Full Disclosure: Recycled Story Ahead
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.
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…
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.