to fill in the gaps themselves. He equates the memory of an honest storyteller with a high-resolution image, and that of a liar with a child’s rough sketch.

Morgan scientifically substantiated his findings by producing transcripts of each interview, and then getting a computer to count the total number of words and also the number of unique (non-repeated) words in each record. In nearly 85 per cent of cases, the transcripts that contained fewer unique words and fewer words overall related to the stories told by liars. Morgan believes that when people have to think harder about what they’re saying, such as when they’re making stuff up, it has the effect of reducing the richness of what is being said, and the language devoted to it.

So despite the proliferation of books analysing non-verbal behaviour as a way of gauging honesty, it seems that the best way of figuring out if someone is being sincere or not is to listen carefully to what they say. When we tell stories, what’s important is the richness of the detail we provide, and the depth of the content – far more so than facial tics or restless hands. Or to quote Andy Morgan, ‘Our words really do matter’.

Source: Criminal (podcast), episode 2 – ‘Pants on Fire’, 14 February 2014


A prescription for influence: The two story solution for change

Posted by Amanda Marko - January 23, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

The problem with a negative story

Being negative is an easy trap to fall into.

When trying to prove a point or change someone’s mind, the natural tendency is to use a story that has a negative point-of-view to warn against an outcome and perhaps shock the listener a little.

Story Rd

CC image courtesy of umjanedoan on Flickr

The problem with a negative story is that it is only a warning and it is only attention-grabbing. Using a stand-alone cautionary tale tells your audience how not to behave, but fails to fill the void with a better idea.

A powerful anecdote I recently heard could effectively be used in many settings. For instance, if you were coaching a young professional about how to handle questions regarding their level of expertise.

Sometimes the wrong explanation can hamper your ability to move ahead in your career. Anna visited a doctor to discuss an elective procedure. She asked the surgeon the very obvious question, “How many times have you done this operation?” The doctor’s response was, “Five.” With that answer, Anna resolved that she would not be his sixth.

Certainly every doctor – or any type of professional – needs to gain experience and practice, but there has to be a better answer to that question because no one wants to be the guinea pig.

This story is instructive, but only to a point. If the coaching ends here, many questions are left unanswered. Therefore, to truly change a mind, you also need to exemplify the desired behavior.

The perfect complement to a negative story

A second story that demonstrates the positive perspective is the perfect complement to the negative story.

A helpful secondary story could be:

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A simple business storytelling mistake

Posted by Shawn Callahan - December 9, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

The word ‘story’ is vexed in business. Imagine this scene. A senior leader stands in front of his people to give a presentation on the company’s direction and says, “I would like to share a story with you.” If you were in that audience, what would you be thinking or feeling when he said that? When I pose this question to my workshop participants they groan and wince. They say things like, “here we go” or “don’t treat us like kids,” “just get to the point,” “what trick is he trying to pull?”

Now let’s imagine a similar scene. This time the senior leader says, “something important happened a couple of weeks ago I’d like to share with you. It’s going to affect our business.” What are you thinking now? Most people think, “jeez, what happened?” They want to know and are ready to listen.

In both cases the leader will tell a story but in the first one the audience is put off by the word ‘story.’ It has a negative connotation in many business settings. We don’t want to be told we are about to hear a story. Worse still, we don’t want to be told we’re going to hear a funny story. Let us be the judge of that.


I tell leaders in our programs to avoid the ’s’-word. Instead talk about an experience, something that happened, an example or just jump right into the story with your time marker: “Three weeks ago while I was at the Mildura plant …” People love to hear stories, they just don’t like to be told they are listening to a story.

We make a similar mistake in print. How many times have you seen on a website, a newsletter, a brochure and even in reports headings proclaiming, ‘Our Story,’ ‘Customer Stories’ or the stories are italicised and indented screaming out, “this is a story.”

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Leadership conducted with passion, teaching and storytelling

Posted by Christopher Kogler - December 4, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

Benjamin Zander

Photo © Koren Reyes

Maestro Benjamin Zander – an amazingly approachable human being

My wife, Kate, and I were in Boston, Massachusetts recently visiting our son Sebastian, who’s now attending university there. Sebastian has chosen a path a bit less traveled than others and is a French Horn performance major. Although he’s been in Boston just a few months, he was invited to join the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. They’re an amazing group of young people who are privileged to work with an even more amazing conductor, Maestro Benjamin Zander.

Maestro Zander’s career is truly remarkable. He is the conductor of both The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra; he’s also been a guest conductor around the world. He’s a sought-after public speaker who presented a Keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos and has received numerous accolades for his humanitarian work. With his partner, Rosamund Zander, he collaborated on their best-selling book, “The Art of Possibility”.  And, as we discovered, he’s an amazingly approachable human being.

