It’s human nature, especially since most of us have such busy lives and therefore have neither the time nor the inclination to do otherwise…
…If you come across stories about events that happened in bygone or recent times from sources you trust and later hear similar accounts from others, you can easily be minded to assume what you’ve heard is true without further research and, before you know it, find yourself sharing your new-found ‘truths’ with others.
In fact, this is exactly how gossip can be turned into ‘absolute fact’ and laterally myth in no time. As George Orwell once noted, “Myths which are believed in tend to come true”.
Never dent your speaker credibility by sharing inaccurate stories
But if you’re a speaker who chooses to share other people’s stories to support your ideas and messages from the stage, don’t take short cuts. Invest time into making sure all stories you share are true for 2 reasons:
- Everyone has Google today and if you share stories – and I include urban or other myths – that turns out to be dodgy, you can be found out in seconds and you risk that your credibility will be shot, and
- By doing your research, you’ll often find that the real story is more interesting/compelling and meaningful than the myth (and you may even earn extra kudos from your audience for being the source of a more fascinating and trustworthy account).
Here’s a case in point from a recent vacation in the United States when I got to do a fabulous historical walking tour around Boston with historian and author Jayne Triber about what really happened at the beginning of the American Revolution and the true roles of a revolutionary hero named Paul Revere.
Like others with an interest in American history, I’ve encountered many an account of how the American revolution began on 18 April 1775 that spoke to how a silversmith named Paul Revere took a solo and heroic midnight horse ride to warn his fellow revolutionaries that ‘the British were coming’.
And his supposed daring-do’s that night were immortalised by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem The Landlord’s Tale. Paul Revere’s Ride, that begins:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.
So that’s a good story, right? A brave silversmith risked life and ‘solitary’ limbs to warn his revolutionary comrades and leaders that a plethora of British ‘Redcoat’ soldiers had fired the first shots in an impending war and was now on the march intent on arresting their leaders and stop their treasonous way in their tracks…And that he made a loud ruckus that everyone heard in the process!
But, as Jayne explained (and I later verified), it turns out a huge chunk of this story is nonsense and the real story is far more interesting and credible.
Here’s the better and true story
Before I get into real stories about Paul Revere, here’s something you should know about a huge proportion of myths – they typically include many truths, which in turn makes it easier to believe them.
And that’s true for Paul Revere – who was indeed a silversmith, an American revolutionary who put in life in harm’s way and a fellow who took a midnight run on his horse to warn revolutionary leaders that they were in danger and ought to get out of harm’s way asap.
But the real story of what happened was shared by Paul Revere in testimony to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress just 3 days after 18th April 1775 about what he was asked to do, what he did and what he saw and experienced…And his account of events was backed up by others later.
To set the scene at that time. Revolutionaries had to keep a really low profile as the British had spies everywhere and Paul Revere, even though he would have been considered a well-established businessman, a respected member of the Freemasons, and a pillar of the community (helped via his marriages first to Sarah Orne Revere and then to Rachel Walker) with 16 children, knew one false move could lead to his hanging!
That said, he formed an intelligence brigade of his own, that was 30 strong, to watch what the British and Tories were doing and (since fake news was a problem back then too) he used to carry news to and from revolutionary colleagues in New York – as first-hand knowledge of true capabilities, mentalities and more were so important pre any revolution.
But, in the leadup to the events of 18th April that year, British forces were on edge as they knew something was coming for many weeks…And so did Revere and his friends – Who had come up with messaging plans A, B, and C to get around the myriad British guard checkpoints set up all around Boston, who were stopping and quizzing everyone coming in and out of the city.
And when the British finally were coming and shots were first fired, Paul Revere wasn’t the first to warn of the former and nor did he see the latter (although he did claim to have heard the shots and saw a puff of white smoke). And he didn’t shout his head off or wave lights about wildly either as he set off to Lexington to warn John Hancock or John Adams that night that it was high time for them to skedaddle out of town. And meanwhile, William Dawes and another unknown rider were sent out to get past blockades with the news that the British were coming.
But he did have a harrowing encounter that night when he was stopped by many British soldiers and was interrogated by a Major Edward Mitchell. Here’s his version of the reported conversation:
Major: ”G—d d—n you, stop. If you go an inch further, you are a dead man. ‘Sir, may I crave your name?”
When he answered Revere, they knew exactly who he, Paul Revere, was and aggressively demanded to know ‘his aim’ and repeatedly threatened him that if he lied ‘they’d blow his brains out’
Despite facing gun barrels, he got ‘all method’ in response to this treatment and said with indignance: Sir you stopped me on the highway, I know not by what right. I am a man of truth and I am not afraid” (ie I’m a British citizen and don’t you go stopping me without a warrant or writ!)
But he was taken prisoner along with 4 others anyway and, under further questioning, he engaged in full on misinformation that scared the heck out of his inquisitors when he claiming he had heard the American revolutionaries had 500 men (which was double the number the British had to sort these rebels out). Don’t you love the head games?
They then took him to Lexington before turning him loose, whereupon he did manage, despite his horse being taken, to get to Adams and Hancock and warn them to make themselves scarce.
So, the interesting things from real stories about Revere are that his realities were far more interesting than any myths about him.
He was only ever known during his lifetime for his military services, character and support of others [and I’m leaving out the parts about how there was a 4 year attempt to have him court marshaled for messing up a military campaign some years later and how, despite this, he eventually became fabulously wealthy and the grand master of his local St Andrews Freemason’s lodge)…
…BUT, he was never known for any heroic horse rides – as, if he had made the mistake of making lots of noises on his messaging missions, he would have been toast!
And the moral of this story is, don’t make noise about stories you don’t know to be true…The real McCoy stories are almost always better.