I was meeting with a client the other day to discuss his upcoming presentation. He explained how critical this presentation was to his career advancement.  Then he stood up and delivered the first draft from start to finish. I noticed that his presentation style leaned toward the dry side – factual, declarative, and flat (the polar opposite of say, Robin Williams).  Afterward, we sat down to discuss ways to improve.  Here’s the gist of the conversation:

Me:  “I’m wondering if you could tell a story in the middle section where you provide reasons why the Board should adopt your recommendations.”

Him: “No way. I’m not a raconteur.  I’m not good at telling stories.

Me:  “Sure you are. You just did it.”

Him (aghast):  “When?!”

Me:  “Twenty minutes ago when you told me about your administrative assistant. You did it again when you talked about your nine-year-old son catching the ball.”

Him: “Oh.  I didn’t realize those were stories.  I guess I think of a story as a fable with a hero and a villain that ends with an important lesson. I can’t do that.”

Me:  “You’re thinking about ‘inky shadows and wine-dark seas.’  There are many other types.  All you have to do is turn your recommendations into images and examples that grab the listener’s attention.”

Him:  “Well, I can do that.”

What made this otherwise smart and successful person go through his adult life thinking he was a terrible storyteller?  His emotional “backstory.”  Deepak Chopra has a great way of describing this concept.  Backstories emerge out of our early memories. We create stories out of these memories and the negative ones become “full of hostility and resentment.” Then we carry these stories with us every day and they emerge during high-stress or pressurized moments (like public speaking) and sabotage our success.

Chopra goes on to say that the most amazing thing about human beings is that we can find a way to tell ourselves a new story.  He suggests starting with this question: “Is this really true?” Then ask, “Who would I be if the other story were true?”  In the case of my client, he started to reorient around the idea that he could actually tell a good story. We practiced by having him expand upon the reference he made about his administrative assistant.  It was great.  Funny, engaging, and yes, even a powerful message for aspiring leaders.

What emotional potholes do you have to repair this year?

– Barbara