If you’ve been to one of my workshops or met me in person at all, chances are I’ve lobbed a personal anecdote in your direction. It’s not that my life is so fascinating, but it’s the material I have to work with, so why not make the best of it?
What am I likely to share?
It’ll be a little tidbit about my kids or my husband or my parents. The goal isn’t to draw you into my personal life. Trust me, it isn’t all that interesting. But rather that my observations about my environment are relatable because they’re commonplace.
Let me give you an example. This is one I use in my workshops.
My daughter is seven years old. Have you spent time with a seven-year-old girl lately? Did you have an interesting conversation? Seven-year-old girls have a tendency to rattle on and on and on. They can share every detail of a lunch or a game or an incident at school in such a way that every moment has equal weight. It’s the story equivalent of driving past a 5-mile (that’s 8.05 kilometer) picket fence; just a wee bit monotonous.
This is fantastic material if you’re teaching storytelling. People can relate to it because almost everyone has spent time with a seven-year-old. We have all seen the glazed-over look on parents’ eyes as they struggle to stay interested after two or three years of these kinds of conversations.
My story seems personal because I mention my daughter, but it’s really a universal observation.
This pivot from the personal to the universal is an effective tool for storytelling. It’s the reason anecdotes work at all. Yet in my story work, I encounter lots of people who are hesitant to mix the personal and the professional.
Some of this is cultural. You may be familiar with the peach versus coconut theory of culture. It’s a way to describe the cultural difference between people who share their personal lives without feeling like it’s personal (peach) and those who don’t share because it’s always personal (coconut).
Another part of this hesitation is professional. A lot of academics fear they won’t be taken seriously if they refer to their personal lives in a presentation. Many of them have trained rigorously to separate the personal and the professional.
And yet, all of these folks share a fascination with TEDTalks and other forms of storytelling. TEDTalks tend to start with a personal anecdote. One of my favorites, Dan Barber, starts with a story of how he learned that his favorite fish was made mostly of chicken. The speaker connects with the audience by sharing a personal experience. Traditional storytelling, even if the story topic ostensibly has nothing to do with the storyteller’s life, is infused with real emotions that the storyteller brings to the story.
If you resist putting yourself into the story, your story may end up missing a vital ingredient: authentic human emotion. Your emotion. Your wonder or anger or sadness.
You don’t have to turn storytelling into therapy but bringing yourself to the story by sharing even the smallest truth about your life or the way you see the world, will send out a call to your audience.
“I’m here,” you’ll say to them, “won’t you join me?”