Thursday, September 24, 2015

Happily ever after? Why you shouldn't neaten up personal failure stories

"There's a problem if I talk about that."
I was working with a speaker whose speech needed to touch on a personal issue that factored into her work. It wasn't the focus of her talk, but she knew it would come up if she didn't mention it, due to her work and the audience in question.

The problem, speech-wise? "It's messy," she said, meaning she didn't have a nice, neat answer to the question. And underneath all that was a concern that she'd lose credibility with the audience.

My response? "Then be messy. Explain it just the way you explained it to me. I'll bet that many of the people in your audience also have a messy path, and that will ring especially true to them. And to everyone else, it will be clear that you're being honest about it." I also knew that her talk would be the richer for the variety.

In the world of speeches, we've long asked speakers to share--if they are willing--stories of personal failure, which are truly like catnip to audiences. But there's a catch: We want redemption at the end of the failure. We want the upside after the downside, the lesson learned, the happy release after the clenched fist of failure. It is formulaic, and works like a charm, which is why you see it everywhere, from TED talks to motivational speakers. More challenging, and more authentic, are those messy stories, the ones that don't all end happily ever after.

In her latest book, Rising Strong, social work researcher, TED speaker, and author Brené Brown calls us all out on it. The book is about how you recover from failure, and focuses on precisely the part of the process we tend to skip over in public speaking. She points out just how little time we devote to the messy parts of our stories:
We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. Our culture is rife with these tales. In a thirty-minute speech, there's normally thirty seconds dedicated to "And I fought my way back," or "And then I met someone new," or, as in the case of my TEDx talk, "It was a street fight."
We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending. I worry that this lack of honest accounts of overcoming adversity has created a Gilded Age of Failure....Don't get me wrong. I love and continue to champion the idea of understanding and accepting failure as part of any worthwhile endeavor. But embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important--toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.
Further into the book, Brown explains that it's not redemption that she wants to boot out of failure stories. She just wants us not to rush right to redemption, skipping over the messy second act of the story, the one where the hero first tries all the easy, convenient ways to get around the trouble and then realizes it's going to be harder than that. She wants the story to include how you handle adversity, even--maybe especially--if it's not terribly pretty. To illustrate this, Brown uses a personal story she was including in talks, minus the messy bits. Once she started thinking deeper and writing down those missing parts, she had a bigger, deeper, more important--and more accurate--story to tell. In the process, it became a useful metaphor on many levels and for many more storytelling purposes.

Instead of doing what Brown also calls "making failure fashionable," speakers, speaker coaches, and speechwriters all can aim for the messy, deeper part of the story. That will require plenty of trust between the speaker and the coach or speechwriter, and between the speaker and the audience. But I'd be excited to hear more talks in this vein--and I know from experience that it's better to work with these stories than to sandpaper them over to make them smooth.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Thomas Hawk)

I've got two small-group workshops coming up on Creating a TED-quality talk in Washington, DC, in January. Choose the January 14 workshop or the January 28 workshop. All you need to do is bring your one big idea for a talk in the style of TED. You'll learn how to plan, write, time, practice, and deliver it in a group limited to 5 people per workshop. Join us! You get the best discount if you register by October 30, 2015.