On the Saturday we were visiting, we attended a 4 hour afternoon rehearsal with Maestro Zander and the full Youth Orchestra at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology as they prepared for their upcoming concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall.  Sitting there, watching Maestro Zander work with 100 young, talented people, I was amazed at the way he conducted his business.

He worked with each separate section of the orchestra with passion, joy and a level of energy I simply don’t see that often. Each section of the orchestra received individual instruction. He was complimentary when instructing, direct and respectful when critiquing and taught by telling stories. He was able to focus on the details of each section without losing sight of the holistic nature of the group. Finally, in a manner that appeared effortless, he brought everyone together to produce an amazing sound that no one part could produce on its own. Different sections harmonized wonderfully.

What leadership is all about – passion, teaching and storytelling

I realized while watching Maestro Zander that he was modeling the best of what leadership is all about – infusing one’s work with passion, teaching and storytelling; driving the group’s success forward by his own clarity of purpose and enthusiasm for excellence and, he was having fun doing it!

In his very popular TED talk, Zander explains his process and defines success most eloquently.

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Starting with your point doubles your business story recall

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 21, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

We judge stories we hear at work in three ways. First, is it plausible, did this really happen? Second, is this relevant, can it help me? Third, is it interesting, am I going to enjoy this?

Therefore when we tell a business story it’s important to make clear its relevance at the outset. We need to know what you’re talking about and why you are telling me and this helps significantly with business story recall.


There’s a clever study that shows just how important it is to make clear your topic and your point at the outset. John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, from New York University, asked participants to listen to the following paragraph and remember it:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

We’ve shown this paragraph to perhaps thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you were too.
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An amazing experience and why customer service is really everybody’s job

Posted by Christopher Kogler - September 9, 2014
Filed in Communication

My wife, Kate, and I decided to take a long weekend this recent US Labor Day holiday and explore New England a bit. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT has been on our “must-see” list for a while, so that was our first stop.  It’s the oldest art museum in the USA and is one of America’s hidden gems. The museum was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth and the museum’s first building, built in the Gothic Revival style, was completed in 1844  – 17 years before America’s Civil War.

The museum was quiet on the Friday morning that we arrived and it felt like we had the entire collection to ourselves. The first gallery one enters in filled with beautiful Renaissance paintings and one in particular caught my eye, Portrait of A Man In Armor by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Sebastiano del Piombo

Portrait of A Man In Armor, 1512 AD by Sebastiano del Piombo

As I stood in front of this Renaissance painting from 1512, admiring its details, I heard a voice from behind me say, “How many faces do you see in the painting?”

I turned, thinking that a docent was engaging me in a conversation but was surprised to discover that a security guard, Mr. Angel Cortes, was standing there smiling at me. “One,” I answered.  “No, there are two faces in this painting,” Mr. Cortes said. He then proceeded to show me the very faint, barely visible, second face – “the ghost” as it’s known – over the right shoulder of the Man In Armor. (BTW, the “ghost” is not visible in this print of the painting. You’ll need to visit the museum to see him.)
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Sustainability Stories – Conundrum and Opportunity

Posted by Christopher Kogler - July 10, 2014
Filed in Communication

We’ve all read and heard the word sustainability but how many of us can articulate what it means? When I started working in the sustainability space several years ago, I was frankly baffled that so many people knew the word, but so few could really explain its meaning. I still regularly ask people for their understanding of the concept and aside from sustainability officers and their troops, I continue to get a wide range of answers.

Willow school

Photo Courtesy of The Willow School © 2014

Sustainability directly involves economics, ecology, politics and culture. It encompasses wide areas of expertise and includes numerous business sectors. I like to say it encompasses the worlds of earth, air, wind and fire! Herein lays the conundrum. There is no easy way to explain sustainability; sustainability is truly Complex.

A sleep inducing definition

In 1987 the UN’s Brundtland Commission coined the definition most often quoted for the term, Sustainable Development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is an important concept; perhaps one of the most important concepts of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. But it puts me to sleep! It’s instantly forgettable (read it again, how much can you remember?!?)…in one ear and out the other… why should I care when I can’t even remember?

Why is one of the most profound and important ideas of our present era so unmemorable?

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How to connect brand and sales with oral stories to accelerate growth

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 19, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Strategy

Salespeople detest brand gobbledygook.

And it’s no wonder. Have you heard brand lingo lately?

