Nov 22, 2007

Ethics, politics, and storytelling

Christmas is coming; my kids need new clothes; I'm flat broke but my friends and family expect me to display a certain lifestyle. I think I'll go rob a bank. The judge will understand.

Sounds preposterous, doesn't it? Yet, that's what it sounds like when a former politician says: "I accepted money because I was broke and I had a lifestyle to preserve." The act is then brushed off as a "colossal mistake." Never mind that he, Brian Mulroney, denied for years that he ever took the money. (For more background information on this, please see this Globe and mail article.) Although it is yet to be proven that Mr. Mulroney acted illegally, it does toe the lign of proper ethical conduct very closely.

Ethical conduct is closely tied to one's values. Being ethical means that you are being honest and you act with integrity. As I once heard, integrity is acting the same way whether people see you or not. So in the case of Mr. Mulroney, a simple way to know if it was ethical or not is to ask: "Would you have done it in front of a camera with people watching?"

Ethical conduct is something we constantly face in the world of professional speaking. In one of my study groups, a few weeks ago there was a heated debate about storytelling. Storytelling is a central part of public speaking. You can get your points across much faster and more easily when you tell stories to illustrate them.

Some stories have become so popular that most professional speakers cringe at the thought of hearing it one more time. Examples include The Starfish Story and The US Aircraft Story. The act of using those stories in and of itself is not unethical; it just shows that as a speaker, you lack originality.

However, many speakers will tell stories that they heard somewhere else and act as if it is their own stories. And sometimes, they even believe it is their own stories. Telling someone else's story and taking credit for it is considered highly unethical in the speaking business. Once people realize you've been lying, your credibility takes a big hit and your reputation is severely tarnished. It can take a long time to recover from something like that.

If you decide to use public speaking as part of, or as all of your professional endeavours, you can prevent such a situation from happening to you.
  • Make a decision to use very little of someone else's material. If all of your stories are original, it will be very unlikely that someone else tells the same story. It can happen, though. I know one speaker who told a story that was eerily similar to another speaker's story, which I had read in a book. When I confronted him with it, he maintained that the story was his, even after I cited the author, the book, and the page where I originally read the story. Is it possible that he had a similar experience, but in a different context and location. It should be noted, though, that I've never heard him tell the story again.
  • If you need to use someone else's material, get permission or at least give proper attribution. I've been bitten by this one, myself. I reported someone else's story, from my perspective. I gave proper attribution, saying it was not my story but my impressions about something that happened to someone else. I told the story's protagonist about it after the fact, and he was not too pleased about it. I made some factual mistakes and I did not get his permission beforehand, which was damaging to him. I made corrections afterwards and he was okay with it, but that's still a black mark on me.
  • Don't toe the line. If it feels awkward to do something or say something to an audience, don't. Now, that doesn't mean you cannot push the envelope. It means that you have to push it ethically, so if you are challenged on what you say or do, you have solid facts to explain your decisions and your actions.
Too often, ethics become situational. We will act ethically when others are present or looking, but act unethically when nobody is around to supervise.

In Mr. Mulroney's case, there will be an inquiry to determine whether he acted illegally or not. If he is at fault, he will probably be asked to repay the money in some form, or the matter may be taken to court. If not, he will be cleared but his reputation will still have been tarnished.

For the rest of us, life goes one. Yet every day, situations will come up which beg an answer to the following question: would I do this if there was a camera filming me?

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