How to make connections by telling personal stories

Illustrating your message with stories from your own life experience is a powerful way both to make connections with audiences and deepen the impact of your message…

It’s tempting to think sometimes that the perfect presentation should be utterly controlled, polished and impersonal, an artifice your audience can only gaze at in awe. But actually the best speakers are adept at making anecdotal connections and illustrating their messages with all sorts of personal, human touches.

Sharing personal details help to break down the barriers between you and your audience. They allow them to see you as someone they can relate to, and also bring a message to life by making it more real.

When I’m talking about mindfulness in a workshop, for instance, I often recall for attendees a week I spent in the company of the Dalai Lama. I found him to be a man so alive to the present moment that, even seconds before going on stage to address an audience of hundreds, he was busy chatting away with me, complimenting me on my wristwatch. (He loves watches, it turns out.)

Wrist Watch

Or when I’m discussing fear and nerves with a group, I talk about a parachute jump I did for charity. The date and time of the jump kept getting changed, thanks to the British weather, and my mum was having kittens about all the anxiety I was putting her through, which naturally rubbed off on me.

But after I’d finally jumped out of that plane, I realised that nerves are only about the past and the future – the fear that ‘It went so badly last time!’ or ‘I’ll be awful’. When you’re actually in the middle of parachuting – just as when you step out to make your presentation – you’re actually far too busy falling out of a plane – or giving your talk – to think about or experience nerves.

The power of self-disclosure

Stories like these are part of the dynamic of self-disclosure. In 1973 psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor developed the theory of ‘social penetration’ and self-disclosure to account for what happens when 2 people become close.

According to the theory, there are 2 dimensions to self-disclosure – breadth and depth – and both are crucial in developing intimate relationships. The range of topics discussed by people is the breadth of disclosure. The degree to which information revealed is private or personal represents the depth of that disclosure. The pair used the metaphor of the skins of an onion to illustrate the model.

Onion Theory

When presenting, it's easy for many of us to stay in the outer layers of disclosure, as the common topics involved often refer to our everyday lives – the weather, occupations, preferences etc. Real depth can be harder to reach and might include recounting difficult memories or traits that we might prefer to conceal. But it’s often in these deeper layers that we build trust with one other – admitting that you feel nervous, say, or that the topic you’re discussing was initially daunting.

The power of disclosure in business

Self-disclosure tends to be reciprocal, and positive self-disclosure increases likeability and trust. So if you’re pitching to someone, using disclosure might mean you discover something new that may just tip the scales in your favour.

For instance, some time ago we pitched to large global logistics business. We sat in the boardroom being very polite and discussed the weather. During our pitch I noticed a picture of a massive container ship on the wall. I was at this time a new father and was spending many a late night feeding my newborn son whilst watching the US series, The Wire. The second season of the show focuses on the ports - with quite a few high-end cars stolen from the massive container ships once they docked.

I shared my story, and asked if it ever happened in real life. It was unintentional disclosure, but it lead to reciprocal disclosure on parenting, organised crime and great American TV. The atmosphere in the room had changed and we all knew more about each other. I am sure this played a large part in securing the contract.

Collect and hone your stories

The more you do this, the more you’ll start to collect a library of anecdotes and vignettes that you can pull out at crucial moments to break the ice or help explain a tricky learning point. Hoard your stories, practise them, edit and hone them, try them out on friends and family. Always be on the lookout for new ones. 

Then the next time you’re planning a presentation, team meeting or pitch, try using some self-disclosure – anything from your own life experience that might help others to understand you and your message that little bit better.

Learn from an expert

Self-disclosure during a presentation can completely shift the dynamics of a talk. Suddenly there are real life examples and stories to help illustrate the message.

Ken Robinson's TED talk from 2006 on how mainstream education can kill creativity is a masterful example of using personal disclosure to weave a powerful message. Many of his observations seem unconnected, and yet each and every story illustrates another example of a child’s creativity.


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