“So guys,” he said, from the front of the large room. “Try this, and you can get to the root of your issue.”
I was on a table right down at the back, so he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes. Jaw set in fury, I looked down at my paper.
It was the Sunday before last, I was at a business retreat, and I was very, very angry.
This year, I’m in a group program, run by Jonathan “Good Life Project” Fields. I’ve been following him for years, and he’s always steered me right. Under his guidance, my business went from doing okaaaaayyy to suddenly making a living doing the thing I’m best at and most enjoy. Working with him again seemed like a good idea.
On this afternoon, 70 other people and I were in a session led by productivity coach, Charlie Gilkey. I’ve hung out with Charlie before – just that morning, he’d been telling me about his recent trip to Hawaii. We get on well and I really like him. I know a lot of people who’ve been coached by him to wild success. He’s a charismatic, clear and powerful speaker.
But, right now, I was cross with him. Furious, actually. Seething.
Or – to be clearer, I wasn’t so much angry with him, as with what he was asking me to do…
“My stomach was in a tight knot as I walked up to the front door.”
If you want people to really care about your stories, and be inspired to take action, there’s one element you MUST include… and yet, I see people leave it out all of the time.
What is this magic bullet?
Consider the difference between these two stories:
‘I walked up to the front door.
For thirty seconds, nothing happened.
Then, the door opened, and Sally appeared. I took a deep breath, and said, “Hello.”’
Now, read this one:
‘My stomach was in a tight knot as I walked up to the front door.
For thirty seconds, nothing happened.
I started panicking. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought. Maybe I should stay out of it.
Then, the door opened, and Sally appeared, smiling. Nervously, I took a deep breath, and said, “Hello.”’
Which story do you care more about? Which one makes you want to keep reading? Which has the strongest effect on you?
I’m guessing it’s the second one. The difference between the two?
In the second, I told you how I FEEL.
Emotions make your story more powerful for five reasons:
(1) We invest in your story
In the second version above, did you wonder WHY I was so nervous – and what might be about to happen?
Telling us how you feel builds tension in a story. Suddenly, there are high stakes, that might not otherwise exist. Researcher Paul Zak discovered that tension is an essential ingredient to keeping us interested in a story.
(2) We trust you more
Have you ever got nervous…
“But that sounds nice! No?” I asked, holding onto the handrail as the cab turned a corner.
I couldn’t see much of the driver’s face. One of the small glass windows was slid open, and through it, I looked at his eyes in the rearview mirror.
He glanced at me and shook his head.
“Nah,” he said, in his South London accent. “It’s pathetic.”…
We sat in the lobby of the conference hall. Janne had told me I could be brutal. “I’m Dutch”, she’d said, “I can take it!” But now, I wondered if I’d gone too far.
And then, she burst into tears.
“Oh my goodness!” I cried. “I’m so sorry!”
“It’s ok!” she said, smiling. “It’s a hard thing to do this, because it’s important to me that I get it right. But it’s ok.”
I’m the Storytelling Coach at the Portland conference World Domination Summit (think less Lex Luther, more do-gooders, trying to make the world a better place). Each year, Attendee Storytellers are invited to go onstage and share their stories.
This summer, hundreds of people applied on Saturday morning to tell a story. On Saturday afternoon, Jolie (the conference’s “Fixer and Voice of Reason”) and I combed through the entries, chose five.
Then, I had just half an hour with each, to pull the story out, and figure out they could tell it in one minute. A process I’d usually spend two or three hours with each person for.
Janne’s story was particularly tough, because she wanted to talk about…
“I told her,” Barbara spat, in her thick, Polish accent. “‘You leave your underwear here? Get out of my house!’”
She stuck her chin out in defiance, while I pressed my lips together and tried to look concerned. This was the third time I’d heard this story today. I wasn’t even sure it was true.
It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was volunteering at the day centre for seniors with dementia. When I’m there, I help with the mechanics, but mostly I come so I can sit and keep the clients company. The range of dementia they suffer from is pretty broad; some can barely string a sentence together. Others seem mostly to be all there – like Barbara.
But she did love to repeat stories about her family.
As well as the niece who got thrown out, we’d hear about her sister – who she’d only refer to as “The Beetch”. As in,
“The Beetch called me today. She thinks she can come and stay with me. Ha! I don’t want you here! Get a hotel!”
