How to use personal stories in professional presentations

I wrote this article on a writing retreat I took a couple of weeks ago. It was my first writing retreat and I used some new technology. I wrote the first draft of this blog post in a hotel room, talking to my computer ! I felt like a fool, at least as foolish as you could feel talking to yourself in a beautiful, empty space. But it was one of those things I’ve heard could make my writing more natural and efficient. Plus, it was guaranteed to help with laptop writer’s neck pain!

Now, is this exact situation something that everyone who’s reading this has been through? Probably not. But all of you know the combination of feeling a little silly and embarrassed but also excited about trying something new. You also know the hope that comes with trying something new and hoping it will make a difference in your life. Maybe you felt it the first time you went to the gym or joined a running group. Your shoes were too shiny and everyone else seemed to dress better or right and looked like they belonged there.

Those are emotions we can all relate to and that makes the writing experiment, the running story stories I can use in a professional setting. It isn’t because everyone goes on a writing retreat or starts running, but because we’ve all had similar emotional experiences and stories that can tap into that.

When I talk to people about using their personal life as a source for stories, they often get nervous. This is particularly true if we’re talking about professional or academic presentations. They are usually most worried about seeming unprofessional.

The idea that we must have a strict division between our personal and professional lives is one that I want to question, though. We all have experiences that other people can relate to because the people that we ‘re relating to are also human. They are more like us than we might realize.

What looks like a personal story at first glance speaks to universal emotion that most of us have felt or fear experiencing. And that’s where the magic of story comes in because these shared feelings play a vital role in bringing us together. The togetherness, the way a storyteller can connect with their audience, primes the audience to pay more attention to the rest of the presentation.

The key to taking a personal story and using it to touch on a shared emotion is to talk about first the feelings and then the lessons you learned. That gives your story a context for your audience. They understand why you are telling the story because you tell them why.

Remember, the event you’re talking about maybe unique but the emotion that you felt is universal.
When you are choosing the story you want to use, you start by considering which emotions are attached to the material of your presentation. Then, you can reflect on your personal experiences and look for the situation that calls up that emotion.

When could you use this approach? I’ve done it plenty with orientations. You can also do it if you are introducing a new method or tool in your office. But it can also be important to share your emotion around a particular project or result because maybe you found it exciting or you were nervous about trying. These can also work.

So, the next time you have to give a talk or write an article, try incorporating a personal story. Don’t be afraid to add the right personal story to your professional presentation. Be confident when you talk about something personal you are reaching out to your audience because they have probably experienced it or something like it to. After all, you’ve got plenty of material, so why not start using it?


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