In storytelling manipulative?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 3, 2008
Filed in Business storytelling

Here is my test for whether a skill is manipulative: “Would it lose its power if people knew exactly what you were doing and why?” If the answer is yes, if the technique loses its power in the light of day, then it’s manipulative and I don’t want any part of it. – David Maxfield

This definition works for me.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Tom Graves says:

    Not quite sure I agree with that definition, though can see where it’s going, and why.
    My problem with it is that a fair bit of the work I do involves something close to manipulation – what I call “tricking people into being powerful” – to help people find and engage their own power and responsibility. It’s critical at a particular stage in skills-development, especially to get people past what I call the ‘Silliness Barrier’ – “if I admit to myself that I could have done this at any time, I’ll feel silly, so to save myself the embarrassment I’ll convince myself that I ‘can’t’ do it”. To get people past that barrier, I use a story or sequence which conceals the change from “I can’t” to “I can”, which in essence ends with a punchline of “you keep telling me you can’t do it: have you noticed you’ve just done it?”
    The tests I use for true manipulation (or worse) are actually my definitions for violence and abuse respectively: “propping self up by putting other down” (or the self-violent lose/win variant, “putting self down to prop other up”), and “offloading responsibility to the other without their engagement and consent” (or the lose/win variant “taking responsibility from the other…” – personal responsibility being closely linked to personal power). More on the business-implications of that in my book ‘Power and response-ability’ – I think I sent you a copy, but if not the e-book’s on the Tetradian Books site as usual if you want it! 🙂

  2. Nancy White says:

    I think what we may need to dig into is what we consider manipulation and if we think it is always bad. Theatre, illusions, even much of art, could be interpreted as manipulation. But in a way that, as Tom suggests, invites many positive things.
    It seems to me intent, trust and transparency are all involved here. It is not just about the smoke and mirrors, but the invitation to participate = do you trust me to let me play with the situation a bit without telling you what I’m doing? Is that manipulative?
    Dunno. The definition worked for me on first read, then it fell apart.

  3. Thanks Tom and Nancy. You’ve helped me see a wider perspective. Intention and authenticity seem to be fundamental. But that’s easy to say but a well meaning intention by the storyteller might be unwelcome by the listener. Again, we need examples to illustrate what we mean.
    John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, starts one chapter recounting a night when his house and family were about to be attacked and burgled by an armed and menacing assailant. John tells this story because he knows it creates emotions linked to our deep instincts to survive and protect our children. His intention is to grab our attention and also illustrate how you can grab someone’s attention with a story. You have no reason to doubt that this happened to John and so it passes the authenticity test. His intention is to help the reader learn about intention so passes there as well.
    Now what about a leader who wants to improve collaboration in her company and starts by finding a story of bungling collaboration to get people’s attention and to engage people’s emotions. She follows this story of where collaboration is working well and then outlines her plan. She tells this story at a company meeting and it’s recorded to go on the intranet. The intention is to improve how people work in the company but the change will be easier for some than others. The stories happened and so remain authentic.
    What about a situation where there is clearly no right answer, a complex situation? One of the decision makers uses storytelling techniques to get people to support his point of view. What if this point of view accrues most of the benefits to his department?
    I believe Steve Denning and Dave Snowden had an online conversation about this topic in Worldwide Storywork ( I’m off there now to have a read.

  4. Dave Snowden says:

    )Your TypeKey line says you are not signed up for the feature Shawn)
    It didn’t feel like a conversation with Denning and I think he is fairly sensitive around the whole area of ethics. My view is that story telling is inherently manipulative and we should acknowledge that and not attempt to avoid the word. That way more attention would be paid to ethics, something I will talk about at the ActKM conference this week. I will pick up on the Denning debate then.

  5. Thanks Dave. For some reason this site has been temperamental and typekey works on and off.
    I have modified my view slightly after the good comments from Nancy and Tom and now believe a modified version of Maxfield’s test makes sense: “Would people feel cheated if they knew exactly what you were doing, or did, and why?”
    From that perspective storytelling is not inherently manipulative. It’s more about the intent of the storyteller and the response of the listeners.

  6. Dave Snowden says:

    This type the sign in worked!
    However I’m sorry I don’t buy the test. I think the sooner we admit to the power of story telling and don;t try to hide from words that don’t disguise the ethical issues the better

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