Trust is an essential part of any relationship. Trust is the foundation on which we build our lives. Trust in ourselves, trust in others, even trust and institutions. Without it, we quickly find that the world we live in shifts beneath us and not usually in a pleasant fashion. Whatever your purpose for telling a story is, you’re going to build a relationship with your audience. Whether you’re writing a novel that sells a million copies or having coffee with some friends, stories are the quickest way to build that solid connection. But how do people trust, where does it come from, and if we want to tell a story that is only partly true, how can we approach this process of trust with integrity?
Trust is a habit. How many times have you consciously decided, “I definitely think I’m going to trust this person now,” and had it suddenly be so? While we can choose to trust people on a case-by-case basis, it is far more often that trust stems from a series of interactions. Even when dealing with the trust in ourselves, that long history will inform the way you feel. And how about trust and organization? How hard is it to trust a government that promises but does not deliver? An employer who changes the terms of a deal? Keeping these general examples in mind, the way a storyteller builds that trust with their audience is through repeated, habitual interaction. When we talk about this kind of interaction, we often throw a word around that sums it up nicely; friends. If you have a friend, it’s someone you interact with regularly, someone that both allows you to act consistently and displays trustworthy behavior to you.
There can be situations where trust doesn’t stem from interaction-take the battlefield as an example. Soldiers must trust others that they have never met, and likely never will, with their lives. The infantry soldier landing on the beach trusts the overhead aircraft crew to kill the enemy and not them, though they may not even speak on the radio. There are echoes of this in professional settings, outside of the life or death of combat. The critical ingredient is professionalism, a code of ethics by which everyone of a given trade agrees to abide. A judge must know the law, an accountant the tax code, and a teacher the subjects of their educational goals.
Indeed, even an author gains some credibility and trust given that they are published. Still, people base that trust on regular interaction with a given publisher’s label or a given author’s work. One word sums up the vast majority of trust that requires foundational interaction-friendship. A friendship between people is a pre-requisite for trust. But there is a friendship between an individual and an institution, even between institutions writ large. How many people can we call friends and trust?
We live in an age of interconnectedness. Social media has expanded our social circles’ reach, and we find ourselves constantly bombarded with imagery and artifacts from other cultures. If anything, our lives are less consistent when regarded through this lens. And yet, we still manage to find those connections and build trusting relationships. But what is trust, really, and how many people can we trust? Is there room for a storyteller in that trusted circle? Well, the answer is yes, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
On average, our social networks are about 611 people. That’s six hundred people that we have met, know in passing, business acquaintances, friends, close friends, lovers. If you try to imagine six hundred faces, it seems like a lot. But to put that in context, that’s not even a single good-sized apartment building. My tiny hometown graduating class was half that, but friends of mine graduated high school alongside twice that number. You know six hundred people is a drop in the bucket compared with the teeming vastness of humanity, and a good story reaches far more than a mere six hundred. Which begs the question; how can trust ever grow and develop on such vast scales?
Six hundred people. But how many of them are friends? Well, the number shrinks even farther to around 150 people that you can reasonably call friends. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar served as the head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. His work studying the connection between brain size and social circles led him to extrapolate his research towards people. Ultimately, applying his work to human relationships led him to coin the term Dunbar’s Number as the number of people with which a single person can reasonably expect to maintain friendships. So now, as a storyteller, how can you possibly hope to break into that much smaller slice of the six hundred people one person knows? Well, don’t worry, it gets more challenging. Remember, we aren’t talking about mere friendship but genuine, actual trust.
Dunbar’s research was undoubtedly groundbreaking when he published it in the 1990s. More recently, he and a team of researchers used data from 2007, and were able to find compelling evidence that within these 150 people, there are much smaller segments that a person holds closer. There is significant variability in the tiers of friendships between the upper limit of 150 and the true inner circle, but these numbers are reflected well in the data. So how many people can one person trust, truly trust that is, at a time? The answer is somewhere between four and five. Only a handful of close trusted confidants. So is it reasonable for a storyteller, in whatever medium, to hope to break into this inner sanctum? In a word, yes.
Stories are bubbles of reality. They may reflect reality if they are factual accounts of events, but more likely, there are blends of fact and fiction that create the story’s reality. A story that is presented as absolute fact when it is a blend of fact and fiction does nothing to build trust with an audience-in point of fact, they are more likely to label the storyteller as a liar outright. I ran into this as a kid when I attempted to tell the odd tall tale.
Explaining to friends and parents about the bear I had befriended was all well and good, but insisting it was an actual bear turned the interaction from endearing to the opportunity for a lecture on the evils of lying. So when we tell stories, we have to be genuine in our presentation, even if we aren’t telling the whole and unadulterated truth.
One other thing that plays to a storyteller’s strengths is that most people have a desire to believe fantastic things. It starts as children when we have little to no control. We make up fantastic worlds and completely turn the rules upside down. The kids rule the house. We are six-year-old superheroes who kill bad guys or all-powerful beings that are the unseen guiding hand behind every doll’s action. That need to create and believe in fantasy grows less the more control we have over our lives, but it never entirely goes away. Storytellers can tap into this and bring their audience into a place where they spin fantasy that people want to believe. The examples of this are endlessly apparent once you know to look for them. The epic video game where you play a character plucked out of ordinary life and told they are someone special, that they have a great destiny. The book tells the story of a true love that is so strong that it nearly rips through the pages. The movie takes the audience on a journey to a place where the good always triumphs over the evil. These are fantastic things that don’t exist in reality, but they are all things that we humans desperately want to believe. Why? They are things we can’t control, no matter our age or status, or abilities. Like the child creating a whole world that they control, we have a burning desire to experience a fantasy world.
The last and most critical ingredient of generating trust with an audience is deceptively simple. Truth. But wait, didn’t we just get finished talking about the allure of a fantasy world that isn’t true at all? Yes, but the truth in a story doesn’t necessarily equate to fact. We can use our fantasy world to show a truth about the human condition. We can immerse someone in the true feeling of war using a character that never was. We can make up entire worlds, universes that never were. As long as we have that kernel of truth, that seed that speaks out and says, “Believe you me, because I am true,” the audience will throw themselves into our story.
To build trust with an audience, be consistent to build that relationship, present your fantasies genuinely and with heart, and tell at least one good truth.