Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"How can I tell a personal story when I don't like to talk about myself?"

The personal story has taken hold in public speaking, particularly as more workplace presentations and conference keynotes aim to be "TED-like talks." Audiences love personal stories, in part because they are guaranteed unique content, far more interesting than any well-scrubbed bullet point. A good personal story can help your audience relate to you and your issue, and deepen its connection with you. But what if telling personal stories makes you uncomfortable as a speaker?

Several times this year, I've worked with women speakers--in group workshops or in private coaching sessions--who confessed that their biggest stumbling block in preparing a message or talk was the personal part. Some are introverted. Some are shy, worried about negative reactions. Some were taught as children that talking about yourself is impolite; others were taught the same when they joined professions like science or engineering, where your data are the only stars to be featured. Others were willing to try, but told the story in such an abstract, clinical way that neither they nor the audience could get close to it.

Being able to tell a personal story is an important part of finding your voice as a speaker. As I wrote in that post:
Pay attention to the stories you find it too difficult to tell right now. At one of the greatest times of personal challenge in my life, I stopped keeping a journal—the situation was too awful to contemplate. Those big life-changers may be too much for you to tackle today. But later, I promise, if you can bring yourself to share them in a speech, you’ll have the most compelling content and a riveting voice.
Here are some common concerns about telling personal stories, along with suggestions that have worked for my clients and trainees. If you're....
  • Not sure where to start talking about yourself, answer a few questions: When did you know you were going to do what you're doing now? What did you want to be when you were a kid? Who's had the biggest influence on your life or work? What are you grateful for? What makes you tick? What gets you excited? What makes you sad? The answers will give you clues to work with.
  • Concerned about sharing things that are just too personal, don't forget that you're in control of the content. You can choose to share some details--perhaps those that are already known by others, if not by your audience--and make a point of putting others off-limits. It may help you to make a list of what you will and will not share to reinforce the level of control you have. I do much the same thing on Twitter, where sharing personal perspective is valued: I choose 3 or 4 personal things which I'm comfortable sharing, and keep the rest to myself.
  • Worried the story will make you cry--a common concern for deeply personal stories, or stories about the death of a loved one--know that part of your concern is how to recover. Once you really start crying, it's impossible to stop. But before that happens, you can pause, take a deep breath, even look at the audience and say, "This is really tough for me to share, but..." to stop the process midway. It's fine to share the emotion.
  • Acting on previous instructions from your parents, schoolteachers, lab directors or former employers, keep in mind that rules about not talking about yourself are often just a way to keep you silent, "well-behaved," or just compliant. That blanket advice doesn't necessarily pertain to all situations, and I'm fairly sure the instructions didn't take into account effective public speaking tactics. Give yourself permission to tell a story or two to make this presentation more effective.
  • Thinking you should speak about your topic and not yourself, keep in mind that a well-placed personal story helps the audience connect with your topic. Leaving out the personal story might make it more difficult for us to grasp what you're talking about and how it relates to our lives. After all, sharing stories is an ancient way we humans make sense of life. Help us with yours.
  • Having trouble talking about a personal tale in concrete, emotional and non-abstract ways, take a look at your words after you write them down or transcribe a recording of yourself. Then ask a friend to read them aloud as if it were her story. How does it sound? If you're having trouble finding new words, work with your friend to come up with alternatives that reflect what you're trying to say, but do so with more emotion and connection.
  • Really having trouble confronting a particular part of your personal story, put it aside for now. But if you can get around to speaking about it--perhaps in a forum that will help others make sense of the same situation--you'll have that compelling and riveting content we're all in search of.
Finally, don't include a personal story just for the sake of including it. But if you can, give it a try--you may find it is just the thing to enliven your speech and your audience. 

If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you.