Every idea worth spreading must be packaged in a story worth telling.
At any given time, people are either suffering from story-block or from story-overload. Those who are blocked feel their lives are ordinary and that they have not had dramatic experiences. On deeper reflection, you will realize that is nonsense. You and I and everyone around us experiences at least one epiphany per day in our amazing lives. When you tune in to your emotions moment by moment, you will see hundreds of stories dancing all around you. That degree of sensitivity leads you to story-overload. You know you have contracted that condition when your try to squeeze a lifetime of insights into an 18 minute TED talk.
The panacea for both conditions is to find one story with one central theme that is deeply personal. Here are three storytelling prompts that offer an instant cure:
Prompt 1: One Lesson
If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? A safe, but still impactful, approach is to give this lesson to your professional self. You probably have a bunch of lessons but will need to pick just one. Here is one of mine. At the beginning of my professional life, I believed that the sign of true success was to be so amazing at my job that my manager would leave me alone. For an entire decade I lived in this state of ignorance until a great manager opened my eyes to the power of seeking and accepting continuous feedback. Ever since then, I have wished I had a time machine to give my younger self a swift kick in the head.
However, the more powerful approach is sharing a lesson with your younger personal self. Some people I mention this to come up with a warning that would have prevented a single catastrophic event. I do not recommend that sort of lesson for a few reasons. Though you will connect with your audience by showing vulnerability, you will just leave your audience feeling bad for what happened to you. They will not be able to help you and they will not be able to relate your warning to their own lives – which is the of this whole thing anyway. Instead, focus on an eternal truth. Mine is “the journey is the reward.” Though that is not a novel concept, the magic is in sharing the story of how I felt before I embraced it, the experience of the exact moment I grasped its meaning, and the explanation of what my life has been like after my discovery.
Prompt 2: Defining Moment
What was THE defining moment that most dramatically changed the course of your life? Though this could be a moment of great triumph or joy, the most powerful stories come from loss, pain, terror, or failure. Again, you can play it safe with professional stories or you can go deep with personal ones. If you are giving a humorous speech, then you can choose your most embarrassing moment for your defining moment.
If you go dark and personal, remember that you need to provide relief by bringing your audience back toward light and hope. At the 2012 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, one of the speakers shared an unrelentingly terrifying story of domestic violence. The story deeply affected everyone in the room and it clearly continues to weigh on my mind. Just as with many TED talks, the objective of that competition was to share an inspiring story. More importantly, the audience was expecting to be motivated by every speech. Though the speaker had a story that needed to be told, a story with no happy ending, she should have chosen a different venue to tell it.
To make a good story great, frame the defining moment as a moment of choice. Choices between good and evil are too easy and too obvious. Instead, present choices between two goods, or better, between two evils. To add even more suspense, share how you ignored the choice for a while as your situation got even more complicated.
Prompt 3: Overcoming Weakness
What early weakness led you to find your passion? Many people develop their greatest strength fueled by the anxiety of hiding or compensating for an early perceived weakness. Most great speakers started out terrified of public speaking. Many great achievers rallied after being told by an authority figure that they would never amount to anything. I did not read my first book cover to cover until I was 15 years old and evolved into a voracious reader and writer. (A belated thank you to Clifton Keith Hillegass, the founder of CliffsNotes, for getting me through middle school.)
Try It Out!
Use one of these three storytelling prompt, the one that resonates most deeply with you, to find your story worth spreading. No matter which you choose, I strongly encourage you to add a mentor into your story that gives you, a normal mortal otherwise equal to your audience, the special recipe to be extraordinary.