Once I worked with a professional comic, helping with ideas for a TEDx talk about comedy she’d like to give.
She shared with me a terrifying account of the night, decades ago, when her abusive husband threatened her with a blunt object in his fist. And how, in that moment, a joke saved her life.
But when she wrote up her idea for the TEDx application, about joke and saving lives, specifically her, she made only a vague and veiled reference to an incident of domestic violence, without any of the vivid detail she shared with me.
Now, this was absolutely her call, and I get it. I work all the time with people who want nothing more than to connect with and compel an audience. And yet they are afraid of bringing their most vulnerable moments, their fallings and failures, into focus.
Instead, they smear vaseline over the lens. They don’t want to look bad. They don’t want to dwell on the times that felt ugly and embarrassing and shameful. It’s the last version of ourselves we want to show. We want to help people, not bum them out.
So when we tell our stories, we skim over the lousy parts to get to the good stuff—the thrilling, inspiring climax. As Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong:
“We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. In a thirty-minute speech, there’s normally thirty seconds dedicated to, ‘And I fought my way back…’. We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get the sweeping redemptive ending.”
I have news for you. Glossing over the hard stuff doesn’t help anyone.
Lessons that are not hard-earned feel too easy and lightweight. And guess how they can feel earned? By showing us how you earned them.
I know you want to move people. But you can’t fast forward through the hard stuff and get to the climactic happy ending, cue the musical swell. No one will believe it.
In order to create and deliver a talk of meaning and value, and to forge connections, you must let us experience the truth, let us see you and what happened. You must let the details of it speak. The power is in the details, the scene, not the “telling” of a bad thing that happened that we won’t go into.
Show us how you fell. How it hurt. Show us the complexity of how you rose.
“To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.”
When you’re writing a talk (or an article or a book or About page), resist that urge to gild your failures and falling, as Brown says. Let us see them, bloody and rough and terrifying and lonely.
Don’t talk to us from a mountaintop; let us rise with you.
If you’re scared or unsure how to tell gritty stories, or even moderately stubbly ones, join us at Tapped to Speak LIVE in Boston, April 4&5. This powerful, intimate event will get you fired up and focused on your stand-out signature talk. Learn more and reserve your spot at tappedtospeaklive.com.