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Helping Others To Share Their Stories

Recently, I wrote about allowing others to share their stories. After all, storytelling tends to be an “I’m in the spotlight” activity, and it is not always easy to remain quiet enough to permit others to “stand center stage.”

I encountered a related problem this past week, but from a different perspective. A co-worker has a wealth of wonderful stories to tell. Two of them have definite business applications and involve his personal contact with two legends of the corporate world. The points he is able to illustrate with his stories are very easy to understand and decidedly memorable.

There’s just one problem. He does not want to do presentations in public.

If you have experienced wonderful information that you know will help others, but cannot get the holder of that knowledge past the public speaking barrier, you know that feeling of frustration. I’m told, “Oh, you can use my stories however you want”…but, it doesn’t have the same power coming second-hand.

I can give you a completely accurate account of what it was like to make a daring rescue. Or you can listen to exactly the same account coming from the person who actually made the rescue. The only difference is that my story is told in the third person, and the hero is speaking in the first person.

Which will carry more weight for you?

Although people readily acknowledge that public speaking can be a nerve-wracking experience, it is often difficult for those who are comfortable with the experience to fully sympathize with those who approach it with stark terror. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

However, my feeling that it is “no big deal” will do nothing to ease the very real pain experienced by someone else. Tiresome “Man Up” suggestions, envisioning the audience in various states of undress, or pretending to hold a casual conversation about a well-learned topic offer no support.

Forcing the issue can have disastrous consequences. Good storytelling has its own rhythm, flow and energy. A person who fears the public speaking process will not be able to provide a good story. Consequently, the value of the “first person” message is lost on the audience.

I do have a suggestion that has worked for five different reluctant presenters. Bring the story out in a guided discussion or interview. (You may want to use the word “interview” sparingly, as it also suggests a performance judgment.)

In each instance, I had established a good rapport with the storytellers and they trusted that I wasn’t going to “let go of them” during the presentation. I arranged for a stage with two chairs facing one another. The storyteller was to concentrate on me. The audience would only need to be referenced if a level of comfort was achieved.

We began with a brief series of completely rehearsed questions. All of them established either who the storyteller was or why the storyteller was with us today.

The next few questions came directly from the events of the story to be told. Instead of segueing into, “Well, I hear you have an interesting story to tell us,” I asked questions that led to the exact way that the storyteller was accustomed to relating the story.

For instance, Steve began one story with, “I’ll never forget the scariest day of my life. It happened in Omaha, right in the middle of a cloudburst so sudden and so strong that it took my breath away.”

My lead-in began with, “Steve, I understand you had a remarkable experience in Omaha a few years ago.”

“Yes,” Steve replied. “That I did.”

“So tell me, what was so unusual about that day?”

Steve straightened up. “Well, it happened right in the middle of a cloudburst that came up so sudden and was so strong that it took my breath away.”

…And with that, Steve was off to the races. If he paused too long or looked worried, I would cue him with the lead-in to the next event of the story. That wasn’t needed for long, though. Steve was soon in familiar territory and, when he finished, even felt comfortable enough to answer questions from the audience.

If you use the interviewer approach, it is of vital importance to become almost invisible. That is, it is not your job to provide entertainment for the audience…no jokes, and definitely no “points” at the storyteller’s expense. Your job is to be there for support…to appear to be nothing more than a listener. On occasion, you can provide a cue as you would to an actor who has “gone up” on a line. Otherwise, it is the storyteller’s spotlight.

As I mentioned earlier, I have used this technique successfully with five different storytellers who shied away from public speaking. The result was that the audience received great information from the experts, and the storytellers realized that they had the power to move an audience.

It’s more work, but the reward justifies the effort.

Thank you for reading.