Storytelling About Myself

storybooks

Full Disclosure: Recycled Story Ahead

story parts, pages from books
Unsplash / Pixabay

This post contains the basics of a speech I gave at a business dinner in August, 2016. My task: demonstrate storytelling as a form of communication. The audience: about 20 professionals, many of whom I’d known for up to 20 years, in a corporate leadership skills session.

Why Me?

Because I had taken the class a year earlier and therefore could be expected to demonstrate what I’d learned. Also, it is possible I returned a phone call others had not returned…

Why Storytelling?

The point of this part of the leadership course was that wrapping your message in a story — as opposed to using some other form of discourse — makes your ideas more memorable and relatable, and therefore more effective. More likely to stick with your audience. More likely to be implemented, or considered further.

Most Frightening Part?

I was given the benefit of coaching from some professional storytellers. I’ve given many presentations and speeches to various groups over the years. But apart from the pain of having to watch myself present on videotape, in my first job out of college, I haven’t had any professional coaching.  I’ve had lots of feedback, constructive and not-so-constructive, over the years. But let’s face it: it is easy to pick and choose what to do about feedback from your peers. Even if you choose wrongly, at least you feel you are qualified to choose.

But when you are working with someone billed as a “professional,” it’s a little more nerve-wracking. It’s more like taking a test than getting help. I thought I was back watching myself on video again.

When I called my storyteller coach to discuss how it was going, I completely froze up on the phone. I couldn’t talk about the speech at all. I could barely hold a human conversation. I was second-guessing every word that came out of my mouth, from “how are you?” to “I have an outline of a few bullet points.”

That was about four hours before the speech was to take place.

“I promise this won’t happen up in front of everyone,” I said.

I’m not sure I believed that statement myself. Sometimes you say something you hope will be true.

“I’m sure it won’t,” my coach said, soothingly yet without convincing me he believed it. The way you talk nice to a dog you don’t know, while you’re trying to size it up. “You’ll be fine.”

Why So Frightening?

Bad enough I was getting “professional” help. Worse? I was asked to speak about myself.

Ask me to speak about my corporate expertise, give me the barest topic sentence or a few photos on some powerpoint slides, and I have no problem.

Ask me to speak about something even remotely related: troubleshooting technical problems; women in corporate settings; engineering in a field considered more art than science. Almost anything would be better than speaking about me.

But that wasn’t the task.  I was to speak for 10-15 minutes, using the form of a story to introduce myself. Which is about the most difficult, terrifying task I could imagine.

And if it was paralyzingly frightful, why didn’t I just decline, right up front?

Ha ha ha ha ha.

Because asked to speak might not be quite the right word. You know how, when you were a kid, a parent or teacher would ask you to do something? But even though there was an upward inflexion at the end of their sentence, you knew it wasn’t really a question? Whatever you were being asked to do, it wasn’t really optional? Sure, you could get out of it. But you’d better have a really good reason. And your reason would likely be remembered for a long time. Cough up a lung, you can probably skip whatever you were asked to do.

This was one of those times. And I wasn’t coughing up a lung.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

That second round of  laughing was the sound of my inner self realizing she’d just fallen down the well and Lassie was no-way-no-how coming to rescue her.

Outlining My Speech

My final outline wasn’t the first or second, and certainly wasn’t the most comprehensive. But I only had 10-15 minutes to fill. Mentally, I indexed that down to 5-10 minutes, on the thought that if someone believed it was too short, they could complain afterward. At which point, it would be too late to take me to task.

I spent two days trying to craft a story that would be recognized as story in a literature sense.  You know how that goes. The basic elements:

  • Beginning, middle, end.
  • Protagonist: me!
  • Antagonist: also me?
  • Conflict: having to give this speech? Wanting not to make a fool of myself?

I ended up with an outline which is probably sufficient to allow me to someday write a 300 page memoir. Clearly, that wasn’t going to work.

Anybody’s life is too complicated to sum up in an assignment this short.

Finally, in desperation, I did what was easiest.

I cut away at my outline, ruthlessly, until I got down to what I thought would both contain surprises for those who knew me and would also stay inside my time limit. Preferably fitting in bullet points on a quarter-sheet of paper that I could hold in my hand as a security blanket in case I lost my way while speaking.

