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We’re drowning in stories. Whether you’re scrolling through your social media feed, or watching the news, it seems like every lead-in starts with: “you won’t believe this…”

There’s power in a story. Stories hook and keep our attention better than concepts or ideas alone. And they have a way of motivating us to action. Writers and content producers know that.

Think about the last few stories you read online. Chances are they pointed you in a direction. They led you toward a conclusion, or inspired you to take action. ¬†And there’s nothing wrong with that… so long as the story is really accurate.

But what if the story isn’t completely true? What if the story is just correct enough to be powerful, but wrong enough to be misleading? Then we call the story a rumor. And, generally speaking, we all hate rumors.

But how do you know the difference? When does a story become a rumor?

I’ve reviewed some of the research, and I’ve developed this short list:

1. The storyteller leaves out important details.

We’ve all been burned by this one. It’s what happens when a friend tells you that someone’s been terribly mistreating them, and you decide to confront the bully. Only, after you tear into the villain for mistreating your friend, you find out that there’s an important “side” of the story you haven’t heard yet. Some important details were conveniently left out.

This happens all the time. Sometimes the omissions are intentional, and other times, they’re accidental. But either way, they turn a story into a rumor, and fast. Details have a way of balancing out history. And, the Bible tells us we have to have all the salient details before we act on a situation.

Proverbs 18:13 (NIV) To answer before listening– that is folly and shame.

2. The storyteller “juices up” details that sell the story.

It’s human nature to emphasize the really juicy parts of a story. That’s what gives you an audience, and keeps them on the edge of their seat. And, emphasizing the hooky parts of a story is a perfectly fine thing to do if you’re Mark Twain.

But when someone over-inflates and overemphasizes certain parts of a “true” story, it changes the story to a rumor. Here’s why: it tells the listener, “Here’s what you should pay attention to. Here’s the most important part of this story.” It’s almost as bad as leaving out details, because it communicates to the other person that the other details are not equally important.

Deciding which parts of a story are the really important ones–that’s your job. You should never let someone else do that for you.

3. The storyteller adds details that they don’t know for sure.

This one is insanely frustrating.

Years ago, I was meeting with a married couple who told me they thought their child’s teacher was very harsh with students. Specifically, they told me of a remark that the teacher made to their child that was very hurtful. I don’t usually get personally involved in this kind of situation, but the remark was so acidic that I wanted to help in some way. “Would you like me to write to this teacher to explain why this sort of remark could be very hurtful to a student?” I asked.

The parents mumbled and muttered, and I couldn’t quite make out their answer. I could tell they were backing away from what they had said. “Are you sure the teacher said those words to your child?” I asked. “Not those words exactly,” the father said. I followed up, “But words close to that?” He answered,”Well, we just know she’s probably been saying things like that to our kid for a while now.”

Ugh. I had almost snagged myself in the middle of a messy rumor. And the sad truth is I would have paid a price in embarrassment for trying to do the right thing. That’s the difference between a rumor and a story… the real story, when properly told, can motivate us to do the right thing. A rumor almost always motivates us to do the wrong thing.

These three factors give you a good metric for investigating the stories you hear. And, they give us three good questions to ask. “Am I getting the whole story?” “Are the details balanced?” and “Is this guesswork, or verifiable truth?”

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