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Tips for Telling Effective Personal Stories
by Chris King

For years, professional speakers and salespeople have known the power of using personal stories in their presentations. As storytellers, we tell a variety of stories. Stories that have been around for years, stories we have created, and personal stories. Personal stories are becoming more popular today and are being included in storytellers’ repertoires more frequently as time passes. Even if you are not planning to tell stories professionally, you will realize that there are many benefits that accompany the telling of a personal story. When someone knows our story, they can’t help but like us — and vice versa.

Tell personal stories that others can relate to. Even though each of us has lived through different experiences, all of us have common threads that run through our lives. All of us had a special teacher. All of us had a pet, or maybe wanted a pet, or brought home a stray pet. All of us had a memorable childhood experience — good or upsetting. All of us had birthdays, with or without parties. Storyteller Donald Davis tells an hilarious and moving story about his first birthday party. If we tell these stories in an interesting and engaging way our listeners will be reminded of similar stories from their lives. At a recent National Storytelling Festival, I heard Susan Klein — one of my all-time favorite tellers, who usually tells folk and fairy tales — share a story about her experiences as a waitress. Having waited tables for years myself, I not only loved and was touched by her story, I started putting together a whole evening of restaurant stories of my own.

Make sure that your personal story has the necessary ingredients of a story. Remember that a story must start with a status quo, have conflict or some challenge that must be overcome and/or resolved, and end with a different status quo — something has changed, something new has been learned, and/or a problem has been solved. I have heard presenters sharing anecdotes and long narrative descriptions of a person or place, but these are not stories and lack what is needed to make a story memorable and meaningful. Your stories should carry a message/meaning for the listener (it may have a different meaning for each listener — even different from the meaning it has for you — but meaning). For example, a teller starts with, “Let me tell you about my grandmother …” We hear what she looked like, what she liked to do, what she said, and how much she meant to the teller. But, until we hear how she impacted that teller’s life with some sort of action, we probably won’t even be reminded of our own grandmother.

Your listeners are not your therapists. Yes, there is a limit to how personal to become with our stories. It is fine to share what has impacted our lives — the good and the bad, but be careful with the ugly. I suggest avoiding stories that will make listeners feel uncomfortable knowing your deep down secrets (if there is something that has made you feel ashamed, you don’t need to tell the world). I also suggest avoiding stories that you are not yet ready to tell because you have not finished dealing with them yourself. For example, eleven years ago my son had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and was so ill that he was in an intensive care unit for six weeks (the first time I visited him, I didn’t even recognize him). He has now been in remission for more than ten years. It took me three years before I could share his story without breaking down in tears, so I waited. Since then, I can’t count the people who have found strength, courage, and solace in his story, which I call, “I Believe in Miracles.”

”Where can I find personal stories to tell?” Our personal stories are all around us. Start by thinking about a special place that others aren’t familiar with, a special person that they don’t know, a time when you felt embarrassed (not deeply ashamed), a time when you felt proud, exhilarated, in trouble, challenged, and a situation that didn’t seem funny at the time, but does now. Early on in my speaking career, I heard a humorous speaker say, “Some days you are the windshield, and some days you are the bug. People are more interested in hearing about the times when you were the bug.” Yes, others like to hear about our overcoming obstacles, but not our overachieving. And humor laced with pathos is always a winner!

It is OK to embellish. I am not suggesting out-and-out lying, but there are a few extras that can be added, while deleting the boring parts, that will add interest to your personal story. Remembering what makes a story captivating, you can stress those parts and even add exaggeration in certain places. No one remembers the exact events and words, anyway. We each perceive a happening through different eyes. Although, the old cliché is probably right that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

So, start telling some personal stories. Others will find out how human you are and will bond with you. Plus, you will have lots of fun remembering!

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