Cutting is critical to storytelling in general, right? You can’t tell everything. You need to stick to what is needed for the story. I kept telling myself that.

Of course, it probably helps if everyone who hears your story is standing at the bar with drinks in hand. Which, thank goodness, they were.

The Speech Itself

start, beginning of road
geralt / Pixabay

Introduction

First, I introduced myself–name, job title, years in the business, work location. I have an engineering degree and a MFA in Poetry.

Thanked the colleague who gave me this opportunity (who was sitting in the audience) — with some amount of self-deprecation and sarcasm in my voice, as I said “Thanks a bunch, Cecelia*.”

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Or not so innocent.

Beginning

My teenaged self, if she could meet me now, would be most surprised
by how confident and outgoing I seem. As a teen, I was painfully shy, introverted.

If that door over there pointing were the entry to a time machine, and it opened up and my teenage self were to see this scene gesturing to crowd that would be about the last we would see of her. She would go right back into the time machine, close the doors, and spin the dial looking for a different time and place to come out. Preferably one without any people.

I was so painfully shy, that in junior high, my mother had to threaten to ground me if I didn’t join some after school activity. She thought I would end up alone my whole life.

“Don’t take the early bus home from school,” she said. “Or else.”

I felt that Emily Dickinson, with her famously reclusive nature, wasn’t exactly wrong in her approach. And anyway, one might ask, from what did Mom think she was going to ground me. From reading? Writing poetry?

She tried it. Took my notebooks away. Insisted I not bring books on family trips. But Dad undermined her, slipping me a notebook or pen. Once, when my parents were going out on a fishing boat and I was staying behind (hidden in the RV) Dad left me a pen and a stack of paper plates.

But I didn’t come home on the early bus. Saved by Math Club!

Early-Middle

In Engineering school, I was selected to be part of a leadership program. The woman who led that program spent a lot of time working on my ability to shake hands and make small talk.

“You don’t have to be comfortable to make small talk,” Pat* said. “Comfort is not required. Remember to smile.”

(She’d actually be really proud of me right now. I mean, after she confirmed it was really me standing up here.)

After college, I did consumer research. Which, you might be surprised to learn, required relatively little consumer interaction. I watched people from behind one-way mirrors and reviewed film from cameras placed in their kitchens so we could see how they used cleaning products.

And if I did have to speak to a consumer face to face? Well, there was a script. One I was required to stick to, in order to keep the research as clean as possible. Pretty much the perfect job for a closet introvert, or faking-it extrovert.

I got married. I moved from Ohio to San Francisco and started work managing a small team in a factory. That setting forced group interaction, but still, it was a small group.

More important to me than my job was the writing community in the Bay Area. I was able to branch out, giving readings and attending small conferences.

Intermission: I Was Coached to Include A Joke

Or something at least a little humorous. So here it is:

Do you know how to tell the extrovert at a poetry conference?

The extrovert is the one looking at the other person’s shoes.

Late-Middle

Giving poetry readings turned out to be good practice for speaking to a small team of eight or ten mechanics and electricians, and vice versa.

By the time I transferred to a job in New Orleans, I was giving tours of my work location about once a week to perfect strangers. And I had come to really appreciate the value of going forward as-if I was comfortable with the task.

I met suppliers from all over the world, and also began to appreciate the process of going from stranger to strangely-bonded-colleague. Eating goat on a stick in Rwanda, or driving ten hours in Vietnam to see ten minutes worth of the supply chain will do that.

finish, and starting again
geralt / Pixabay

Not The End, But Now?

Time passes faster as you get older. I’m convinced of that.  We’ve moved around the country, six times. We have children. Every time we’ve moved, it takes some time to get comfortable again. But, it seems to me that, like exercise or a diet, if I just push through the uncomfortable parts, it will all turn out fine.

I find I will do things for my kids I would never do for myself. Deal with teachers, interact with parents and coaches at schools.

I recently spent a week sewing hems on marching band uniforms with a group of women who started out as strangers to me.

Each experience makes the next easier. Though I never would have believed that as a teen.

I’m still an introvert. And for me, ecommerce is a great invention. Now I can order pizza without speaking to a stranger on the phone.

