Personal Stories: Connecting to your audience

Speaker on stage with her back to the photographer.  Blurry faces of audience members are visible.

A few years ago, I was invited back to my old high school to screen the documentary Miss Representation and lead a discussion about female sexuality in the media.  When I spoke to the group of junior and senior girls, I saw myself in them.  They were in the same outfits I wore, sitting in the same dining hall I once ate at, getting ready to go to the very same boys hockey game I used to love. I knew that some of them were trying to lose weight, some were desperate for a boy to like them, and some even had friends who called them a slut.  I could feel such a deep connection with them, and I wanted them to feel it too.  This is the story I shared with them:

At some point in my junior year, a good friend of mine, a best friend to this day, joked that, because I had kissed the most boys in our group of friends, I was a slut.  I laughed along because I knew she wasn’t trying to be mean, it was just the fact that I was a slut.  I tried to own the word slut, reclaim it as a cool part of my identity.  Samantha did it in Sex and the City so I could do it in high school.  But it just never felt right – no matter how much I wanted the word slut to be no big deal, it was.  So one day at lunch in this very room, I told my friends that I didn’t want to be called a slut.  Luckily, I have the best friends in the world who simply shrugged, ‘ok,’ and never called me a slut again.  I have never used the word slut to describe anyone since that day.  This was the first time I wanted to give power to the words I was saying, and I now realize it was my first step towards having power in my identity as a woman.

This story struck a chord with the girls.  They became visibly excited, nodding along with pained understanding, some put their hands up to share their experiences with the word.  The discussion that followed was heartfelt and energetic.  Girls were promising me, and each other, they were going to stop using the word too.  Some decided they wanted the boys to stop saying it as well.  We talked about the power of language and the value of female friendships.  The objective of the evening was to have the girls be able to recognize the sexualization of women in the media, but the overarching goal was to empower them to choose their identity.

The Power of Vulnerability

In Brene Brown’s famous TED talk on vulnerability, she shares her experience researching vulnerability.  She begins with, “This is where my story starts…”  This talk is a perfect example of using your personal story to guide the audience through the lesson.  Sharing a personal story is going to put you in a vulnerable position but, as Brene Brown’s research shows, being open and vulnerable is the key to human connection.

Brene Brown

However, sharing yourself should be tactful.  Rachel Lloyd spoke at a TEDx event on Human Trafficking and the power of her story comes from what is left unsaid.   She said, “It’s critical that we are highlighting voices that are on the ground..but not in a ‘get up and tell your story way,'”.  She doesn’t want the issue to be overshadowed by sensationalizing her story.  “While my story is critical for informing the work that I do…how do we move from the voyeuristic…to how we are thinking about this issue as a community”.

DO: Be Authentic

If you’re telling your story, be yourself!  You should be able to talk about your experience without judgment.  Just share what happened.  Share what happened first, then recap your feelings briefly, and then tie it all back to goal of the lesson.

DON’T: Patronize or Self-Deprecate

There is no need to talk down to your audience, the story is meant to remind them that you have been in their situation or to explain a situation they might not know.  You also don’t want to cut yourself down.  People usually put themselves down when trying to make the listener comfortable but if you’ve ever listened to someone do this, then you know it’s just awkward.

DO: Keep it Relevant

A personal story should speak exactly to the subject.  Never ever forget your objective or goal.  Your story is not going to address a tangible objective but it is a way of making emotional connections.

DON’T: Go on a Tangent

Every detail is painting a picture of the objective.  If your story wanders then so will the focus of your audience.

DO: Keep it Concise

If you think you want to tell a story and when you practice it, it takes more than 5 minutes to explain and tie back to the lesson, it’s probably too long.  That doesn’t mean it’s not good or worth sharing, but really examine it to make sure there are no extra details.  There’s a chance you’ll inspire someone in the audience to share your story to other people, keeping it concise will make it easier for them to do that.

DON’T: Go on a Rant

Rants are usually full of feelings, and feelings are meant to be evoked through storytelling not the whole story.

DO: Be Appropriate

The first step in making sure your story is appropriate is to always always remember who your audience is.  When it comes to talking about sex, there are many stories that can cross the line from open to inappropriate.  My personal rule is if I wouldn’t want my little brother to hear it, then I leave it out.

DON’T: Overshare

My story of being called a slut was not because I “kissed” more boys than my friends but sharing the details of my sex life at 17 would have detracted from the real lesson I wanted to share.  Don’t be explicit for the sake of it, authenticity will not be lost if some details are spared.

DO: Prepare

Know what story you are going to tell.  Maybe have one or two that you know and then leave it up to the flow of the discussion to decide when to share.  Practice your story for friends.  If it’s important then you will have probably already shared it at some point anyway.

DON’T: Ramble

Tangents, rants and rambles are from the same breed of bad story telling.  Rambling usually happens at the end with a shrug and a “ya know…”.  If you tell a story that’s not getting the response you want, rambling will not help you.  So like basically rambling is just annoying and unnecessary and like, just don’t do it you know?



Estes, T.H., Mintz, S.L., & Gunter, M.A. (6th Edition). (2011). Instruction: A models approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

One response to “Personal Stories: Connecting to your audience

  1. Beautifully concise, informative, and introductory structure to self-disclosure in teaching. I completely agree with the do’s and don’ts and really appreciate your inclusion of Brene Brown! Interestingly enough though, her TED talk was phenomenal but her book “Daring Greatly” was not as powerful specifically because she shared A LOT of herself in the book. There were so many great concepts like the difference between “being vulnerable” and “using vulnerability” and also living wholeheartedly, but it was story after story, one personal experience after another. It distracted from the reading which is ironic. All of this is to say, there is a very delicate balance when it comes to self-disclosure and thus far I have not found a lot of material as straight-forward as what you wrote. A lot of what I’ve encountered has been a “do what feels right” motto which is too subjective for me and not a sound suggestion at all. What may “feel right” for the instructor could be traumatizing or re-traumatizing for the listener. Generally, I only share what I think will enhance the concept I’m teaching and I also only share if I feel there is a pull from the audience. But there I go doing what “feels” right! It takes years of practice and if someone is just starting out it can feel like trial by fire. Your suggestions are a much needed, much better guide.

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