Keep your poor me stories off the stage.
“It's very touching,” I replied. “I know that speaker personally and I like and respect her, but I'm so tired of ‘poor me' stories.”
“But people love stories like that,” Tony protested. “Stories of personal tragedy win people's hearts, and for her audience, it's perfect. And the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking has a global reputation for being a sob story contest!”
“My bias against poor me stories comes from five principles,” I explained,
“Here we go!” teased my friend. “I should have expected this from you, Dave. Okay … tell me!”
I smiled. “Here they are:”
- Never play the victim card on-stage or in life. When you take the wrong road, you may have to backtrack and choose a different direction, but that's how we all grow and learn. When you fall down, pick yourself up. Cursing the road won't get you—or your audience—anywhere. Throwing yourself a pity party will not ingratiate you to your audience.
- Don't do your therapy on the stage or on the page. You are there to enlighten your audience, not to lean on them. Asking people—especially a room full of strangers who are paying you—to validate your journey doesn't suggest that you've truly healed from your adverse circumstances; it sets a weak example while you're trying to offer strength.
- Get over your I-infection: Talk about your listeners and not about yourself. When you do tell your story—it's okay to do that—get to your point quickly so you can let your audience know that your story is a metaphor for their story. Connect your story to something universal that they can relate to, not to some unique and personal tragedy that only a few will fully understand. Why talk about your cancer when you can talk about the impact of sudden, life-changing bad news—something that affects us all?
- If-I-can-do-it-you-can-do-it stories are dangerous. Someone in the room might not have the strength to overcome their addiction, escape from their toxic relationship, turn their finances around, or make it all the way up the mountain, even though you did. Your story of personal success might rob them of the hope they need. Wow! I must be an even bigger loser than that speaker was!
- Never compare your pain to anyone else's, directly or indirectly. Your bankruptcy might have been a challenge, but a refugee who escaped from a war might think of your big challenge as a high-class problem. Everyone's pain is valid. We all have our sad stories, regrets, and dark memories. When you share your personal painful journey, you risk invalidating someone else's pain.
“Share your struggle but not your pain. Show that you're vulnerable and relatable by explaining that you were ‘challenged.' That's all the conflict your audience requires to latch onto your story and feel like you're talking about them. Pain is a poor me story. Struggle is a ‘you' story.”
“I'm still not buying it,” said Tony. I'm not getting answers to my core question: If you can't talk about your pain, how can you show vulnerability and transparency to gain favor and trust from your audience?”
“Like I said, show the struggle but not the pain. Talk about getting knocked down but do so in the service of talking about getting up! The more you dwell on the details, the harder it becomes for your listeners to see your challenges as a metaphor for theirs … and the more they're going to feel that you're up on the platform unburdening yourself of your trauma at their expense.”
“So what does that sound like?” asked Tony.
“Here are a few examples:”
- “I really screwed up!”
You can give the details or not, but this is a quick bridge to accessing your listener's memories of a time when they screwed up.
- “My wife asked for a divorce, my dog died, and a meteorite totaled my car … all on the same day! Have you ever had a bad day like that?”
That's all tragic but the note of humor makes it clear that you're talking from a place of transformation and recovery. And the focus switches quickly to them. This speech is really about their bad day, not yours.
- “Those rough seas and high winds were pretty scary, but I couldn't go back. I had no choice but to keep moving forward!”
The nautical adventure will motivate your audience to “move forward” in the face of whatever metaphorical rough seas and high winds are hampering their journey. You're telling your story about them.
- “I know what you're thinking: That was a pretty dumb move!”
You're vulnerable because you just gave your audience permission to judge you. You're not beating yourself up over your unwise actions. You're acknowledging your mistake and setting the audience up to receive some smart counsel.
- “But doc, I feel fine. How could I have cancer? What am I going to tell my family? What are my odds of getting through this?”
It doesn't matter what kind of cancer you had or what chemo was like. This is about processing a sudden change of circumstances, and your audience will relate to it, even if they've never had a life-threatening illness.
- “So I did what most people would do. I broke down, cried, curled up into a ball, didn't eat for three days … and then I got to work!”
This is not about being a victim. You're a human who needed time to grieve and process—which is relatable—and then you quickly switch to a not-self-celebratory road-to-success story.
Skip the poor me stories. A simple admission of human weakness or struggle conveys all the vulnerability people need to hear. The more you wallow in your pain, the more the audience has to wallow in it with you. Every painful moment is unique and personal to you, and every description of pain asks for sympathy. But challenge is universal. Being open and vulnerable is important, but so is getting your audience on the road from conflict to transformation.