Her obituary last year in the New York Times opened with the story she told over and over again in hundreds of speeches to people hoping to lose weight. She'd talk about being over 200 pounds but feeling as if she were "having a thin day." Then one day, that idea was blown to smithereens. From the Times:
She never ate dessert in public. But at night, by the dim light of the refrigerator, she gorged on goodies. Then one day in 1961, Jean Nidetch, a 214-pound Queens housewife with a 44-inch waist and an addiction to cookies by the box, ran into a neighbor at the supermarket.
“Oh, Jean, you look so good!” the neighbor said. “When are you due?”That story not only tells about a moment of epiphany for Jean Nidetch, overweight woman. It's the moment in which Weight Watchers was born. Nidetch put her newfound knowledge of weight loss to work, incorporating Weight Watchers just two years later, in 1963. The Times points out that just a few years ago, a visitor found she weighed exactly what she weighed back in the 1960s after she lost 72 pounds, testament to Weight Watchers's emphasis on keeping weight off.
Like any good founder, Nidetch told that founding-moment story to audiences again and again. What can you learn from this famous and oft-told speech?
- Tell a story on yourself when it's useful to do so: Self-deprecating stories can be double-edged swords for women, who already lack credibility on the speaking stage. But every story in a speech must have a job to do, and this self-deprecation served many purposes for Nidetch, making her audiences of would-be Weight Watchers feel they were just like her, and letting them talk about difficult and hidden issues with overeating in public, just as she was doing.
- Be authentic and relatable: In the speech snippet in the video below, Nidetch talks about filling her basket at the grocery store, using a possible storm as the excuse. It's a small but telling detail that must have hit home with her audiences. She never talks about deluding herself directly. She just tells you how she reframed things in her mind in a way to which anyone can relate.
- Don't forget funny: Losing weight isn't easy and keeping it off can be even more difficult. Nidetch understood that the path for motivation would be eased with some humor, and put her voice, gestures, and story toward that goal.
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