Using Story for Persuading, Influencing, or Most Importantly, for Understanding

If you spend time, as I do, reading about the art and practice of storytelling you will often come across reference to the notion of persuading or influencing as the objective of crafting and presenting the story that you have in mind. I hear this from other speaker coaches, as well as renowned public speakers, and it’s not wrong, but it’s never been the way I see things.

Having watched a few thousand talks, and worked with a few hundred speakers, the stories which impacted me the most were the ones that informed me, expanded my knowledge, or brought forward a new way of looking at an important issue, not those trying to convince me that their way of thinking was better than mine.

Persuading
Causing someone to do something, or believe something, through reasoning or argument

Influencing
Having an effect on someone with the desire to change their behaviors, beliefs, or opinions

Understanding
The ability to comprehend based on knowledge of a subject, problem, process, or situation

When working with speakers I’ll ask them to think about what their audience will understand differently after hearing their talk. And there’s not a single answer to that question, as each person will have a different mindset before your talk begins.

And while it’s impossible to know what everyone listening understands in the moment, it’s a productive exercise to at least define a number of general categories (half a dozen or so) and then write out how you see their thinking/understanding transform.

For example, “Most people have no idea how big the refugee crisis really is, but after hearing my talk they will understand that nearly 1 in 100 people around the world has been displaced from their home.” [Watch Brian Sokol’s TEDx Talk]

Take that view a level deeper as you think about your audience by age, income, gender, ethnicity, education. How would a native understand your talk differently than an immigrant? Or a college student, as compared to a politician or business leader?

This exercise will prove beneficial while editing your manuscript. Consider your choice of words, and how deep you take your explanation of the issue. Remember, it’s not about having the audience think like you, it’s about them thinking differently than before they heard your talk.

The Secret that Almost Killed Me – Kirsten Johnson at TEDxSDSU

Students that enroll in my Storytelling with Impact course at UC San Diego Extension are generally looking to improve their storytelling and public speaking skills, but one of my students had been accepted to speak at TEDxSDSU 2018 (held at San Diego State University) and she had a specific goal in mind – crafting a narrative for her upcoming TEDx Talk.

Right up my alley, I thought, as my work with TEDxSanDiego and TEDxDonovanCorrectional involves coaching speakers for the TEDx stage, and other clients have given TEDx Talks.

But this was special, as Kirsten wanted to discuss a personal issue that is never easy in front of an audience – her experience with sexual assault, and the resulting trauma that negatively affected her life for years – all the more important as she was speaking on a college campus.

As she worked through each draft of her talk and rehearsed in class, the discussions varied between “how much to tell” and “which narrative to use”. To her credit, Kirsten wasn’t afraid to experiment, to see what felt right, and to revise accordingly. Not saying enough could come off as lacking in depth, glossing over important topics, while providing too much detail could turn off an audience. This is the reality of delivering a talk with an emotional core.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure which version of her talk would end up on the TEDxSDSU stage, as she was still revising after our class had ended, but I was pleased to see how she presented this difficult subject – with heartfelt passion and resolve – to an audience that needed to hear about her experience and the lessons she learned along the way.

Kirsten Johnson is a life coach, YouTuber and author of the upcoming book Elephant. Johnson makes videos on anxiety, addiction, shame, spirituality and living your life purpose. She is also the creator of The Elephant Heard, an online community composed of people rising up to their full potential after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Kristen is passionate about teaching people how to transform their relationship with fear so that they can live an empowered life.

We were all humans until…

It had been awhile since this anonymous quote crossed my path, but I recently noticed it on a friend’s social timeline and realized it had achieved a newfound sense of resonance with me.

We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us, and wealth classified us.

From a storytelling perspective it felt as though we had somehow stopped telling our story of connection, commonalty, a shared human heredity, and most importantly, a united future.

Hate and discrimination had somehow become acceptable, with divisiveness and rancor the norm. Religious travel bans, violence against people of color, and the continued verbal and physical abuse of women have defiled what America was striving to become – a land of open arms and caring hearts, a land that opted for hope over fear, that embraced love over hate.

“We are a nation not only of dreamers, but also of fixers. We have looked at our land and people, and said, time and time again, “This is not good enough; we can be better.” – Dan Rather, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism

Multi-Ethnic Hands in Peace

As I continue to work with a wide array of speakers, from universities, research institutes, major corporations, prison inmates, and special forces, I’m reminded that our stories have the power to heal all wounds, bridge all chasms, and unite all humans.

On a daily basis, we have the choice to stand up and say, “This is not good enough; we can be better.” In doing so we can change this sadly fractured American narrative. But it requires our stories to be told, our voices to be heard, and our compassion to be felt.