I had an English professor in college who said, “If you write a really great story, you’re screwed.” He meant that the best storytellers have the courage to open up their personal lives and tell the truth about themselves, even if the truth is embarrassing.
Similarly, if you want to give a great speech, tell a revealing story about yourself.
All you need is the truth and the willingness to overcome your fear.
Several years ago I worked with an entrepreneur who had made a fortune in automobile industry. The president of his alma mater had asked him to give that year’s commencement address. It was a great honor and the entrepreneur asked me to help him with it.
He actually came to me with a speech already written. The speech quoted the New York Times about the changing workforce and various other business trends. It was a bunch of clichés and bromides.
But I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I said, “Tell me about how you became an entrepreneur.”
It was a fascinating story. He explained that he grew up poor in a rural area. When the air conditioner broke down, he watched his father fix it himself. As a teenager when his car broke down, his father said, “Go look in the basement. I think we’ve got the manual down there somewhere.” And he figured out how to make the repairs himself.
And it was that attitude of self-sufficiency that gave him the confidence to solve the problems of starting and growing a business.
He had many stories like that, some funny, others touching. All of them authentic and personal.
“You should tell those stories,” I said. “They’re terrific. They ring so true.” We revised his speech to include the stories.
But he couldn’t go through with it. “I’m not comfortable talking about my personal life,” he said.
More recently I worked with a courageous woman who had been asked to give a speech about having a double mastectomy. She had come from a family where many women had died of breast cancer. She had taken a genetic test that determined she too was likely to die if she didn’t have the surgery.
The stories she told were harrowing and touching. She described how after she came home from the hospital, her young son climbed into her bed and said, “Mommy can I see?”
As she described showing her scarred chest to her son, I cried.
“Are you willing to tell that story?” I asked. “Because if you do, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.”
She didn’t flinch.
I went to hear the speech. She received a standing ovation.
I read recently about some advice the young Winston Churchill received about public speaking. The advice came from William Bourke Cockran, a U.S. Representative from New York City. Cockran was a noted orator who happened to have been one of Winston’s mother’s lovers.
He told Churchill “What people really want to hear is the truth – it is the exciting thing – speak the simple truth.”
Speaking the simple truth about your life isn’t always easy. It takes courage. But as Mr. Cockran said, “it is the exciting thing.”
Joey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”