I am famously a wildly positive person. I have the word ‘yes’ tattooed onto my finger. My business is called Yes Yes Marsha. I usually have no truck with cynics.
Sitting in the circle of 30 people, I scanned their faces and tried to read them. My chest felt fizzy; a rampant mix that was equal parts excitement and utter terror.
I was in New York for a weekend workshop on coaching. It was directed at people like me at the time – those who only recently learned that coaching was even a thing – to give us some basics and help us decide whether or not we wanted to make a career out of it. I was excited because this felt like a job that had been invented for me; in one way or another, I’ve been coaching (for free) my entire life.
And I was terrified, because of all those people.
What if they realised I had no idea what I was doing? What if they thought I wasn’t cut out to be a coach? What if they knew I hadn’t had a proper job for months?
And, deep down, another question:
Full disclosure: I had planned something entirely different for you today.
But then… something happened last night.
A friend sent me a link to one of New York magazine’s “Ask Polly” columns, just with the words, “This is so good”. I read it, then wanted more. And more, and more.
In every single answer, she seems to be not just helping the person with their specific problem, but helping ALL of us with EVERY problem. And the theme that keeps coming up, over and over again, is the same one that drives me to help you tell stories, and to beg you to tell vulnerable ones:
No one – NO ONE – has all of their sh-t together, and you are not alone.
Here are some of my favourite quotes from some of those I read last night (plus links to each column).
“[Our] darkness and messes will…
I’m breaking a rule by writing to you today.
This week – last Friday until today – I was supposed to be in New York. On the final trip of a spate that has lasted almost three months, I was going to be hanging out with my mum, who had a week-long job there. But then her job got cancelled, and so I decided to do something I’ve never done before:
Take an internet break.
Email and social media. Not because I’m in the woods, not because it’s Christmas, just… to see what happens.
What’s happened is that…
Perched on the edge of the porch swing, my face and toes in the sun, I balanced my plate in one hand and thought, ‘This isn’t such a bad consolation’.
I was in Nashville. The following day, I was going to be speaking at Jeff Goins’ Tribe Conference, and I’d come out a day early to enjoy some of Music City.
Except… work was keeping me bound to my Airbnb. A last-minute change in my stage time meant I had re-writing to do, and there were a couple of unavoidable Skype meetings. The first in ten minutes, in fact.
I took a snack to eat on the porch, so that I’d at least get a little of the glorious midday sun on my face and bare feet. There was some construction happening across the road, but otherwise it was quiet on the leafy street.
Five minutes later, I finished and carried my plate up to the front door. I clasped the handle, and…nothing. It didn’t turn. What?
Then I realised. The door was locked.
The door that was the only door in. The door whose key was inside. Along with my host’s number. And my phone. And my shoes. Oh. NO.
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but here goes:
A few weeks ago, I locked my bike up outside this juice bar in Portland, a tight ball of nausea in the bottom of my stomach.
I was at WDS – the conference World Domination Summit, where do-gooders (like me) try and make the world a better place – and arriving at my first ‘meet-up’. These are impromptu gatherings thrown by attendees. I had my own one the following day, a short workshop on How To Tell Compelling Stories. But this one at the juice bar was a storytelling meet-up being thrown by someone else – a lady I’d never met before, and was a bit scared of.
Two days before, I’d (finally, very last-minute) decided to put on my own meet-up about storytelling. As I scrolled through those other people had posted, I realised that there was already one happening on the same subject. Gutted at first, I then looked into the details and decided it was ok for both to exist. This one, by a lady called Sara Hunt, was going to be about how to figure out which of your own stories to tell. Mine was more about how to tell your stories. Also, hers was already full, so I figured it was even more ok to put mine on.
But I am a perennial people pleaser, and I was still worried that she’d be annoyed. So I sent her an email.
In it, I explained what I felt the differences were between our two workshops, and told her I’d love to meet her at some point – which was true; from her website and blog, she seemed cool and interesting. Then, I asked whether, if there ended up being a free spot, I could come along to her meet-up.
It took me about 20 minutes of writing and rewriting to compose this last question.
What if she thought I was just coming along to steal her ideas? What if she was annoyed that I was running my own storytelling meet-up and it made her not like me?
My fears were trumped by how much I wanted to go, so I asked. To my relief, I got a reply saying she’d love to have me along.
But now, I was actually here…
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