How do I tell a story that is painful?
As a coach for motivational speakers, I get asked this question quite frequently. How do we tell a story that is painful? My first answer is that I need to see the story, look at how it is written, watch how it is told, and assess based on each individual story and speaker and audience. There are many different degrees of painful stories. If you’re a songwriter asking me if you’re song is too sad, I have to hear it first.
But here are some basic guidelines when it comes to telling a painful story:
- Make sure you are okay. If you aren’t okay up there, neither is your audience. It’s okay to get emotional, but if you can’t tell it without having people pass you tissues, then it’s not time to tell that story. I heard someone say recently, “Don’t tell a story until you have stopped bleeding from the pain, and you have found a gift in it.” Your story is ready to tell when you have made it to the other side.
- Relive the story, but not fully. I heard a speaker who told a story about her mother’s cancer with the same tone and energy she used when she told you about how to deliver better customer service. I don’t want you to tell me a painful story like you’re reading your grocery list, or I’m going to check out. I want you to relive that story – step into it – feel it – experience it. This is when I connect, which is the point. But be careful, don’t relive every moment, especially ones that you know will make you lose composure.
- Show don’t tell. As with any story, don’t just tell me about it, show me. Give me specific details. Tell me how you felt in that moment. Describe what you saw, what you smelled. The tiniest details can set the scene and really pull me in. There is more power in the specific than the general. Don’t tell me you had a whirlwind of emotions, tell me that you couldn’t feel your arms and that all you could hear was the ticking of the clock so loud you couldn’t breathe.
- Give me a happy ending. You may not think that story has a happy ending. Then give it one. If there’s not one, then don’t tell it. There must be a lesson you learned, a way you found to smile again, some way that in the pain you found some good.
- Be sensitive to your audience. There are some stories that are really painful and dark. When you tell that story, if someone in your audience has been to that same kind of place, then they are there now. You have pushed them into a really painful place. Make sure you know how to gently guide them through it.
- Don’t shy away from telling it. There are some stories that are so painful we wonder if we should tell them. But sometimes those are the very stories we should be telling them – the ones where we will have the most impact and the most healing potential. You just have to figure out how to craft the words like an expert, and deliver them like an expert.
The things we have experienced – our stories – can be used for good. There is someone sitting where we have been, feeling hopeless and lost. You might be the one to shine a light in their dark. Your place on that podium is powerful, no matter who is in your audience, or how small the audience, or whether you fully see your power. It’s there. You were called to speak for a reason. Use your gift wisely.
Now go and tell your story. And if you need my help, just email me a firstname.lastname@example.org and your Story Tutor will come running to the rescue.