Arts & Culture

How to Lie Like a Southerner

Tips for telling a harmless tall tale

photo: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy

In “Big Fish,” Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor, right) is the teller of tall tales. Among Bloom's characters is Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi), a poet and would-be bank robber.

Falsehood. Story. Lie. Whatever you call it, fudging a little here and there is what makes Southern storytelling so colorful. So maybe Edward Bloom didn’t really see a mermaid in Big Fish, Daniel Wallace’s creative novel that became a beloved film in 2003. That doesn’t make the story any less moving. In fact, telling exaggerated stories isn’t just fun—it’s part of Southern heritage.

The mermaid scene from Big Fish.


Adam Booth, a four-time West Virginia Liar’s Contest champion who teaches Appalachian Studies classes at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, tells his students that lying is regionally relevant.

“Appalachian industries like railroading, coal mining, and timbering contributed to the health and vitality of lying,” he says. “While people were working they’d brag about how much rail they laid, how much wood they chopped, or how they ‘shot a gun and the one bullet didn’t just kill a deer but it killed a whole flock of birds and a bear.’” Sure it did.

The Bold-Faced Liars’ Showdown in Laurinburg, North Carolina, brings together ambitious liars willing to put their storytelling chops to the test. It’s just one of the handful of bona fide lying festivals across the South—see also the Texas State Liars Contest in November and the Mountain Mack Liar’s Contest each spring in Virginia. Booth has been a guest judge and performer at multiple lying festivals, so we asked him to share his best tips for telling a harmless tall tale.

photo: Margo Booth

Adam Booth performs at Bear on the Square Mountain Festival in Dahlonega, Georgia.

1. Base the lie on some truth
Root the retelling in an event that actually happened. “Usually in lying contests, one of the categories you’re judged on is the believability of the story,” Booth says. He keeps a notebook of nearly unbelievable things that happen to him. Build a house of exaggeration on a solid foundation of truth.

2. Tell a story in pictures, not words
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that moment of dread watching someone who memorized a story and can’t remember what they were saying because they were reciting and lost their place,” Booth says. Describe a big-picture scene before telling details within it. Your audience is more likely to believe something they can play out in their minds, and you’re less likely to forget what you were saying.

3. Don’t save the whopper for the end
A lot of liars will build up to a big, unbelievable finish. Booth has a different tactic—“I start lying as soon as possible with details that seem believable,” he says. Within the first minute of a story, he’s already dropping half-truths. “My details keep escalating, so it’s not such a big hit at the end. But when people snap out of it, they’re left wondering, ‘how did we get to this point?’”

4. Keep your body language in check
Plenty of self-help articles describe how to detect a liar—a left eye twitch or a face scratch. But over years of competitive lying, Booth has noticed something simpler—people shift their weight when they lie. “When they are really starting to stretch the truth, they lean forward and go on the tip of their toes or bend their waist out,” he says. “If you’re not used to looking for it, it’s too subtle.”

5. Mind your audience
Even if it’s just one person, pay attention to what hooks them. If something makes your audience laugh, bring back those details to pull the listener full circle. Practice helps. “Sit at the counter of your local donut shop and talk to the regulars, or gather people in your living room,” Booth says. “It’s great to get all those experiences because you learn how to react to the listeners.”

And remember that old adage: Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.