With respect to my awkwardness, shyness, I hope I’ll continue to expand my horizons. Because: what am I waiting for? A feeling of readiness?

I can react to feelings later, but I can’t get back moments that are
coming toward me right now. Today won’t wait for me to feel comfortable.

If I wait until I feel comfortable, I won’t do anything at all.

And that pretty much applies to all of life, whether talking about writing, working a day job, or raising a family.

 

No Pink Armadillo published in Foundry Journal

Armadillo sketch

So excited about a new publication!

You can find my most recent publication, the poem “No Pink Armadillo” at the just-published issue of Foundry. Thank you so much to the Foundry Journal for the publication. The June 2017 issue, issue four, is full of beautiful work, both written and visual.

Unlike some of the Sisyphus poems you’ve seen in my recent publications, the form of “No Pink Armadillo” is what I call a slant-sonnet.  It is not exactly a sonnet, does not exactly conform to sonnet-form. Yet there it is, almost but not quite a sonnet, and, simultaneously, a little something beyond being a sonnet.

Does it have a turn there around line eight? Or line twelve? I suppose it is a turn of sorts…

I was taught to think of the sonnet form as a series of rooms in a house, especially where the Shakespearean sonnet is concerned. Using that metaphor, you might diagram the Shakespearean sonnet as:

  • entry way and nearby rooms (4 lines, first stanza)
  • family room and private areas such as bedrooms (4 lines, second stanza)
  • exit from the house or remodeling of the house (4 lines, third stanza)
  • summary of what it turns out to mean, in an unexpected manner, either due to timing and/or general maturation of subject matter (2 lines, last stanza)

The Petrarchian sonnet is slightly less flexible. It usually has only two rooms in the sonnet’s Big House: a stanza of 8 lines (or, sometimes, two 4 line stanzas) and a stanza of 6 lines, with the turn coming just at the juncture of the octet and sestet.

As Foundry Journal says on their About page, they are interested in

the intangible cast into forms

which is pretty much the point of most poems: to make the intangible a tad more tangible. And I think of sonnets as the amphorae of the literary world, those tangibles meant to carry something otherwise shapeless, and left behind that others might find them.

So that’s probably a lot of inside baseball for those of you who are not poets. If you’re not into that level of poetry discourse / analysis, that’s ok. You can just trust me on this.

Elizabeth Bishop, one of my favorite poets

“No Pink Armadillo” is also a play against (obviously) Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Questions of Travel” and it’s pink armadillo, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post. For me, “No Pink Armadillo” has all the hallmarks of a world in which you must ask, as Bishop does in “Questions of Travel,”

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?

And where is here, anyway? The here of Bishop’s poem and my poem, and any reader’s “here” is always more bizarre than we could have imagined ahead of time.

Of course, the same goes for home.

And links to other works to read

I thank Foundry, also, for linking to the works of writers they’ve published on their bookshelf, which you can find here. It is extremely generous of them to include links to publications by their writers.  Even if you are not interested in my poems, please take a look at the other writers represented here.

Thank for reading!  As always, comments are welcome 🙂

 

Fady Joudah Around the Net

Dictionary definition of "definition"

Two Fady Joudah Interviews to Read

This is just a quick post to drop a few interesting links out to readers. I’ve been away from blogging due to busy-ness with family activities, but I didn’t want to lose track of some interesting interviews I came across.

I ran into an in-depth interview with Fady Joudah on Lunchticket.com a while back — in which he discusses labels, translation as an act of close reading, and the 160 character textu form he created.

It covers some similar territory to his even-more-in-depth interview by The Rumpus in 2013. Which goes to show that many times, our personal themes, concerns or issues follow us through the longitude of many years, subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) transforming as we age but still accompanying us on the journey.

Of interest is that point Joudah gets across in both interviews that labels define and deplete a poem. They water-down it’s applicability, limit its resonance in broader engagement (my summary — he says it better and you should read the interviews for that alone). Or, at least, they make it possible for the experience of the poem to be hand-waved away as not important beyond a certain group of people, however that group is defined.

I previously discussed Joudah’s book, Textu, here.

…and a forthcoming book

In the Lunchticket interview, Joudah mentions a new book forthcoming in 2018–something I’m definitely looking forward to!