The dark art of storytelling: what we can learn from con artists

Note: please keep in mind that we do not condone the behaviour of the people discussed in this article - we simply use them as interesting examples to learn from.

Con artists are people we love to hate. In a global legal system that’s more stringent than ever, it’s shocking that these people have the audacity to commit such calculated crimes. Worse yet, as shown by the newly infamous Tinder Swindler, they often get off scot-free. The immoral acts of modern con artists are more than just news-worthy; they’re viral phenomena. 

But setting aside the objectionable nature of their work for a moment, what if there’s something valuable to learn from these villains? After all, the deeds of people such as Simon Leviev (Tinder Swindler), Billy McFarland (Fyre Festival) and Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) are no small feat. Frankly, they're impressive. These con artists are able to plan, perfect and communicate captivating stories that make many smart, well-meaning people fall at their feet.

So, what can brands - which depend on crafting stories that make people listen and act - learn from the dark art of storytelling? This article explores the key lessons from three of the most widely documented con artists of recent years. 

Elizabeth Holmes: declare the unbelievable 

With health-tech company Theranos, Holmes claimed to create a technology capable of carrying out health diagnostics using only a single drop of blood. The game-changing nature of the work, and her focus on capturing high-profile investors from the very start, led Theranos to reach a peak valuation of $9 billion. However, it was soon uncovered that Theranos’ mission had failed. From the very start, the machine couldn’t run a single reliable test. 

The case of Theranos highlights the value of making an element of your story (almost) unbelievable. What part of your plan sounds a little ludicrous, or better yet, impossible? If you champion something that’s never been done before, you become synonymous with the new. Whether people’s immediate reaction is excitement or scepticism, you’ve got their attention. And when this element has some strong foundations to lean on - achievements or experiences that suggest you can deliver on bold claims - this can be a truly magical tool. 

This technique is showcased (more legitimately) by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Through X, their self proclaimed ‘Moonshot Factory’, Alphabet creates technology to solve some of the world’s most important challenges. This includes using light to transmit high-speed information as an invisible beam (like fibre, without the cables), and identifying which new plants to add to our food system so as to insulate against the environmental impact of climate change. These projects give Alphabet a halo effect, whereby a company that mostly provides well-established services such as search and navigation is perceived as one of the most innovative organisations in the world. 

Billy McFarland: be intentionally mysterious

McFarland burst onto the scene in 2017 with a promise to put on the world’s most exclusive, luxury festival to date, Fyre Festival. Around 8000 people bought tickets to his make-believe weekend in the Bahamas, each paying between $1000-12,000. But instead of gourmet meals and luxury villas, the guests received boxed plain cheese sandwiches and emergency tents.

To convince his audience to part with their hard-earned cash, McFarland deployed the technique of intentional mystery; deliberately withholding parts of the puzzle from his audience. People are naturally drawn to new, shiny things that they don’t fully understand. In this vein, glimpses can be more effective than the full picture. Give people just enough information to trigger curiosity - both in what you’re actually doing and the potential benefits - and you’ll be shocked by the attention and hype you can garner.

A successful example of this is demonstrated by Soho House, who adopted a secretive approach to brand-building from the very start. Smart teaser footage of the venues and unclear routes to membership created mass intrigue among the targeted creative community. People were left to fill in the gaps - and they did so with great imagination. While the initial hype has since diminished, the community maintains whispers of a hospitality wonderland that still attracts the creative elite in all corners of the world. 

Simon Leviev: speak to your audiences’ hopes and dreams

Leviev found notoriety after a Netflix documentary exposed how he ruthlessly conned women he had met on Tinder out of an estimated £7.4 million. His allure involved posing as the son of a billionaire diamond mogul. His targets were a mixture of new female friends and women who’d been unlucky in past relationships, hoping they would soon find the love of their life. Over several months, he sold them the dream they were longing for, with promises of marriage and a ‘happily ever after.’ 

While it may seem callous - it pays to understand your audiences’ hopes and dreams. Speak to the future state of where people would like to be, rather than focusing on where they are today. People’s vision for their own future plays a fundamental role in their thinking and decision-making. So communicating in these terms has the dual effect of making people feel understood, and portraying you (the brand) as an essential part of the solution for getting there. 

A classic, but worth-citing example of a brand that knows this well is Nike, whose ‘just do it’ spirit is embedded into everything they do and say. Rather than focusing on technical product specifications, they appeal to a mindset of ambition and progress. Their mission contains the belief that ‘everyone is an athlete’ and states their commitment to helping people ‘push the limits of what's possible’. So when you’re next contemplating giving yourself a kick - running a marathon or even just getting a new gym membership - what’s the brand you’ll first think of to help you on that journey? Nike.

Storytelling for good

In today’s world, where everyone’s shouting to be heard and people don’t know which way to turn, a compelling story is incredibly powerful. Holmes, McFarland and Leviev all knew this. But even in the darkest corners of persuasion, there are valuable lessons to be learned. So let’s declare the unbelievable, be intentionally mysterious and speak to our audiences’ hopes and dreams. Let’s use these techniques as an art; an art without the ‘dark.’