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Making it Personal by Jean Hamilton

Making it Personal by Jean Hamilton

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Using life stories increases the impact of your message. As a professional speech coach who has worked with many executives,

-- I told Ann that to improve her speaking skills, she needed to allow herself to open up and connect with the audience. And one of the best ways for speakers to achieve this goal is to tell personal stories about events or people that have been a major influence in their lives. Read the story and learn more.

Using life stories increases the impact of your message. As a professional speech coach who has worked with many executives,

-- I told Ann that to improve her speaking skills, she needed to allow herself to open up and connect with the audience. And one of the best ways for speakers to achieve this goal is to tell personal stories about events or people that have been a major influence in their lives. Read the story and learn more.

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Published by: Jean Hamilton - SpeakingResults.com on Jan 18, 2013
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09/17/2013

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M4 MEETINGS JANUARY 2013 ALASKA AIRLINES & HORIZON EDITION MAGAZINES JANUARY 2013 MEETINGS M5 ALASKA AIRLINES & HORIZON EDITION

MAGAZINES
A
nn was facing a dilemma. An executive in the health care indus-
try, Ann needed help to take her presentation skills to the next
level. She realized her desire to give the “perfect” speech was hold-
ing her back. In everyday life, she was charming, smart, articulate and playful.
Her sense of humor put people at ease. However, in her desire to be credible
during presentations, her playfulness often vanished.
“People say I’m a good speaker, but I think I come
across a bit stern,” she told me during a meeting.
“Something’s missing.”
As a professional speech coach who has worked
with many executives, I told Ann that to improve her
speaking skills, she needed to allow herself to open
up and connect with the audience. And one of the
best ways for speakers to achieve this goal is to tell
personal stories about events or people that have
been a major influence in their lives.
She was reluctant at first, but eventually warmed
to the idea and even started brainstorming. “If I
were to speak from a personal place, I would talk
about Nancy,” Ann said. “She’s why I do my work.”
Ann proceeded to tell me about a woman who
endured incredible hardship, but was still dedicated
to helping others. I was mesmerized. She spoke
with such conviction and clarity that it brought tears
Making It
Personal
by
Jean Hamilton
Using life stories
increases the
impact of your
message
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JANUARY 2013 MEETINGS M7
ALASKA AIRLINES & HORIZON EDITION MAGAZINES
to my eyes. In that moment she became not only an
effective speaker, but a transformative one, as well.
Create trust and rapport
The right personal story during a speech can be very
powerful. However, I have found during my career
that it is common for people to be reluctant to tell
personal stories in a business setting. They often
wonder, If I tell stories from my personal life, will it
seem unprofessional? Will the audience think it’s a
waste of their time? Will I embarrass myself?
These are questions that you should consider
when developing a speech, but they shouldn’t stop
you from using personal experiences as part of a
presentation. When carefully chosen, personal sto-
ries can capture the attention of the audience and
quickly create a connection between the speaker and
the listener. Still, all speakers need to think through
what are the right kinds of personal stories, as well
as when and how to use them.
If you have taken part in any type of speech train-
ing, you’ve probably heard the well-known phrase,
“people remember a good story.” Well-told tales cre-
ate a sense of trust and rapport with the audience.
They are a great way to add humor, and they bring
meaning to your message. In my opinion, data has
no real meaning without a story attached.
I was brought in to work with a brilliant research
scientist for an upcoming speech he was giving at a
major fundraiser. The previous year, a speaker gave a
highly technical talk that was difficult for the audience
to understand. I convinced the scientist to tell some
patient stories. Since he had never done this, he was
hesitant, until I convinced him that stories would help
show the impact of his work on people’s lives.
His story about a patient who went from being
unable to leave her home to living a full life made
his talk interesting and accessible. The organization
doubled the funds raised from the previous year. I
don’t know for sure whether my client’s speech had
an impact on that year’s charitable giving, but his
approach certainly did help his audience better
relate to the research.
Right time and place
While there is plenty of power in personal stories,
there are rules to making such experiences effective.
For instance, speakers should tell stories that benefit
only the audience. Such stories should never be used
as therapy for the speaker.
I once heard a speaker talking about all the rough
times she was going through. I kept waiting for the
“aha!” moment in which she would tell us what she
learned from these difficult times. It never came. It left the audience feeling
uncomfortable.
Pain and challenges can make for great stories when a thought-provoking
lesson is included. When you share such stories with an audience, make sure
that enough time has passed since those events took place that you are able to
articulate what you’ve learned.
There are also some personal stories that are better told only to friends. These
experiences might be too “colorful” for a business audience. A good rule of
thumb is that if you would be embarrassed to have a story printed in the news-
paper, you shouldn’t tell it. It is imperative to use your best judgment when
choosing stories.
Because of potential pitfalls, many people discount all stories from their per-
sonal life when preparing a speech, and that is unfortunate. Such speakers are
missing an opportunity to have a greater impact on their listeners.
Visiting your past
To find the right story for your speech, spend some time reflecting on your life.
People often draw a blank when asked to think of stories from their pasts.
Suddenly they feel like nothing interesting has ever happened to them, and the
harder they try to recall such stories, the more elusive interesting and relevant
incidents become.
The best way to find your own stories is to remove the perceived pressure.
Don’t try to immediately come up with the “perfect” incident or event that is
both entertaining and relevant to your talk. Your internal editor will stifle any
creativity and shut down memories.
Instead, allow yourself to spend time writing in a journal. Start by remember-
ing significant times in your life. Go through your own personal timeline by
