Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Comparing Misspeaks, Colorful Anecdotes and Lies

Tiny exaggerations can become big lies.There has a been a lot in the news lately about political candidates who misspeak, which implies they meant to say one thing but said something slightly different, absolutely by mistake. It is usually a way of minimizing a much more serious error. (Like the old joke about the guy who showed up at work with a bruised face and broken arm. A friend asked him what happened and he said, “My wife and I were having breakfast and I misspoke and she got all upset and beat the daylights out of me.” The friend exclaimed, “My gosh, how could she get so upset over a little misspeak?” The guy replied, “Well, I meant to say, “Honey, would you pass me the butter?” I misspoke and said, “I think you’re disgusting and I wish I was married to your sister.”)  

I have inexplicably misspoken on occasion–using a word or phrase that I not only did not intend to say, but did not realize I had said it. For example, at an awards luncheon I was speaking about the value of government employees in our country and I said “county” several times when I meant to say country. I swore later that I had not done it, but enough people teased me about it that I knew it must be true. It was a misspeak. I did not say I had visited every country in the world–that would not have been a misspeak, that would have been a lie. (I could have compounded my misspeaking by misquoting as well: “Ask not what you can do for your county, ask what your county can do for you.”)

On the other hand, we all enjoy anecdotes and stories that are slightly–or highly–dramatized for affect. We sometimes even know or suspect the story is not wholly true, but it is so enjoyable we do not mind. Sometimes stories simply become a mixture of fact and fiction from frequent re-telling and revising according to the situation and the results.  

  • Water cooler stories often are told with high drama: A sporting event, someone’s actions at a party, or the story-teller’s adventures on a doomed fishing expedition. If part of the story gets a hilarious reaction, the story-teller emphasizes it the next time.
  • “War stories” about the comedy and drama of work–especially decades after the events–are nearly always much more interesting than the real thing ever was.
  • Presenters and trainers often use anecdotes based on real life, but of necessity must change names, locations and some details to avoid potential problems or embarrassing the people involved, so after awhile it is hard to recognize the real thing.
  • Sometimes a person will tell a story but not want to appear to be bragging so he or she will create details that add humor and a touch of humility to their own role in it.

What all of us who tell personal stories have to be alert for is the temptation to embellish a story past the point of making it more colorful all the way to making it untruthful.  After telling it for a few years you will not remember the true version–but you can bet someone will.  Have you ever heard a coworker tell a story about something that happened at work and you hardly recognized it as the same event you witnessed? Have you ever squirmed in embarrassment as someone told an obvious lie? You will never feel the same about those people–and you will always question the truthfulness of other things they say.

I am so concerned about that issue for myself that I have corrected the introductions made by someone before I speak if they were not correct. And, I have to tell you honestly, it was a temptation to just let it go and not say anything when I was introduced as Dr. Tina Rowe! I could have said later that I didn’t say it, she did. But, I corrected the error to avoid even inadvertently lying. (I said my correct title was Dr.Tina Lewis Rowe.) 🙂

I can certainly understand that people get caught up in their anecdotes or in talking about their personal or professional history, and do not mind it when there is nothing at stake–although I would prefer to know that what I am hearing is the truth, even if dramatized a bit. I am not so forgiving about people who tell blatant lies to gain status, make themselves out as heroes or important persons, or to attach themselves in some tenuous way to an important event. I do not care very much about the deep underlying causes of their psychological, social or political need to be deceptive, I only care that they lie and I will usually confront them about it if I think it matters.

I once knew a man with an important job, (Oh my, I would love to use his full name here–but his initials were Bob B.) who would lie when the truth would have been easier and sometimes just as good or better. A regular and large part of his conversations were lies–serious, purposeful and sometimes frighteningly diabolical lies. Those of us who knew him could write a book! I am not referring to that kind of behavior here. I’m referring to the additions and subtractions that appreciably change stories or time-lines that are purported to be truthful.

We cannot easily jump up and shout that a speaker or trainer is lying, but we certainly think less of him or her and turn off everything else that is said. If a supervisor or manager seems to be lying, we cannot easily confront that either. And, the reality is that if someone is a friend or is someone we will not see again, we listen to the tall tale (AKA lie) but do not say anything. So, what does that tell you? The fact that no one  confronts an untrue story does not mean they believe it, they simply do not say anything directly.

If you use anecdotes in your speaking, training or work discussions, or if you have a story you often tell family and friends, consider it carefully to ensure it is true in all the major components. If it is not, say you forget the details and stop telling it. Or, adjust it so you no longer tell the untrue parts. Practice telling it truthfully so you can learn to add to the humor or drama with your style of presentation rather than embellishments. If you are caught in an untrue story do not use the excuse of misspeaking. Consider telling the truth!