Lovemarks, saliency, brand-defined competitive sets, brand character, brand claims, brand personality, 80-slide PowerPoint presentations sprinkled with made-up words and forgettable catchphrases …

It’s hard for a salesperson to understand this brand bumf, much less translate it into something they can share with a prospect. Good salespeople do convey the brand, but they do it intuitively by sharing stories that illustrate the brand in action. Like most experts, however, they’re mostly unaware of this skill and their story repertoire. They just do it.

The bridge connecting brand and sales

A systematic approach to sales storytelling can bridge the divide between brand and sales and bring the brand to life.

There are 4 steps in building this bridge. Read the rest of this entry »

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Overcoming entrenched views using stories

Posted by Mark Schenk - January 10, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

We’re all rational beings, aren’t we? If I want to convince you of something, surely I just need the necessary facts or a convincing argument?

Well, behavioural science research tells us that this approach simply doesn’t work. This post describes something that scientists have known for nearly 40 years and which organisations stubbornly refuse to accept.

Entrenched istock

If the story is in their heads, it’s hard to change

Once someone has decided to believe something, they will tend to keep on believing it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, facts and plausible arguments. Lilienfield (2002) researched a phenomenon called ‘belief perseverance’ and found that false beliefs often persist long after they are discredited. You don’t need long in a history book to discover many famous examples of this: the earth is flat; longitude cannot be solved by clocks etc. The same thing happens in organisations.

Belief perseverance helps us understand why it is so hard to change entrenched views. In organisations, this phenomenon becomes critically important when trying to implement any sort of change; changing culture, embedding values or executing a new strategy. If people in the organisation believe something that runs counter to what you are trying to achieve, traditional approaches to changing these beliefs are ineffective.

Normal approaches don’t work

The normal approach is to reach people using reason, facts and slick PowerPoint presentations. When it doesn’t work, we try even harder. We think we just need to find the right argument and we will win them over.

Not only is providing evidence to discredit a belief ineffective, it can also work against your objective by triggering the confirmation bias. Research conducted by Lord, Ross and Lepper (1979) suggests that people will not only persevere in their original beliefs but may come to believe in them even more strongly.

We often encounter this challenge when helping organisations convert their strategies into strategic stories. In every circumstance, we find what we call anti-stories, beliefs that significantly impede acceptance, and hence execution, of a new strategy.

For example, in 2009 we worked with an organisation whose strategy centred around the need to integrate three previously separate departments into a single organisation. We discovered a strongly held belief (anti-story) that integration was pointless as the organisation was bound to be split apart again in the near future. This belief stemmed from experience in the early 1990s when the three departments had been merged and then later separated again. This belief persisted despite countless assurances from leaders that it would not happen again.

Once inappropriate beliefs such as these arise, they are stubbornly resistant to change (Slusher et al 1989). Simply discrediting the evidence that caused a belief does little to change the belief itself. For example, in research by Anderson et al (1982), subjects were given fictitious research that led them to believe that either a positive or negative correlation existed between a firefighters preference for risky versus conservative choices and their success as a firefighter. Half the subjects were debriefed about the fictitious nature of the research and the other half received no such debriefing. Fascinatingly, subjects who were explicitly informed that the initial data were completely bogus held beliefs that were only slightly less extreme than the corresponding beliefs of the subjects who were never told that the data was fictitious.

Stories open their minds to new possibilities

While we don’t pretend to have a silver bullet for this challenge, we have had considerable success changing beliefs (we call it tackling anti-stories) using our storytelling, story-listening and story-triggering approaches. Our white paper on tackling anti-stories describes some approaches that can help. You can download it here

You can’t beat a story with just the facts, only with another story. Or, as philosopher Gordon Livingston more eloquently puts it, “it is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place”.

  1. Anderson, C. A., Oliver, M. R., And Ross, L. (1980). Perseverance of social theories: the role of explanation in the persistence of discredited information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1037 1049.
  2. Lilienfield, S. O., & Byron, R., Your Brain on Trial, Scientific American Mind January/February 2013, p47.
  3. Lord, G.C., Ross, L., & Lepper, M.R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarisation; The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098-2109.
  4. Slusher, M. P., & Anderson, C.A., Belief Perseverance and Self-defeating behaviour, in R. Curtis (Ed), Self-defeating behaviours: clinical impressions and practical implications. New York, Plenum Press, 1989, p11.


Storytelling for Leaders workshop in Los Angeles

Posted by Shawn Callahan - January 6, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, News

In 92 days we’ll be running Storytelling for Leaders workshop in Los Angeles. I’m looking forward to this week in LA because I’ll have just finished a week-long road trip with my brother between San Francisco and LA (should create lots of stories) and we are planning a get together for fellow business storytelling practitioners in the LA region (let me know if you are interested in coming).

To buy tickets to the event just click below. We are currently looking for a good venue. Any suggestions would be great.

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