In the fall of 2014, I gave an orientation for new international staff at the Dutch university I worked at.
In designing the program, I called on 5 years of experience teaching Intercultural Awareness and more than 15 years of experience living abroad. By then, I had lived in 6 countries on 3 continents. I had been every kind of international student from Kindergarten through an abandoned PhD and taught as an international staff member. I had learned 4 languages (some better, some worse) because they were the local languages.
I was an expert.
They didn’t care. Or rather, my list of international life credentials didn’t make much of an impression on them. I was just another person in a darkened room with a PowerPoint presentation and advice. Boring.
By the time we got to the question and answer period, I felt that distance between myself and my audience that creeps into your belly. It’s a certainty that you’re missing them, missing the point, and you can’t quite figure out what went wrong or how to fix it.
Then someone asked a question that I answered with a deeply personal story. I told the group about the first time I moved to the Netherlands, in 2004. My boyfriend and I had moved from North Carolina to Haarlem where we lived in a one-bedroom attic apartment. Every time I saw his grandmother, she told me how sorry she felt for me because we didn’t have a balcony. My main issue was the ice that built up inside the windows of the bathroom in the winter.
We stayed in Haarlem for six years, eventually moving from our lightly iced apartment to our first home, getting married, and starting a family. I learned to speak Dutch with surprising ease, arriving with nothing and interviewing for a job in Dutch six months later. They hired me. My husband was Dutch, his friends were Dutch, and I had plenty of experience living abroad when I arrived.
Yet, by the end of my six years, I was as lonely as I had ever felt in my life. The best way to describe it was feeling like I had lost my smile. The depression was deep and thorough. It was overwhelming and frightening.
Even as the story rolled out of me, I felt myself crossing that imaginary line between the professional and the personal. It was unfamiliar territory and I worried about damaging my credibility. After all, who would want to learn from someone who had failed so utterly?
And yet, as they listened to this story, my audience was transfixed. I watched them literally lean forward into the story.
It didn’t matter what my qualifications were. My story, the story of my pain, of my survival, and of the lessons I had learned the hard way were what they needed to feel a connection, to trust me.
They needed my story to understand why my three-point-plan for surviving life in the Netherlands the second time I moved here mattered so much to me. By the time I shared that, they were paying full attention.
When you tell a story, you connect with your audience in a visceral way. You might be standing in front of 20, 300, or 1,000 people. When you tell your personal story, you have the potential to connect with each and every one of them individually.
Well, the thing is that stories are a series of events and observations put together in such a way that they describe a journey, a transformation. They call upon universal themes and shared emotions. You may have never moved to the Netherlands before, but you know what uncertainty feels like. You know what being the new kid feels like. It’s rarely easy.
This isn’t a theory. In fact, neuroscientist Uri Hasson describes in his TED talk how he demonstrated that when we listen to stories, our brain waves align. In his experiment, he had people watch a TV show while in a scanner. Then recall (talk about) the show. The brain waves watching matched the brain waves when they talked about the show.
That means that when you tell a story about your experience, your brain waves in the deep centers of understanding create the same brain waves they created when you experienced the event.
The next step of the experiment was telling the story to a second person, someone who had never seen the TV show. Their brain waves matched those of the person who saw the show – while they were watching the show.
What does all this mean?
It means that when I told my story about my first move to the Netherlands, I was feeling all the feels again and my audience was feeling it, too.
And while we may not relate to the experiences other people have, we certainly relate to the emotions. Who hasn’t felt loss or joy or fear? And who doesn’t feel compassion or sympathy or excitement for someone who’s experiencing strong emotions themselves?
That’s what storytelling does. It creates a profound relationship between you and your audience.
There is no substitute.
So tell me, why aren’t you telling your stories?