starting with your childhood, adolescence, college and adulthood. Look at the
significant moments in your life, such as making friends, moving, new schools,
outdoor activities, jobs, marriage, children, parents and your health.
Think of “firsts” in your life, such as the first day of school, first kiss and first
speech. What were some of the rituals in your childhood? How about holidays?
“Look for small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory,”
says Columbia University adjunct professor and author William Zinsser. “If you
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M8 MEETINGS JANUARY 2013
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still remember them, it’s because they con-
tain a universal truth that people will rec-
ognize from their own lives.”
Developing stories
Once you have identified vivid memories
from your own experiences, begin to dig
deeper.
Recall specific moments in time. The
best stories are usually those that play out
like movies: As you tell them, the audience
sees, hears and feels the experiences. Bring
in sounds, colors, temperature and feel-
ings. Use dialogue to develop characters
and bring your stories to life. While such
stories may be as varied as our individual
lives, they all have one aspect in com-
mon—they contain circumstances or
issues to which your audience can relate.
Many people make the mistake of pad-
ding stories with unnecessary information.
Shorter is often better. And be sure to take
out any boring parts—give your audience
just the meat of the experiences.
Self-deprecating humor
There are various types of personal stories
that work well in a speech. One of the most
important is the self-deprecating story.
Such humorous tales are great for breaking
the ice with an audience. Also, being able
to laugh at yourself can help communicate
confidence and charisma.
As a speech coach, I like to let my audi-
ence know I understand their challenges
with public speaking. The worst speech I
remember giving was years ago at a confer-
ence in Montreal. When I walked into the
room, my heart sank. It was a dark, cold
and cavernous room with seating for
1,000. About 80 people had showed up for
my session and were scattered throughout
the large space.
I asked the attendees to come sit at the
front. Two people moved. No matter how
good the speaker, when the energy is that
dispersed, it can ruin a speech. My break-
out session on communication skills
included several exercises. Each time we
began an exercise, people left. By the end
of the session there were 39 people remain-
ing. It was like a bad dream and the longest
two and a half hours of my life.
Transform your executive presence:
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"Working with Jean Hamilton is one of the
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— Jennifer Potter
President
Initiative for Global Development
Jean Hamilton,
Founder & Principal
M10 MEETINGS JANUARY 2013
ALASKA AIRLINES & HORIZON EDITION MAGAZINES
Someone later told me, “Your session
would have been great in a small room.”
He was absolutely right. The space set my
session up for failure. That disastrous talk
taught me to do everything I could to take
charge of a space and make it work.
However, even during that painful expe-
rience, I did find a saving grace. A man
who attended the poorly received breakout
session came up to me afterward and said,
“During the listening exercise, my wife
and I were partners. It was the best we
have ever listened to each other.”
By sharing this story I help my audience
realize that circumstances can interfere
with a presentation, even for a speech
coach. It’s how we learn from an unpleas-
ant experience that really matters.
Transformative events
Another type of story to add to your reper-
toire is what I refer to as a transformative
story. This consists of a series of events
that give you a new perspective on some
aspect of your life. These stories often cen-
ter on big events that have happened to
you, but small experiences can work just as
well. They just need to show some type of
change that connects with the audience.
My dad always prided himself on his
thrift. In his home office, his desk was a
plywood board stacked on top of eight egg
crates. After he passed away, my mom
thought of the office as his shrine. At
Christmas, a year after his passing, I told
Mom that I wanted to buy her a new desk.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” she protested.
“I don’t need that!”
I was a bit taken aback, because I
thought she would love the idea. The more
I persisted, the stronger her objection.
Before going to bed, I told her, “I just
thought you deserved a new desk.” The
word “deserve” must have gotten her
thinking. The next morning the first thing
she said was, “When are we going to get
the new desk?” She was elated after we
brought it home because the room sud-
denly seemed much nicer.
By changing the furniture, the room
became a place that now belonged to both
my mother and my father. It also helped
her move on with this new phase of her
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M12 MEETINGS JANUARY 2013
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life. This seemingly minor change turned
out to be really important.
I also found myself transformed by this
event. I realized if I wanted to suggest a
change, it worked best if I first planted the
seed of the idea with my mother, and then
let her mull it over for a while until it
sprouted. She needed time to be comfort-
able with a change.
That’s a good communication lesson
that applies to many people.
Face your fears
A third type of story that all speakers
should develop involves facing one’s fears.
I worked with a man who had a debilitat-
ing fear of public speaking. He was a fire-
man and had no problem running into a
burning building, but the thought of
standing on a stage in front of even just 30
people terrified him. He had a very impor-
tant presentation coming up for the 10th
anniversary of the September 11 terrorist
attacks. We worked to help him overcome
his fear and to develop a moving and mem-
orable speech. At the end of our work, I
knew he was going to do a great job. When
I called him to find out how it went, he was
ecstatic.
“It was great!” the firefighter exclaimed.
“I was calm and confident, and my wife
said it was perfect. Oh ... by the way, we
had a good crowd. It was estimated at
5,000 people!”
This firefighter’s success is a story he
could share with any audience to inspire
them to overcome their fears and perceived
limitations.
A message that resonates
Whether you are speaking at a meeting
in front of 10 people or at a conference with
1,000 attendees, bringing personal stories
into any talk will add depth and meaning
to your message. The right stories, told
with a personal touch, will resonate with
the audience long after your presentation
has come to an end. m
Jean Hamilton, founder and principal of
Speaking Results, helps executives develop
their presentation, communication and
leadership skills.

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