“I’m terribly, terribly embarrassed about this and I’m glad you confronted me. I wanted to make myself sound (whatever) and I went too far in my dramatic story telling, to the point that it wasn’t true at all, it was just a reflection of what I know I could have done. I promise you I won’t tell a story like that again and I hope you will forgive me.” Almost everyone will empathize and you will do a long way toward rebuilding your credibility.

Telling the stories of our lives is a great way to enhance teaching, speaking, or everyday conversations. Pants on fire!But you may never know the damage to your career and reputation if you tell an untrue story, or a true story in such a way that it loses its truthfulness. Being colorful and entertaining is not worth the embarrassment, humiliation and loss of respect that usually results when the truth comes out.  George Herbert wrote, in his poem, The Church Porch, “Dare to be true: Nothing can need a lie;/A fault, which needs it most/Grows two thereby.”

April 3rd, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments


  1. I was glad to see someone else thinks about anecdotal lying the same way I do, because I was beginning to think I was all alone.

    I work for a non-profit and I would never want to discredit its work because we help a lot of people. But we seem to mix truths and lies for what we know is a good cause. All of us went to a class on speaking and writing to present our message, and the trainer suggested we use inspirational books and magazine articles and adjust the circumstances to fit the situations of our clients or in our own lives and use those for our speeches and blogs, or just create appropriate situations to fit a need. I said I wouldn’t feel honest about doing that. The trainer told us about various big-name speakers who hire people to produce “real life” stories for them to use. She even said one of the stories she had used about a speaking experience of hers was a combination of several situations. From my viewpoint that completely took away her credibility, but some of my associates were impressed at how effective it had been!

    Since then several of my associates have filled their bookshelves with books of inspirational stories..you know the ones I mean. Most of them only use them now and then, but one of my associates fills her blog or newsletter articles with bits and pieces of things that aren’t true. She sits with a book open in her lap all day as she writes!

    I talked about this with our Director, who is a very ethical person in every other way. She said I was making too big an issue about something no one else cared about as long as a good message came through in the end. She said anecdotes aren’t supposed to be based on fact, they are more about feelings. She said she would never condone lying about a specific person or situation, but the way my associate was doing it was not lying it was just providing an illustration. I don’t see the difference!

    I’m not going to leave my job, because we do genuinely help a lot of people. But I have lost so much respect for many people I work with because of all of this. The other bad result is that I doubt almost anything I read, unless I saw it and know about it or can prove it. A sad situation. But, I feel better now, knowing I’m not an idiot who doesn’t understand how the real world of speaking and writing works. Thank you!

    Comment by A Reader | April 5, 2008

  2. Thank you for commenting, and with a good example of what I was talking about. I know someone who has written many of the stories in an inspirational series and as far as any of us know, she has never been in a situation to have experienced the things she has written about! So, I’m like you…I doubt almost everything anymore. And it IS sad!

    Let me say this, though….I worry that the real world of speaking and writing DOES often work in dishonest ways. I just know MY world doesn’t work that way, and I know many, many others who I can count on to be truthful, apparently including you!

    Keep the faith about this issue!

    Comment by Tina | April 5, 2008

  3. You have written an excellent article on this subject. I hope it is read and re-read until people begin to accept a lie as a lie.

    LOVE your web site – lots of fun and interesting.

    – Bob

    Comment by Robert N. Adams | April 5, 2008

  4. Proverbs 17:4 reminds us that “a liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue.” Liars often have friends who are gossips and liars, which is a reminder to be careful of the company we keep.

    I believe we must be alert to differentiate between lies of the heart and mind, social niceities, sincere but false remembrances, and illustrative or colorful speaking or writing material. As you point out, the lines can easily blur and lying can become justified in our minds. It seems to take longer for our hearts to become hardened about untruths we tell, but over time it happens. The setting, the audience, the speaker and the intent of the comments or story are some of the measures I apply for myself as well as my responses to others. Those guide me aobut my own words, and also as I decide if I should enjoy a story, accept a comment, say nothing even though I know it is not true, or say something in private or immediately.

    I hope my friends and family will use the same measures when I tell stories because I play golf and I also fish. Don

    Comment by Don Roberson | April 6, 2008

  5. Good stuff that we all need to be reminded about from time to time.

    Comment by skh | April 7, 2008

  6. I went back and re-read this great article – really, Tina, it is good! And so, what is true about untrue anecdotes adopted as being owned by the speaker or writer, also has a cousin – undocumented sources. I wonder if many mis-speaks come from undocumented sources – where are the limits?
    I get a lot of email with all kinds of stories and “legends” that people hope I will include in my Blessays, somehow. Ninety-six percent (an undocumented guess) of them cannot be traced. If one is really outstanding, it takes so much time to go back to the sender only to find out “I don’t know. I just got in my inbox.”
    They sometimes respond as if “Why do I need to know the source? Everybody knows it’s true.” Then why re-publish it?

    Comment by Robert N. Adams | April 11, 2008

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