Honestly, a Good Story Need Not Be the Truth

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

The first speaker, welling with emotion, was quite convincing. She recalled how, as a young girl, she was pulled aside by her teacher and withdrawn from the chorus. Her harsh voice, she was told, marred things. Her consolation prize was to emcee the spring concert instead.

The second speaker told the same story. But a few details were switched: The name of the school changed. So did the kind of dress worn on the day of the concert. So did the name of the music teacher. While this speaker showed no flicker of emotion, the concrete details she calmly offered made it all seem so real.

Which one was actually there? Who got the broken heart?

Whom to believe?

The audience for these two, both teachers, was 18 other elementary school teachers from throughout Ventura County.

The subject at hand: storytelling technique.

The course instructor: Len Cabral, a Rhode Island-based fellow well known on the storytelling circuit for his riveting solo performances and profoundly involving spirit.

Inside tip: The two teachers telling the stories had met privately in the hallway before going on. Each had told the other a story that was true, and then they chose one of those stories--the best or most dramatic--to present to the group. They would tell the same story, one at a time. But for only one would the story be true.

After the presentations, the group quizzed the storytellers, a la "Truth or Consequences," in an attempt to ferret out the fake.

You'd think that schoolteachers of all people would cut through the smoke. They listen well, don't miss a detail. And they have highly developed critical minds. They even managed to trip up one of the storytellers on what seemed an implausible detail.

But in the face of two compelling teachers professing to have had a childhood singing trauma, the group couldn't decide. The vote was split, with only slightly more than half voting for the truth-teller and a good 40% believing the fraud.

Why is the truth sometimes so hard to sell?


Len Cabral's lesson was simple enough as to defy everyone's attention: The truth has nothing to do with a good story. That is, the truth is OK as long as it's engaging. But never let it get in the way of a good story.

"It's not only what you say," Cabral told the group. "It's how you say it."

Cabral should know. He got into the storytelling business inadvertently. He worked in a day-care center in Rhode Island in the early 1970s and found that he couldn't control the kids.

"They wouldn't listen," Cabral said. "You'd raise your voice and so would they. I learned instead to talk under them, drop my voice down an octave, and to use their names in stories so they would become involved. They did."

Suburban public schools in Ventura County are hardly day-care centers. But they are filled with children whose attention span has devolved thanks to a steady diet of television with its mind-blowing commercials, replete with soundtrack and trick photography, every three minutes or so.

That subliminal expectation, a programmed temporal rhythm within the listener, means death in the fifth minute to any storyteller who isn't on his or her game.

Cabral comes back to this point repeatedly. He tells the teachers that if their attention is on the content of the story at the expense of engagement with the student, then the story is lost on them anyway.

"If you forgot part of the story you're telling," he said, "remember: You're the only one who knows you forgot it.

"If, for example, you're telling a story with a dog named Rex, and Rex is important at the end but you forgot to introduce him in the beginning, well don't stop in the middle and say, 'Oops, wait a minute. There's this dog, Rex.' Instead, improvise. Work Rex into the forward momentum of your story. Change the story. Do what it takes to get Rex into the story, expanding the story. Keeping things in motion is keeping the kids' attention."


Keeping the attention of our children is what it's all about, certainly. At the center of every story is involvement of the listener: membership, if you will, in a shared culture.

That's the purpose of all these stories, Len Cabral insists, and surely one of the reasons these teachers, or their school systems, have paid the $35 fee to attend this session.

Indeed, Cabral likes to see stories as a way of combatting alienation, the self-induced narcosis of a fragmented society with no real sense of belonging. It starts early, in the schools. And it's familiar stories--some their own morality tales, some just grand entertainment--that tie us all together.

Cabral smiles in wonder when he says that it takes him 20 whole minutes to tell his ever-changing version of "Jack in the Beanstalk." And, he says, after 40 solid minutes of storytelling, he can get the most disaffected teen-agers to stand up and recite, from another classic story, "Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin."

The teachers took copious notes from this master of the form. They understood all the more acutely that to teach they must first connect. And they left with new tricks--tricks that will not only help them do their jobs but, with luck, help heal us all.

If a detail or two is out of place, what harm could it possibly do to kids who are tuned in? They'll get the story right soon enough.

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